There are few more frictions than when folk start discussing who is the best guitarist ever. It’s guaranteed to produce a bevy of opinions, as ever more effusive hyperbole gets trotted out, ever more fierce grudges dusted down, and ever more unlikely proponents pushed forward. So we won’t go there, other than to comment that Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson was probably in the top few, certainly if you remove the anathema of electricity. (To be fair, he probably had way more electricity than many a blues-rock road warrior, but remained resolutely unplugged the length of his days, 1923 – 2012.) He merited a tribute long ago, and now, with I Am a Pilgrim: Doc Watson at 100, he’s got a fairly worthy one.
I Am a Pilgrim is crammed with musicians great and the good, partly drawn from the country/bluegrass/Americana palette he made his home, coming together to salute his playing, his singing and his all round good-eggness. Quite what Watson might have made of such a shindig is anyone guess, the fuss possibly embarrassing the quietly spoken and mild-mannered dude all parties suggest he was.
I first came across Watson’s superlative talent when I was a teenaged schoolboy. A new boy in class was an expatriate Yank, with a precocious talent for fiddle, or violin, as I then thought it was called. He drew my attention to the now and rightly fabled triple album set, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken. My Deep Purpled and Pink Floyded mind was blown, possibly never again grouping back together again in the same way, such was the richness of the material across those discs, as a plethora of country royalty got to spar with some longhair hippies, burying prejudices and forging alliances aplenty.
Doc Watson was a key part of that. His mellifluous picking seemed just so impossibly relaxed and, at the same time, impossible to grasp. Add in his down-homey back porch dialogue, one of the delights of the project, and he just seems the coolest man on earth. Seriously, if you haven’t heard him at full pelt, raising nary a bead of sweat, try to search him out. With all the recordings containing his name–solo, with his son, with his grandson, collaborations aplenty–you can’t go wrong. Continue reading »
Lucinda Williams has never had a big hit song. None of her singles have charted on the Top 40, or even on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart at all. In fact, most of her songs don’t hit any chart.
You may already be thinking to yourself: Who cares! Giant pop-chart hits are not the way you measure the success of a singer and songwriter like Lucinda Williams. You know what is one possible way, though? Covers. (A few of which, incidentally, made her song hits in other hands.)
Like a few other songwriter’s-songwriter types we’ve covered in this series (John Prine, Steve Earle), the respect Lucinda gets from her peers and fans far outweighs her own commercial success. It’s probably the sort of acclaim she’d value more. Williams’ songs have been covered by her elders alongside a wide array of younger folk and indie artists. Earle, in fact, has called the album he co-produced, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, “one of the best things I’ve ever been involved in.”
None other than Bob Dylan himself, when he played her take on “Change the Locks” (covered twice on our list) on his Theme Time Radio Hour, compared her to Bessie Smith, calling her “another strong-hearted spirited woman.” He added cheekily, “Time Magazine called her America’s best songwriter in 2002. I guess I was out of town.”
Below, we’ve rounded up 25 equally strong-hearted, spirited covers. Lucinda, who turns 70 today, is no slouch at covers herself – don’t miss her recent Lu’s Jukebox series. But for her birthday, we honor her songwriting and let other artists do the heavy lifting.
