Cover Genres takes a look at cover songs in a very specific musical style.
We begin with a bow to Seuras Og and his genre-expansive post earlier this year about banjo covers. We can’t leave the banjo hanging–or getting the last word, either. So: Let us now praise the mandolin.
Stubby of body, narrow of neck, limited in tonality and range, the diminutive mandolin rarely gets to have its day. It only gets a moment, but it usually makes the best of that moment: more than a few classic songs are classic thanks in part to their mandolin contribution. Some obvious highlights, in no particular order:
- REM’s “Losing My Religion” kicks-off with a punchy mandolin strum and ends with a mando-only outro. The mega-hit shifted REM into the mainstream, and boosted mandolin sales throughout the world.
- With “The Battle of Evermore” and “Going to California,” Led Zeppelin had two mandolin masterworks on one album. Each song featured a different mandolinist–Jimmy Page on the former and John Paul Jones on the latter.
- The Grateful Dead also placed two signature mandolin songs on a single album. “Ripple” and “Friend of the Devil” both attained classic status. Unlike Zeppelin, the Dead relied on outside help, inviting maestro David Grisman to the session. More on Grisman later.
- The Rolling Stones’ “Love in Vain” cover proved that the mandolin can play the blues. Special guest Ry Cooder contributed the solo.
- Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” delivers some iconic mandolin business–but it was only as an afterthought. Stewart knew the song was missing something, and asked mandolinist Ray Jackson to have a go. Jackson’s instrumental break is all wistful reflection, but then it builds in intensity toward the song’s frothy finale. And let’s not forget his fine work on “Mandolin Wind.” (Jackson’s name was left off the album credits. Cold!)
So much for the rock and folk-rock worlds, where the mandolin has outsider status. In Celtic music and Appalachian mountain music, the mandolin is more at home. And then there’s Bluegrass, another story entirely: in that context the mandolin finally gets its proper props. The father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe, played the mando and nothing but the mando, so it makes sense that the music is built around the instrument, and that its most impressive players are bluegrassers (Sam Bush, Ronnie McCoury, Tim O’Brien, Adam Steffey, to name a few). Arguably, Bill Monroe is the godfather of rock, too, but that’s a discussion for another time and place.
The main point for now: whatever you do, don’t sleep on the mandolin. Here are eight covers (one for each string) that show that the instrument still has its champions.
David Grisman – Because (Beatles cover)
First-rate instrumentalists develop a distinctive signature style. You know their playing from just a few notes–it’s a matter of tone, touch, heart, and feeling. But how many instrumentalists develop a genre all their own? David “Dawg” Grisman is one, with “Dawg music.”
As a virtuoso player, as record-label founder, as historian, Grisman has probably done more for the mandolin than anyone alive. Listen to his recent podcast series if you doubt it. There’s way way way more to the man than his famous partnership with Jerry Garcia. For now, just let his quintet’s Dawg-style rendering of this Abbey Road song turn you on, blow your mind, make you cry.
The Gourds – Gin and Juice (Snoop Dogg cover)
With their rootsy cover of Snoop Dogg’s gangster rap hit “Gin and Juice,” The Gourds from Austin, TX took the mandolin where no mando had gone before. It’s hip-hop hillbilly, it’s mountain music and g-funk mixing together like juice and gin in a highball glass. No wonder that the leading authorities deemed this one of the greatest covers of all time.
The Brothers Comatose with AJ Lee – Harvest Moon (Neil Young cover)
Flavorful singer and ace mandolinist AJ Lee sits in with the Brothers Comatose here, on an exquisite “Harvest Moon.” The Brothers C are stripped down to their core–the full band features a fine mandolinist in Greg Fleischut and a hot fiddler in Philip Brezina. As for AJ Lee, she’s used to good company: she started out as a singer in the Tuttles (alongside Molly Tuttle and Sullivan Tuttle). She now fronts a successful band of her own–AJ Lee and Blue Summit (with Sully Tuttle on guitar).
Heart – Battle of Evermore (Led Zeppelin cover)
A deep love of Led Zeppelin drove teenagers Ann and Nancy Wilson to make music of their own. They’ve been playing this particular Zeppelin cover at least since 1992, when it appeared on the Singles soundtrack credited to the Lovemongers.
The Wilson sisters not only nail the John Paul Jones / Jimmy Page instrumental interplay, they ace the vocal entanglements of Robert Plant / Sandy Denny. All at the same time, live, with full-on emotion. It brings to mind the remark about dancer Ginger Rogers: “…she did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backward and in high heels.”
Julian Lage with Chris Thile and Bela Fleck – Alameda (Elliott Smith cover)
The 2009 debut from jazz guitar wizard Julian Lage included guest stars on mandolin (Thile) and banjo (Fleck). All three took part in this light-hearted slant on Elliott Smith’s “Alameda.” Smith was not an artist known for light-heartedness, so the all-star trio are cutting against the grain here in their tribute. They simplify the song structure, and they stick to the surface of the melody. The instruments flit in and out, stepping up to take lead and easing into the background again, like birds taking turns at the feeder. An abbreviated romp, almost a tease, but beautiful.
Sierra Hull – Mad World (Tears for Fears cover)
Sierra Hulls kicks things off by playing mandolin in the instrument’s most pretty and dainty voice. Her intro is so elegant that it melts away that jaded internal voice that says “Yeah, I’ve heard this song too many times now to…–oh, dang, that’s sweet.” Later Hull reveals a more muscular dimension of the instrument with a scorcher of a solo. Kudos to the band for excellent support, and to the drummer for the Levon Helm t-shirt.
And speaking of Levon…
The Band–Atlantic City (Bruce Springsteen cover)
In the music of Bruce Springsteen you are more likely to hear a glockenspiel than a mandolin. Fine. But Bruce strums the mandolin once in a while, like on the Seeger Sessions, and on “Atlantic City,” if only faintly in the background. In The Band’s version, the instrument is in the jangly foreground.
The highlight here, though, is Levon’s singing and delivery. Songs from the POV of guys on the losing end need a certain kind of singer. Levon has always been among the best of that breed, whether giving voice to Virgil Cain or to the unnamed dude doing unnamed favors somewhere in Atlantic City.
Yonder Mountain String Band–Girlfriend Is Better (Talking Heads cover)
Love this cover or hate it, you’ll agree the Talking Heads hit is not the same as it ever was. Here’s Yonder Mountain String Band, with their late great co-founder Jeff Austin on psychedelic mandolin, taking “Girlfriend is Better” on a lengthy joy ride. Their jam finds one fresh angle after another, and then another one better than that.