May 102024

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

You Are My Sunshine

“You Are My Sunshine” is an old warhorse of a song. It’s been around for so long and in so many forms as to, now, be quite beyond categorization. Until recently it has been unfairly parked under hokey old cornball music for old folk, even if the many cheesier versions out there have deserved and drawn such scorn. I know that I thought it dreadful old nonsense, until I was recently forced to accept and re-evaluate it as a song of some pathos and persuasion. You may still share my earlier view, so I put it to you: Can any of these covers shift that opinion?

Let’s look at the history books. “You Are My Sunshine” was first recorded in 1939 by the Pine Ridge Boys. They credited no author; this allowed one Paul Rice to claim authorship, for the second recorded version, by his Rice Brothers Gang. Jimmie Davis and Charles Mitchell then purchased the writing credit and copyrighted it to themselves. Not bad, and a nice little earner for a song that has had countless versions and became, in 1977, the official Louisiana state song. (O, did I mention that Davis, as well as being a celebrated singer, was also a two-time governor of Louisiana?) None of the myriad subsequent claims, that the song had been actually written by anyone else, and earlier, ever gained sufficient traction, with his estate gaining copyright renewal in 1967. (For more about “Sunshine”‘s history and impact, as well as further cover song suggestions, read this 2013 Salon post.)

Those in no love with the song will doubtless recall best the Gene Autry, the Bing Crosby or the Doris Day versions. (And, believe me, there are very very many that make those Olympian fare by comparison.) Or possibly you recall the somewhat groundbreaking 1962 chart topper by Ray Charles, which nearly made the cut for this set of covers. But I was looking for “You Are My Sunshine” covers that were less heralded, more contemporary, and/or equally memoralbe. So, buckle up, here they are:

Ike and Turner Turner – You Are My Sunshine (The Pine Ridge Boys cover)

Following Ray Charles, “You Are My Sunshine” became fair play for any number of R’n’B artist worth their salt, with Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin both committing to versions. Better than either of those, however, is this take from 1965’s Live: The Ike & Tina Turner Show. Tina is gorgeously throaty, with the full sound of a Stax revue band behind her. Brassy horns and, um, brassy BVs both present and correct. But what nails it is the call and response section, with Ike’s more measured tones batting back and forth with Tina’s. It raises shivers to this day, and all the cheese is already a distant memory. OK, it isn’t without some elements of OTT, the “brrrrrrs” offered toward the end especially so, but it lays down a pattern that sets the song in an altogether unrecognized light.

Zach Bryan – You Are My Sunshine (The Pine Ridge Boys cover)

Zach Bryan imbues “You Are My Sunshine” with a delicious alternate key shuffle, with the guitars and the tinkling mandolin meeting the brushed drums in a happy place somewhere in the woods. What sounds like dobro adds some plangent tones, and, for all the sadness that percolates up to the surface, it can’t help but cheer. (Yes, it is a sad song, a song of loss or anticipated loss, something that not all interpreters necessarily have appreciated.) Bryan is a fairly recent phenomenon, from the US Navy to new country superstar in a matter of years.

Shovels and Rope feat. The Felice Brothers – You Are My Sunshine (The Pine Ridge Boys cover)

If the last came from deep in the woods, this comes somewhere a whole lot darker, with a hefty whack of Blair Witch about the melancholic tempo and
the spooky chorale. All-American primitive meets a redneck revival meeting here, with the ragged chorale offered up by the combination of the South Carolina married duo and the Catskills contrarians is defiantly disconcerting. It comes from a series of collaborations set up by Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, enrolling friends and peers to take the shine off their favorite songs. Now running to three volumes, the Busted Jukebox sets are crammed full of unsuspecting cover versions, from timeless campfire anthems to Lou Reed and Elvis Costello. The Felice Brothers would be conspicuous were they not involved. (Memo to self: Isn’t it about time Cover Me did a feature on the project as a whole?)

Leslie West – You Are My Sunshine (The Pine Ridge Boys cover)

With “You Are My Sunshine” crying out for a plaintive country blues iteration, rather than John Lee Hooker or some such, it was actually Leslie West who called that card most convincingly. Slow and slinky, the combination of voice and guitar hits that maudlin moment early on, the backwash of strings upping the sense of dis-ease. The slide solo is somewhat wonderful, with a whisper of Gershwin’s “Summertime” never far away. Long after Leslie West’s Mountain heyday, this stems from his 2015 album Soundcheck, consisting of all covers, with a MO of encompassing the last 100 years of music, picking those songs that mean most to him. This is one of the undoubted highlights.

Adam Holmes – You Are My Sunshine (The Pine Ridge Boys cover)

Actually edging out Van Morrison, whose version had actually given me the idea for this piece, Adam Holmes’s take is a bit of superior skiffle to Van’s. Holmes does a simple guitar and harp iteration, adding an endearing Scottish burr to his unreconstructed vocal. The background wail of Marta Stryjecka, in the chorus, is positively ghostly, carrying the argument that it’s not a suitor waiting in her wings, but the grim reaper. Holmes is increasingly crossing the threshold from folk into Americana, having begun as a singer-songwriter with Scots Neo-trad warriors, Rura, now with a solo career and collaborations accumulating under his belt, including work with the late John Prine. This rendition comes from his most recent project, The Voice Of Scotland, where he tackles the sort of songs familiar to him from childhood.

Cover Me is now on Patreon! If you love cover songs, we hope you will consider supporting us there with a small monthly subscription. There are a bunch of exclusive perks only for patrons: playlists, newsletters, downloads, discussions, polls - hell, tell us what song you would like to hear covered and we will make it happen. Learn more at Patreon.

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>