25. John Mellencamp – Lafayette
Lucinda Williams’ first album was a collection of covers, but her second, Happy Woman Blues, consisted of all originals, kicked off by “Lafayette” – the first of her songs about her native Louisiana, but certainly not the last. It’s about how the singer misses Lafayette and how it took leaving to appreciate it, so she’s coming back. Because Lafayette is the center of Cajun culture, the song is fittingly a country/zydeco mix, and focuses on the eating, drinking, dancing and other wild times that she looks forward to repeating. John Mellencamp’s 2003 album Trouble No More was a collection of (mostly) blues and folk covers, and his spare take on “Lafayette” is more country-blues than Cajun. His gruff lead vocals are sometimes overshadowed by the twangy female background singer, but it’s a worthy effort. – Jordan Becker
24. Jimbo Mathus – Lake Charles
Picking a single track off Solo Blues Guitar: Jimbo Mathus Performs Lucinda Williams Car Wheels on a Gravel Road kind of defeats the purpose. As you can probably guess from that album title, it’s Mathus, of Squirrel Nut Zippers fame, performing Lucinda’s most iconic album in full (on, as the tin says, solo blues guitar). It’s a beautiful listen that you can hone in on or just let add atmosphere in the background. But, since we have to highlight one, “Lake Charles” will give you a good taste of his combination of finger picking and slide on that beautiful resonator guitar. – Ray Padgett
23. Dennis Mac Namara – I Envy the Wind
If there were a church devoted solely to unrequited love, where all those in the throes gathered to commiserate, “I Envy The Wind” would be the lead hymn in the songbook. Why this song has been covered so sparingly over the years remains a mystery. Hyperbolic hot take coming, but if ever a song was powerful and poised enough to knock “Hallelujah” off its ubiquitous and over-covered pedestal, “I Envy The Wind” is it. Dennis Mac Namera’s skeletal acoustic cover is home to a stunner of vocal performance, equal parts booming and fragile. The heartache and longing are oh so palpable, as is Mac Namera’s unabashed admiration for the song itself. Let us pray. – Hope Silverman
22. Peter Gallagher – Still I Long For Your Kiss
Lest anyone forget, Williams is every bit as much a singer and interpreter of the blues as she is of the broader country/Americana slant she is usually associated with. Check out her aforementioned first album, 1979’s Ramblin’ On My Mind, a set of largely nothing but the blues, Sleepy John Estes, Robert Johnson and the like, with a token Hank Williams for good measure. Sure, her own version of “Still I Long For Your Kiss” carries a bluesy hint, but it took this fella to strip it right back, delectably so. This fella? Peter Gallagher. You’ll know him as an actor in loads of films and TV. But, as this clip shows, he can sing, really sing. This comes from a record he made in 2005, Seven Days In Memphis, of Southern soul belters backed by a crew of the best session men that producer Steve Cropper could find. The other singer here is his TV wife from The O.C., Kelly Rowan. – Seuras Og
21. Angel Olsen – Greenville
Angel Olsen dropped two terrific covers last June. Her version of Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings,” recorded for the TV show Shining Girls, features haunting electronic textures underpinning her voice. It’s a surprisingly un-folky cover of one of Bob’s early folk songs. Alas, it came a year too late for our Best Bob Dylan Covers list. Her version of of Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road standout “Greenville” though is just as good, guitar echoing behind her mesmerizing double-tracked vocals. – Ray Padgett
With peak anticipation building in lovers of the Bard of Montreal, here finally drops Here It Is: A Tribute to Leonard Cohen, the Larry Klein-helmed and Blue Note-imprinted all-star tribute we have been sneaking peeks at these past few months. We have been a little underwhelmed by James Taylor and then bowled over by Nate Rateliff, so what of the rest?
First, some background. Klein and Cohen were good buddies during the final decade and a half of the singer’s life, having been crossing paths a good deal longer. Klein himself has an interesting pedigree, a jazz bassist of some renown, starting his career off by playing with Joe Hubbard and Wayne Shorter. Becoming more mainstream, as rock drew out for the greater sophistication jazz might offer, he began to play with, most notably, Joni Mitchell, actually marrying her. Whilst that didn’t last, he became one of the go-to bassists. It is him on Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer” Bob Dylan’s Down in the Groove, and Peter Gabriel’s So album, still keeping his hand in with older buddies like Herbie Hancock.
Adding the production arrow to his quiver, Klein went on to take charge of studio work by a throng of artists encompassing many, many genres. Who else can say they produced acts as varied as Holly Cole, Rodney Crowell, and (Jefferson) Starship? Not to mention Joni, even after their marriage dissolved, and the aforementioned Hancock, including his The Joni Letters, where those two worlds aligned.
