‘The Best Covers Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.
Today, Steve Earle releases the fourth in his occasional series of covers albums. They pay tribute to his musical heroes and teachers who’ve passed on – Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker – plus, in one tragic case, his son Justin Townes Earle, who died in 2020.
We’ll be reviewing the new one, Jerry Jeff, in the near future, but as we celebrate covers by Steve Earle, we thought we’d also celebrate covers of Steve Earle. Though he’s never been a big generator of hit singles, this songwriter’s songwriter has had a number of songs become stealth standards, particularly in the Americana, folk, and alt-country worlds. When everyone from Johnny Cash to The Pretenders is singing your songs, you know you’re doing something right.
25. The Pretenders – Goodbye
“Goodbye” is said to be the first song Steve Earle wrote in sobriety, writing it in the state-enforced rehab he undertook late in 1994. Given that it’s a slow acoustic ballad, The Pretenders aren’t perhaps the most obvious band to give it a go. But Chrissie Hynde has never been good at hiding her love of a good song, as her recent run of Dylan covers has shown. Commissioned for the 1997 film G.I. Jane, at this stage the Pretenders were little more than a brand, Hynde and whomsoever was around to pick up the rhythm section. Moving at a slow thrum here, the band makes up with atmosphere what it loses from Earle’s more emotional delivery, the strings behind gradually becoming more mariachi as the lyrics travel to Mexico. I wonder if Hynde had been listening to Emmylou’s version (elsewhere on this list), as Hynde and Harris soon after turned up together on a Gram Parsons’ tribute album. – Seuras Og
24. The Road Hammers ft. Colt Ford – Hillbilly Highway
Many of the covers on this list lean on the folkier side of Americana, but a few go harder. This barnstorming number comes from veteran Canadian band The Road Hammers. It still features harmonica, but cranks the guitars up to 11, emphasizing the latter half of the country-rock genre mash. It’s also surely the only Steve Earle cover to add a bona fide rap verse. Though, as anyone who’s heard Washington Square Serenade knows, Earle himself has never been averse to incorporating stray hip-hop elements in his own music. – Ray Padgett
23. The Irish Tenors – Galway Girl
The Irish Tenors are a group of singers that first formed in 1998. While this one certainly feels like an oldie (because it is!), the orchestral oompahs, staccato string plucks, and lilting woodwinds are hard to resist. From the simple boom-chick boom-chick percussion to near-operatic vocals, “Galway Girl” has a quirky and old-timey instrumental sound in this context. And then comes the instrumental section with imperial French horns and trumpet in the bridge. This cover was done in such a surprising style that one would never know it was a Steve Earle song, and would likely think it was an old folk tune from the 1800s. – Aleah Fitzwater
22. The Proclaimers – My Old Friend the Blues
From Sunshine on Leith, the same album that brought “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” to the world, comes the Proclaimers’ take on Earle’s drawing from the well of sadness that is the blues and doing what he could not to jump down that well. It’s actually very close in its sound to the original, but the Scottish brogues of the Reid brothers give the song the slightest lilt, making it just a little more distinct than Earle’s country twang. It may not quite be a spoonful of sugar, but it may have brought “My Old Friend the Blues” to a few ears it wouldn’t otherwise have reached. – Patrick Robbins
21. Johnny Cash – Devil’s Right Hand
Of course, Johnny Cash would cover Steve Earle’s tune about the pistol! On this outtake from his American recordings with Rick Rubin, Cash decided to do away with the steel slide and the twang of layered acoustic guitars and opted for a singular distorted electric guitar instead. This small difference in instrumentation totally changed the flavor of the song. Not to mention, Cash’s effortless singing is almost playful in this one, whereas Earle’s original seemed much more weighty. – Aleah Fitzwater