Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
If everything about Rodney Crowell were forgotten save for “‘Til I Gain Control Again,” he wouldn’t be forgotten at all. Which is a clumsy way of saying that this long-established writer, singer and performer, the author of a mighty, mighty tome of material, can sleep content in the knowledge that he has written at least one stone-cold classic.
Mind you, for the purposes of this piece, let’s not forget that the original iteration of this beauty came via the incomparable throat of Emmylou Harris. It made for the show-stopping side one closer on her second record, Elite Hotel. While she and Crowell have played a lot of shows together this century, as a double header, way back then he was just one of the hired hands in her incomparable Hot Band. Alongside the players couped from Elvis Presley’s TCB band, James Burton and Glen D. Hardin, Crowell was the fresh-faced rhythm guitarist who was hired to sing duets with Harris and write some songs. He delivered “Blueberry Wine” for her debut, sufficient reason to be kept on.
It is a relief that the Harris version is the de facto original. Not because Crowell can’t give it a decent going over (he can), but because, were it not, it would be a shoo-in for this selection. We are thus granted five full further versions, all of which cast a slightly different sheen on this quintessential country weepie.
Van Morrison – ‘Til I Gain Control Again (Emmylou Harris cover)
From the surprisingly somewhat patchy Pay The Devil, Van’s “country” record of 2006, this is the undoubted high water mark, his maudlin vocal on a par with his consummate “Carrickfergus” (from Irish Heartbeat), and gives a similar feel of rueful, self-induced melancholy. The arrangement is played fairly straight, predominantly strings and dobro, a barely residual tap on the drums to propel it, all the better for the singer to throw his larynx into all corners of the melody, the grief palpable, the insight apparent as to the job to be done. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but isn’t that the purpose of any singer at the top of his game, able to wring the max from the class of the material at his attention.
The Walker Brothers – ‘Til I Gain Control Again (Emmylou Harris cover)
From the cracked remorse of the Belfast cowboy, the deep lugubrious tones of Scott Walker are just the ticket to give your eyes a good dusting. Sure, it’s little more than a well-taken opportunity to show off his golden tones; with any other singer it would be just another anodyne and over-sweetened cover version, and believe you me, there are a few. It never appeared on an actual release by the decidedly not-brothers, waiting until a 2001 compilation album, If You Could Hear Me Now, gathered as many nuggets from the studio cutting room floor as could be found to fill out some reprised hits. Probably bewildered and frustrated by the assertively uncommercial track Scott was taking, the labels were desperate to claw back some of their earlier investment.
This Mortal Coil – ‘Til I Gain Control Again (Emmylou Harris cover)
First heard by chance, during this writer’s brief immersion in all things 4AD, the record label started (and still going) by Ivo Watts-Russell, where the worlds of post-punk and goth aligned in a world of never more impractical hairstyles. Watts-Russell was a key-player in This Mortal Coil, more a collective than a band, throwing a fair few covers of favorite songs into the pot of simmering, stark emotions, the stock in which they traded. One such is this, from Blood, their last recording. With the Cocteau Twins connection now spent, here the gaunt vocal comes from Heidi Berry, together with the Lutkowski sisters, Deidre and Louise. In a different key, it initially wrong-foots, the shimmery electric piano still retaining a whiff of country. Bleakly wonderful, especially as the strings emerge.
Albert Lee – ‘Til I Gain Control Again (Emmylou Harris cover)
A bit of a no-brainer, really, given Albert Lee must have played guitar on this a million times, during his tenure with Emmylou, as he took over from James Burton in her Hot Band. And, even if it adds little to her version, it does add a wonderful middle section of an acoustic guitar solo (by Lee, naturally), followed by some steel from the late great Buddy Emmons. The piano is pretty tasty too, from… oh, that’s Lee too! An eternal journeyman player, Lee has plied his complex axework since Heads, Hands and Feet in the 1960s, through the Hot Band and Eric Clapton’s band and his solo work. Yet he remains unreservedly himself, equally likely to turn up at a pub gig in the UK as a superstar extravaganza at the Hollywood Bowl.
Paul Young – ‘Til I Gain Control Again (Emmylou Harris cover)
Paul Young was huge for a while, at least in the UK. With a workaday white soul voice, he hit paydirt with his cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Wherever I Lay My Hat,” riding that wave of success over two or three albums, awash with the ’80s tropes featured here, the synths, the sax and Pino Palladino’s trademark fretless bass. In fairness, it’s probably the best bit here, maybe also as the Fabulous Wealthy Tarts (honestly, that was the name given his backing singers) chime in on BVs. I’m being harsh, it isn’t a bad version; it’s just so irretrievably linked to the time. Young now splits his time between Relive the ’80s type package tours and the decidedly more interesting Los Pacaminos, the Tex-Mex style band where he isn’t even, other than by repute, the main focus. (Now I bet they would do a a good version of this song!!)
I suppose you’ll be wanting some Emmylou and all, eh?
Rodney Crowell is an amazing talent. Have always loved his voice.
Thanks for the post.
A long time listener (mid-80s), I saw Rodney in Cohoes NY in April of 2019. He had Eamon McLoughlin with him on fiddle and some kid from Australia who opened and played a mean guitar. Cohoes Music Hall is a funky little place, bordering on shithole; once the pride of the community when the mills still hummed, now a darling of the under-resourced historic preservation crowd, smaller and more intimate than the spiffier Troy Music Hall across the river. I love seeing shows there and was thrilled when Rodney chose to play it. It was maybe half-filled. What a treat, an artist of that caliber in that setting. Great show.
Tim Flannery does a very nice version of the song in question, one I prefer to any of the five you opted to list, but, you know, reasonable people can disagree.
I first heard the song performed by Blue Rodeo off of their album “Five Days In July”. My favorite album of theirs. Wasn’t aware it was a cover until much later.