You’ve all probably heard this story before. It’s the one about the country star who gets too big for his or her britches. They crash, they burn and end up back on grandma’s farm. After a few days of struggling, they get up early, do some farm work, ride a horse, meet a new love interest and suddenly, with acoustic guitar in hand, rediscover their musical roots. Sound familiar? It’s the plot to George Strait’s Pure Country and, of course, Miley Cyrus’ Hannah Montana: The Movie. It’s also the story that every country star weaves a few years after their commercial peak when they go back to old-style country, or bluegrass, or whatever.
Lil Nas X did not bother with any of that. As I’m sure readers of this site are aware, Lil Nas X scored his breakthrough hit in 2019 on his now-classic duet with Billy Ray Cyrus “Old Town Road.” Last week, just days after releasing his first full length album Montero, the rapper turned country singer turned over-the-top performance artist released a live cover performing Dolly Parton’s country classic “Jolene.” Since debuting on BBC Radio 1’s Live Lounge, the track has gone viral, earning coverage on entertainment and musical sites across the Internet.
The performance is a master class in how to make a cover song part of your own narrative. Lil Nas X, who is openly gay, kept the original lyrics and sang about the problems of losing his man to a woman. He’s not the first male singer to go this route – most notably the White Stripes did it with their epic cover of the track. While Jack White’s vocals are a passionate, almost psychotic plea, Lil Nas X performs the song with a hint of resignation in his voice, as if he’s accepting the inevitable.
For the cover, he’s backed by a full band who plays it as a dark-edged, slow country rock track that would be welcome in venues from Nashville to Brooklyn. The highlight is when Lil Nas X describes the title character. The lyrics detail how her “beauty is beyond compare/
With flaming locks of auburn hair/With ivory skin and eyes of emerald green.” He sings the words dismissively, like a backhanded compliment. He knows Jolene’s hot, he just does not care. It’s an impressive way for Lil Nas X to recapture his no-so-distant country roots without heading back to grandma’s farm.
Click here to listen to more Dolly Parton covers.