In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!
We shine the spotlight on an artist who has won acclaim for her own songwriting—including a song of the year and record of the year Grammy—but who has been overlooked as an interpretive artist. Cover Me readers, let’s show Shawn Colvin some love. She has released not one but four albums of covers (if you count the Holiday song collection and the collection of children’s lullabies). And those are just the start: we can also look at covers she has inserted onto albums otherwise devoted to her own material, and listen to her guest appearances on other artists’ cover projects.
Colvin’s work in many ways defies expectation and easy summary. She may be a folk troubadour in essence, with an acoustic guitar and a modest demeanor, but that doesn’t stop her from covering massive hits that had mega-production efforts behind them (see “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic,” and “Baker Street” for examples). She might ease that material back down to an intimate level, or she might do her own version of big production: on her cover collection Cover Girl from 1994, world-class players like Jim Keltner, Benmont Tench, and Leland Sklar helped enrich Colvin’s sound, as on her rendition of The Police hit.
Then again, Colvin likes to unearth overlooked gems or deeper cuts from the folk world. Case in point: “Killing the Blues,” a song that is now widely known thanks to the Alison Krauss/Robert Plant rendition on Raising Sand, but which was pretty well dust-covered in 1994 when Colvin recorded it and began to feature it in concert.
She cuts across the grain in other ways. Although Colvin headlined the women-centric Lilith Fair tour during its three-year heyday, it is male songwriters she most likes to cover—the more masculine bros included (like Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle, and Merle Haggard). Not that she neglects the sensitive types—your Paul Simons and Jackson Brownes. She is most partial to the wordsmiths and storytellers that are beyond category: Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, and Robbie Robertson are artists she has covered more than once.
Genre-wise, Colvin will not be confined to the folk singer/songwriter cubicle. Country music gets her attention now and then, but when she covered “Crazy” in 2006, it was the Gnarls Barkley hit, not the Willie Nelson/Patsy Cline standard. Crowded House, Tammy Wynette, Pink Floyd, Jimmy Webb, Talking Heads—if the song speaks to her and works for her, she’s not too concerned about the rest.
One last point about Shawn Colvin: she’s an outstanding guitarist. Her playing is intricate, hypnotic, and percussive. Not splashy or flashy, but just steadily right on and quietly nuanced. The playing is fully felt, and always serves the song and its singer.
Enjoy a look back at what has been a wildly creative ride. And since Colvin’s social media game is strong, it’s easy to find out what she is up to currently (hint: she’s been busy, and a Fall 2021 tour is all good to go).
Shawn Colvin–Crazy (Gnarls Barkley cover)
Everyone went crazy for “Crazy” when Gnarls Barkley released it in 2006. Cat Power, Pink, Ray LaMontagne, and Prince were among its early adaptors. But Colvin wasn’t hopping a bandwagon: more likely, the lyrics struck a very personal chord. In Colvin’s memoir Diamond in the Rough, she describes her long-running battles with mental illness and other afflictions. Not to put too fine a point on it, but she also covers “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” another meditation on derangement. (I’m just speculating on Colvin’s motives, of course. Does that make me crazy?)
Colvin has released two versions of “Crazy,” one studio recording and one live. Both versions are spookily good. We’ll go with the Colvin’s first crack at it, released as a single in 2007. Why the studio version? Because I’m a little bothered by the extroverted audience member in the live recording (extrovert or stalker, hard to tell the difference sometimes).
Shawn Colvin–Baker Street (Gerry Rafferty cover)
I never heard “Baker Street,” Gerry Rafferty’s monster hit from 1978, until Shawn Colvin shared her version on her Uncovered album in 2015. I don’t mean that literally—I certainly heard the original. In fact, I heard the original too many times. What I mean is that I never got it, never listened to its story or even stopped to think that it had a story to tell.
Sometimes a song’s hook becomes its sinker—it overshadows the rest of the song, like one of those climbing vines that kills the tree it clings to for life. Such is the case with the saxophone riff that opens and closes “Baker Street.” (The riff appears in the middle of the song too, perhaps more than once; I refuse to do that fact-check.) But admittedly the fault is mine for being a poor listener–it’s not Rafferty’s fault, and Raphael Ravenscroft (the richly-named saxophonist in question) is certainly not to blame. My fault, and my loss, that all my life I have changed the station or fled the room before the riff could come on.
Colvin was wise to drop this element of the song entirely (and the flute intro too), so that the song’s story come into focus for saxophobes like me. I admire how she opens the song, using a spare but gritty guitar groove, and a foot tapping out the rhythm. That reflects the words of the song, which opens with someone walking down the thoroughfare, in the wee hours, when the footsteps echo in the empty street. The lyrics and the chord progression go on to portray someone waiting too long for life to begin, in a city she comes to realize is empty for her. Colvin resists adding much more than that, the quiet guitar, and the tapping toe (the gesture one makes when waiting for something to happen). She adds only the menacing sound of a pedal steel, and David Crosby’s understated vocal harmony. Nice. Now I get it.
