May 242024

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.


I just kind of stopped all over.
–The final sentence of
After Dark, My Sweet by Jim Thompson

Writing a first-person singular postmortem is the sort of project writers take on as a challenge. How to tell a tale when the teller is no longer with us? Where are they talking from? Do they know more than they did? It’s a gimmick, but like all gimmicks it has enough winners to keep people trying it.

Songwriters have taken up the challenge repeatedly, and the best of them – “Long Black Veil,” “El Paso,” “I Come and Stand at Every Door” – have met the challenge with style and grace. Neil Young’s “Powderfinger” is absolutely one of the best of them. The song’s death scene is as brief and vivid as the death itself – “Then I saw black, and my face splash in the sky” stays with you forever after you understand it.

One reason for that: it’s one of the few definite things about the song. Fans have long debated where and when it takes place, and what the song is “really” about. Neil himself rarely lets anyone peek behind the curtain, but did reveal in a 1995 Spin interview that “You may not see the anger, or the angst, or whatever in me lay behind a song like ‘Powderfinger.’ But I’ve seen things in my life that I’ll never forget—and I see them every day. And I see strength that I can’t understand, and weaknesses that I can’t deal with.”

Some of the artists who covered “Powderfinger” couldn’t deal with the doomed 22 year old’s moment of death, changing the lyric to “my face flashed in the sky” – equally evocative, if less gruesome. One of those was the Cowboy Junkies, whose cover is far and away the most popular, with over three and a half million YouTube views. These five covers haven’t reached those levels of attention, but it’s certainly not from lack of quality.

Beat Farmers – Powderfinger (Neil Young cover)

Listen to this description of the Beat Farmers from the San Diego Reader: “The Beat Farmers sounded like Bo Diddley, CCR, Joe South, and the Yardbirds, ham fisted into a food processor, stuffed into a shotgun shell, and blasted into a beer keg at three in the morning.” You’ve got to believe that the pioneer roots rockers would be an ideal artist for covering “Powderfinger,” and all evidence agrees with you.

Kelsey Waldon – Powderfinger (Neil Young cover)

Kelsey Waldon, whose cover album There’s Always a Song was released on Oh Boy Records earlier this month, brings a quiet, thoughtful twang to “Powderfinger” in this performance. The angst and anger Young spoke of aren’t in evidence here, but there is a sense of rumination, a dwelling on what’s been lost forever and the regret that comes from that.

The Circuit Riders – Powderfinger (Neil Young cover)

“Powderfinger” isn’t specifically set in the American South, but it certainly has that feel to it. The Circuit Riders complete the connection with a zippy bluegrass performance, one whose breakneck pace gives the song a near-frantic urgency. Some bluegrass covers of popular rock songs aim to get a few chuckles out of the incongruity of the two genres. This is not one of them.

The Virginmarys – Powderfinger (Neil Young cover)

YouTube has a lot of one-singer-one-acoustic covers of “Powderfinger,” as you can imagine. Many of them are amateurish, as you can also imagine. But Ally Dickaty from the Virginmarys isn’t one of those. He has a voice of black gravel, soulful and choked, and he doesn’t work to match Neil’s vocal performance – it’s his own, and the song’s the better for it. He also knows the power that comes from using a tile wall bathroom as a studio.

The Watson Twins – Powderfinger (Neil Young cover)

The 2008 tribute album Cinnamon Girl has the subtitle “Women Artists Cover Neil Young for Charity.” That gives the general picture of the album without a hint of the revelation it has to offer. So too does “The Watson Twins” describe twin sisters Chandra and Leigh Watson without any indication of their astonishing talent. Their “Powderfinger” takes the meditative country route, and their la-la-ing the guitar line Young plays at the end of each verse is a thing of real beauty.

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  One Response to “Five Good Covers: “Powderfinger” (Neil Young)”

Comments (1)
  1. Powderfinger is probably my favourite Neil Young tune so this was interesting and I downloaded the playlist from Spotify… I’ve been listening to the whole thing. I guess I never really thought of it as a country tune but the majority of the covers are countryfied… very interesting. I never appreciated there were SO may covers… as to the best? Cowboy Junkies I reckon… maybe, anyway.

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