Nov 042022

Go back to the beginning

10. Tracey Thorn – Hard Candy Christmas

Dolly Parton has released three separate Christmas albums, but “Hard Candy Christmas” doesn’t come from any of ’em. It first appeared on the soundtrack to her 1982 movie The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and has since become a classic of the sadsack country-Christmas canon right alongside Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December.” Best version of all comes from Tracey Thorn, erstwhile of Everything But the Girl, who wrings out every bit of emotion on her own must-have Christmas album, Tinsel And Lights.- Ray Padgett

9. Chris Thile – Little Sparrow

Parton’s discography contains lots of timeless country, but plenty of other varietals of American roots are in the mix too. Dolly had a run of a few incredible bluegrass albums in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. It’s from this well that mandolinist Chris Thile springs for his best Parton cover, revisiting the title track of 2001’s Little Sparrow, which he’d accompanied Dolly on originally, for his Live From Here variety show. Through LFH’s few years on the air, Thile often turned traditional material on its head with bold performances and embellished new arrangements. But, here, Thile flies against those usually-progressive impulses, instead offering a solo take of “Little Sparrow” which feels fittingly spare. Thile doesn’t need to do much of anything to make the tune flit and fly of its own accord; his unadorned performance offers plenty, letting “Little Sparrow”’s mercurial beauty—and Parton’s craft—speak for itself. – Ben Easton

8. Meshell Ndegeocello – Two Doors Down

You don’t think of funk when you think of Dolly Parton, but Meshell Ndegeocello brought more than a little of her own to her cover of “Two Doors Down.” The story of a lonely woman who finds herself going to a neighbor’s party and having a positive hookup come out of it, the song wears its chill late-night vibe like a warm, supple second skin. Ndegeocello’s vocal pulses with the song, sensuous and wanting. Her party may not see people kicking up (or off) their cowboy boots, but it will be bringing people together, both inside and outside the song. – Patrick Robbins

7. Kissen – Workin’ Night to 5

This cover flips the work day to the work night, describing the night shift of “night til 5.” The light and airy vocals are layered over an upbeat backbeat that will help you stay awake and energized. If your eyelids start to droop, the appearance of the horns throughout can give you that added jolt of alertness. Towards the end of the song, the percussion-forward musical interlude will help you wind down – off to bed as the sun rises. – Sara Stoudt

6. Miley Cyrus – Jolene

This immaculate 2012 cover of “Jolene” is one that many know and love. It was created during something called “The Backyard Sessions”, where Miley brought her band (Jamie Arentzen, and Jaco Curaco) together to recreate some of their favorite songs. Shortly after its release, it went viral. This version of “Jolene” showcased the maturation of Cyrus’s voice, while the quick-fingerpicked guitar pattern makes it all the more riveting. This cover is stunningly emotive and pays homage to Miley’s actual godmother, the one and only Dolly Parton. – Aleah Fitzwater

5. Whitney – Gonna Hurry (As Slow As I Can)

The first Whitney on this list, but not the last. Folk and country with a soul makeover, is how this Chicago band has been described. Dolly’s version is about as far into “and western” as you can get. Whitney excises most of that feel, coming over more like a lost Band track with Richard Manuel even hoarser than usual, the odd tinkling piano offset by some mellow N’Awlins brass. Recorded early 2017, it came as the flip of a single the duo released shortly after their first full-length release. You may also remember their 2020 “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” the John Denver song they covered with Waxahatchee (another name we’re about to see again), or you might want to look it up now. – Seuras Og

4. Marianne Faithfull – Down from Dover

Dolly Parton’s story of a young pregnant woman who holds onto hope despite being abandoned by her family and her baby’s father, only to have a stillbirth, hits incredibly hard today. I can only imagine how hard “Down from Dover” hit in 1970, when such matters weren’t discussed in polite society, let alone country music. Marianne Faithfull’s famously wrecked voice changes so much about the song. Where Dolly’s merry trill suggests the (lost) innocence of youth, Faithfull conveys a much older woman, one for whom a pregnancy means one last chance at bringing new life to the world. She makes that life’s loss especially devastating. – Patrick Robbins

3. Waxahatchee – Light of a Clear Blue Morning

Waxahatchee is the name of the musical project led by singer/songwriter Katie Crutchfield. In 2021, to mark the one-year anniversary of her critically acclaimed album Saint Cloud, she re-released it as Saint Cloud + 3. The “+3” in question refers to three new cover songs, including this take on Dolly Parton’s “Light of a Clear Blue Morning.” Crutchfield reworks Parton’s fiery gospel-powered original into a stripped-down acoustic cover. While Parton’s version takes us back to church for a hand-clapping, foot-stomping finale, Crutchfield keeps a somber mood going throughout. In her view, the “blue clear morning” is more about bittersweet acceptance than a full-on transformation. – Curtis Zimmermann

2. The White Stripes – Jolene

This live recording of a White Stripes concert staple has an incredible amount of depth. It sounds like it was recorded on the edge of a cavern, with Jack White’s guitar and vocals dripping with reverb. The song starts with White’s distinctive pleading, warbling vocals. He channels the desperation of the lyrics and backs them with a simple haunting guitar lick. It feels like the calm before the storm. And then he unleashes the powerful yelps and distorted guitar he’s known for, riffs ripping the air like lightning. Rinse. Repeat. It’s a master class in tension and release with the well-worn Parton classic as the canvas. – Mike Misch

1. Whitney Houston – I Will Always Love You

Sometimes – not always, not even very often, but sometimes – the most famous cover got that way for a reason. Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” is as iconic as covers get. Yet somehow, despite the oversaturation, despite the million watered-down knockoffs, it never loses its power. It boasts the most emotionally impactful key change in music history, and perhaps the best vocal performance of Houston’s career (and that’s saying something). To think it wouldn’t have happened without Kevin Costner! I wrote a whole chapter about this song in my Cover Me book (ahem), but the cliffs-notes version is that Houston was all set to record a different cover for the Bodyguard soundtrack, Jimmy Ruffin’s Motown hit “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted.” But then another singer, Paul Young, recorded his own cover of that song for another movie, Fried Green Tomatoes. If Whitney released her version, she would look like a copycat. And who should come to the rescue with another song suggestion but Houston’s co-star? She recorded it live for the film. Her producer David Foster later wrote, “When she opened her mouth, I realized that Kevin Costner had come up with one of the greatest ideas in the history of movie music.” – Ray Padgett

Check out more installments in our monthly ‘Best Covers Ever’ series, including Willie Nelson, Madonna, Beach Boys, Elvis Costello, and more.

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