Some cover songs you know are going to fall short. However good the attempt is, all it’s going to do is remind you how good the original was. Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” is one of those songs that, generally speaking, shouldn’t be covered. There are a handful out there, but the only cover truly worth noting is one by The Del McCoury Band. Their version is a bluegrass foot-tapper that fits the song perfectly.
The late great guitarist Roy Buchanan, who died on this day in 1988, liked to say he was the son of a preacher man. And that as a boy he attended church revivals with Black congregations, where he first heard blues music. He was the first white guy to absorb the blues, he liked to say, and to build a career around the form.
These claims may not be the gospel truth–Buchanan also insisted he was “half-wolf.” His own brother denies that their father did any preaching at all. The truth is that Roy Buchanan was a dark and complicated man and artist.
What is also unmistakably true is that few have mastered their instrument to the depth Roy did. Buchanan’s close listeners praise his array of astonishing techniques, and how he used them to express uniquely emotive statements. As with a good Hendrix solo, you catch your breath at the sheer intensity of sound and soulfulness that Buchanan summons up when he’s running hot. His Fender Telecaster screams and cries, whistles and whines in ways are piercing in one second and tender in the next—Roy could recreate the human voice in uncanny ways. But then he’d spin into machine-like rapid-fire notes that make your teeth hurt. He didn’t need effect pedals to achieve this sonic richness—he was a purist in his way, defiantly old-school in a period that expected progressive experimentation.
That’s A Cover? explores cover songs that you may have thought were originals.
It was forty years ago that Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings won a Grammy for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal for their “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys.” The year before, Nelson and Jennings had released the song on their debut collaboration Waylon and Willie. The song topped the country charts for four weeks in the spring of 1978, and its crossover appeal garnered it a #42 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. This was at the height of the outlaw country movement. That insurgent blend of country, rock, and pop redefined the genre and made it more palatable for those outside of Nashville who had a curiosity about honky tonks.
Of course, there is a much longer arc that connects country and rock and roll. That arc extends through Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, Gram Parsons’ influence on The Rolling Stones, and the songcraft of Townes Van Zandt. But near the beginning of that arc was Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. It was there that a blend of country and rock music known as “rockabilly” came into being, with Sam Phillips as its enthusiastic producer and promoter. The rockabilly of the 1950s is where the story of “Mammas” starts.
“Covering the Hits” looks at covers of a randomly-selected #1 hit from the past sixty-odd years.
“I really don’t remember writing ‘Party Doll,” said Buddy Knox of Happy, Texas. “But I did, out on the farm, behind a haystack.” It was 1948, and Knox was fifteen at the time. Eight years later, he became the first artist of the rock ‘n’ roll era to write his own number one song. It took a lot of people, famous and not, to get it that far.
Knox went to West Texas State University, where he formed a band with two friends, Jimmy Bowen and Don Lanier, and saw both Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison play. They both recommended he take his songs and his friends 90 miles west to Clovis, New Mexico, to record with producer Norman Petty. Knox’s sister and two of her friends sang backup vocals; a more capable bassist replaced Bowen, and since Lanier didn’t have a full kit, he beat on a box stuffed with cotton (a sound that would later appear on the Crickets’ “Not Fade Away”).
The three were content with the acetates of “Party Doll,” but a farmer named Chester Oliver asked to press 1500 copies to sell around town on his own label, Triple-D Records. One copy made it to KZIP in Amarillo, Texas, where DJ Dean Kelley turned it into a regional hit. Lanier’s sister contacted Morris Levy of Roulette Records; he signed them and released the record nationwide. Ed Sullivan had him on his show, exposing “Party Doll” to the whole of the US, and the rest is history.
But the history of “Party Doll” covers was just beginning.
In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.
When it comes to musical taste, there’s a million shortcuts to figuring out which side of the tracks you stand on. Here’s one of the fastest: Do you like The Fall?
If the answer is “no,” you’re in good company. Of course, there’s no definitive way to tell how many people aren’t Fall fans, but statistically speaking, almost nobody likes the band’s clattering, repetitive, willfully out-of-tune, misanthropic, oblique and downright perplexing music.
But if the answer is “yes,” you’re in even better company. The Fall may represent the apex of the cult band, an aggressively obtuse art project spinning out over 40 years and a stunning number of ex-band members, mainly disgruntled ones at that. The only constant was the dark, twisted figure at its center: Mark E. Smith, who died January 24th, at the age of 60.
Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
By the time he recorded Rock ‘n’ Roll, John Lennon had been through quite a lot. From the dissolution of the Beatles to the fracturing of his marriage to the ever-present threat of deportation, he clearly had a great deal weighing on him. It was during this same time that he embarked on his legendary “lost weekend” in Los Angeles while estranged from Yoko Ono. Tearing through the city with drinking pal Harry Nilsson, Lennon seemed to fully embrace his chaotic path of self-destruction. While he would eventually come around enough to bring himself out of his increasingly fraught downward spiral, there was a clear spiritual line of demarcation between what came before and what was cut tragically short just a few years later.
It is within this self-reflective/post-self-destructive climate that Lennon embarked on the sessions that would produce Rock ‘n’ Roll. Not only would it represent a return to the music that inspired him in the first place, it also served as a swan song/love letter to fans, as he would, for all intents and purposes, retire from music and the public eye for the next half decade to concentrate on being a father to his son Sean. Because of this, there’s a heavy air of nostalgia at play. From the cover image (John in 1961 Hamburg, with a blurred Paul, George, and Stu Sutcliffe walking past him) down to the track listing, Rock ‘n’ Roll represents something of a mid-life reanalysis of self for the erstwhile Beatle. By returning to his roots, he was able to reassess his own position within and feelings toward the world of pop music.