I consider the song, minus the riff, a sort of masterpiece. If you disagree and miss the riff, here’s 10 hours worth of it. Or a compromise: listen to the Foo Fighters’ rendition (the B-side to their “My Hero” single) where the Foos headbangingly embrace the hook and the flute but wail it all out on guitars.
Shawn Colvin–(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night (Tom Waits cover)
On one of the live tracks from her Cover Girl album, Colvin selects an early Tom Waits gem. It’s about the glory of feeling you are going places, but at the same time it’s about never getting anywhere, looking for but never finding the heart of what it is you’re seeking. (Always pay attention to the parenthetical part of any song title that bothers to use parentheses.) But listen to Waits’ “Burma Shave” for a particularly bleak take on this same theme of going nowhere fast. Or listen to his darkly beautiful “Hold On,” from much later in his career, which Colvin covered later in hers. All these songs are linked, and I have wondered if it’s the same guy at the center of each one, at different points in his increasingly bleary life.
And it is very much a guy song no matter how you spin it, with its car fixation and its eye on the woman serving drinks. While Colvin subtly switches gender (“shaved your face” becomes “shaved your legs”), she is singing to or for the guy in the song.
Colvin settles into “(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night” with a percussive finger-picked approach on guitar, adding some smooth dynamics to her playing to build and release tension. That’s all the accompaniment she needs. The spareness of the arrangement speaks to the solitude of the dude behind the wheel. (Is the “sweet one” he has his arm around an actual partner or an imagined one? Is he one of those guys who basically dates his car?)
Shawn Colvin–Killing the Blues (Rowland Salley cover)
Colvin included a live version of “Killing the Blues” on her Cover Girl collection. (The performance here is different from the one on the album.) In the album’s liner notes, Colvin writes of the 1977 original version: “Just when you think there’s no new way to say anything, you hear a song like this and think, that’s as good as anything before or since.” Agreed.
Confusion surrounds this song’s origins. The New York Times didn’t help when they reported that “Killing the Blues” was written by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant. (Their version featured in a big budget ad campaign which was running at the time.) The newspaper of record issued a correction days later to state that, actually, John Prine was the song’s author. A correction of that correction came days later, noting (correctly this time) that John Prine covered the song, but its writer was in fact Rowland Salley. (Who?) The paper didn’t mention that the best cover is by Shawn Colvin, but probably no one cancelled their subscription over any of this.
The first verse of Salley’s song (“…they set us on fire”) could have come from Colvin’s own brain. Her song of the year hit “Sunny Came Home” concerns a woman who commits arson, and some of her other songs are pyromanic in theme. Colvin’s memoir owns up to this obsession and explores its manifestations. While many facets of “Killing the Blues” make the song a stand out, its fire imagery may have been the clincher for Colvin. (This may be coincidence, but years later she covered Tom Waits’ “Hold On,” with its devastating couplet “Oh, you build it up, you wreck it down / Then you burn your mansion to the ground.” But maybe I’m overthinking it and she is just drawn to the melody. Sure, that’s probably all it is.)
Shawn Colvin and Viktor Krauss–Shine on You Crazy Diamond (Pink Floyd cover)
The Pink Floyd masterpiece needs no introduction, except to say that its epic length, its multi-parted complexity, and its extended soloing make it an unlikely candidate for a cover–let alone a cover by an Americana artist like bassist Viktor Krauss. But then again, the heart of the song is a simple set of verses, two lines each, that lament and recall a long-lost friend. It caps each verse with a rousing refrain–the title phrase–that would be anthemic if the reality behind it wasn’t so disturbing and sad.
Viktor Krauss is a strong composer in his own right; this is the one cover song on Krauss’ second album as leader, Viktor Krauss II. He may get the credit for this neatly abridged arrangement, but it’s Colvin’s vocals that make it shine. Her tender, plaintive tone exposes the pain within the song, while Krauss surrounds Colvin’s contribution with a haunting sonic atmosphere. His distillation of the nine-part original packs a punch of its own.
Shawn Colvin–Kathy’s Song (Simon and Garfunkel cover)
Here’s the earliest of Colvin’s covers, and maybe the quietest. Captured live in 1988 before she even recorded her first album (a Grammy winner in the Best Contemporary Folk category), the performance finds her somewhere between her Greenwich Village-based folkster incarnation and the mature artist she was soon to become. She’s no neophyte here; there’s already an assuredness and poise reflecting her years in Buddy Miller’s band and other experiences.
I confess I didn’t know the original version of this song—I love many of Paul Simon’s classics, but not enough to explore the songs that didn’t rise to the top of that heap. Colvin’s moving take on this is one I will always prefer to any other version, even the Simon and Garfunkel original. In contrast with some of her other covers, she didn’t choose to introduce much variation to the song. But the nuances she did insert, certain note choices she made that Simon did not, I don’t wish to do without, and when I hear other takes, I miss them.