Having spent a fair amount of time covering Cohen songs for other artists, Klein came up with the idea of assembling an album’s worth of new ones. He brought together a collection of his contacts and acquaintances, largely from the jazz world, or, as he himself put it: “a group of the most prescient and forward-looking musicians.” Thus the band here, which is led by unassuming guitar titan Bill Frisell, includes also saxman Immanuel Wilkins, Kevin Hays on piano, and the rhythm section of bassist Scott Colley and drummer Nate Smith. Longtime Frisell associate and pedal steel player to the stars Greg Leisz also gets to play, as does Larry Goldings. So a crack band, and already catnip to the Blue Note label, even ahead the roll call of vocalists. Continue reading »
If you were to look at the charts, the Beach Boys basically stopped having giant hits after 1966’s “Good Vibrations” (with the obvious exception of 1988’s “Kokomo”). They’re a singles band whose singles mostly dried up six years into their sixty-year career. They had a brief run of good-time hits about girls, cars, and surfing, then faded. They’re the band preserved forever in that cornball publicity photo up top.
But that’s not the story these covers tell.
The big hits are here, sure. “Surfer Girl” and “Fun Fun Fun” and “I Get Around” etc. But so are many now-iconic tunes that weren’t hits. “God Only Knows,” the Beach Boys’ most covered song, peaked at #39. By their standards, that’s a straight-up flop. Many other covered songs didn’t even make it that high. But “God Only Knows” has of course belatedly been recognized as one of the great pop songs of the 20th century. As has the album it came off of, Pet Sounds, itself a relative commercial failure.
Pet Sounds, of course, has long since been recognized as a classic. So some artists dig even deeper. “Lonely Sea” is an album cut off their 1963 album Surfin’ U.S.A. “Trader” comes off the 1973 album Holland. Three separate songs here originally came off Surf’s Up, now the go-to pick for artists who want to show they know more than Pet Sounds. Even a song not released until the ‘90s, “Still I Dream of It,” gets a killer cover.
You can trace the story of the Beach Boys’ reputation through these covers. A group once perceived as a lightweight singles act have been fully embraced as musical geniuses, all the way from the hits of the ’60s through the then-overlooked gems of the ‘70s and beyond. Some of these songs below you probably won’t know. Others you will know every single word of…but you’ve never heard them sung like this.
Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
“Wichita Lineman” is a certified classic, a fixture in the great American songbook, full stop. But it is also a work in progress. In a way.
The truth is that Jimmy Webb had every intention of writing a middle section and another verse about his solitary lineman. But Glen Campbell got hold of an early draft, and then recorded his version before Webb even knew about it. Who knows if Webb might have ruined a good thing with further revision; what’s certain is that “Wichita Lineman” is a shining example of the Less is More principle, and we owe Campbell a lot for rushing it out.
Campbell also gets some credit for the song’s creation. A year before “Wichita Lineman” dropped, Campbell scored a major hit with another Jimmy Webb gem, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” So the singer suggested the writer come up with “another song about a place.” Webb resisted the idea initially, but his poetic imagination was more receptive. Inspired by a long drive through the arid flatness of Oklahoma and the sight of a worker on a telephone pole, Webb hatched the song idea, and presented a draft of “Wichita Lineman.” It moved the homesick Campbell to tears, and that was enough for him. It was enough for everyone else, too.
Campbell got his Wrecking Crew buddies together in the studio, and added a baritone guitar solo to create an instrumental section. That, and some string arrangements, added meat to the bones of the song, and off it went. Webb knew nothing about the recording, and assumed Campbell had lost interest. When Webb found out Campbell had cut the track, he told Campbell it wasn’t done yet. Campbell replied, “Well, it’s done now!”
The song launched into the upper reaches of the pop, country, and adult contemporary charts. Soon it was in the hands of a few hundred artists attempting their version, including some of the best vocalists and instrumentalists of its time and ours. The Glen Campbell version may remain the definitive one, but there’s quite a few musicians who nailed it too. Continue reading »
In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!
We’ve highlighted several of guitarist Bill Frisell’s covers in the past—songs by Madonna, Lou Reed, John Lennon, and more. But it’s time Frisell gets a post of his own. He’s been abundantly prolific for several decades now, and in recent years his output rate has only accelerated. He turns 70 next month, and may get Grammied again, this time for last year’s Americana album, a collaboration with Grégoire Maret and Romain Collin, with its covers of Bon Iver, Jimmy Webb, and Mark Knopler. In this post we’ll survey the whole Frisell catalog, not just the recent achievements, with a focus on songs in the rock/pop/country genres. Continue reading »