Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
If everything about Rodney Crowell were forgotten save for “‘Til I Gain Control Again,” he wouldn’t be forgotten at all. Which is a clumsy way of saying that this long-established writer, singer and performer, the author of a mighty, mighty tome of material, can sleep content in the knowledge that he has written at least one stone-cold classic.
Mind you, for the purposes of this piece, let’s not forget that the original iteration of this beauty came via the incomparable throat of Emmylou Harris. It made for the show-stopping side one closer on her second record, Elite Hotel. While she and Crowell have played a lot of shows together this century, as a double header, way back then he was just one of the hired hands in her incomparable Hot Band. Alongside the players couped from Elvis Presley’s TCB band, James Burton and Glen D. Hardin, Crowell was the fresh-faced rhythm guitarist who was hired to sing duets with Harris and write some songs. He delivered “Blueberry Wine” for her debut, sufficient reason to be kept on.
It is a relief that the Harris version is the de facto original. Not because Crowell can’t give it a decent going over (he can), but because, were it not, it would be a shoo-in for this selection. We are thus granted five full further versions, all of which cast a slightly different sheen on this quintessential country weepie. 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
Dolly Parton is a singer and a songwriter. I mention that obvious truth because these days it tends to get overshadowed by her other titles: Icon. Inspiration. National Treasure. The Only Human Being Alive Everyone Agrees On (Radiolab produced an entire nine-part radio series based on that premise). And she is all those things, but first and foremost she’s a working 9-to-5 musician who has been perfecting her craft for seven decades.
Parton says she wrote her first song as a five year-old in 1952. She hasn’t stopped writing songs since. She once estimated she’s amassed 10,000. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but the verifiable numbers speak for themselves: 52 studio albums, 25 Number One songs, 100 million records sold worldwide. Just as important a tribute to her gifts, though, are how often her songs get covered. Not just the obvious ones, the “Jolene”s and “I Will Always Love You”s (though plenty of those, lord knows), but the album cuts, the singles that didn’t top the charts, and the songs she didn’t write herself but made into Dolly Parton songs anyway.
Some of the below covers sound a little bit like Dolly’s own music. Most do not. She considers herself straight country, not, as she made clear when first nominated for the Rock Hall earlier this year, rock and roll. But, in this list, she is rock and roll. And folk and pop and hip-hop and soul and a whole host of other genres. Dolly Parton may indeed be the only human being everyone agrees on. What a way to make a living.
Is there a more evocative term than sibling harmony? And we are here talking about singing, rather than the standard well-rehearsed tales of dysfunctional derring-do betwixt embattled brothers, that usually renders the phrase, at best, ironic. No, this is that sweet spot, blood on blood, wherein the gene pool confers a mystic closeness between voices: think Everly, Louvin, McGarrigle. There are a lot, many falling loosely into country genres.
As do these guys, Adam and David Moss, who go a step further and are identical twins. Illinois natives, they grew up with their Dad’s record collection, singing along and honing the precision between their voices. Sure, Don and Phil figured large in that collection, it not long before comparisons were being made. With a couple of well-received albums and an EP under their belts, and tours supporting the likes of Sarah Jarosz, now seemed as good as any to drop a slew of covers (well, two months ago, actually – apologies for the delay).
A quick glance at the list of song might raise slight concern; do we really need yet another “These Days,” for one? Well, you know, maybe we do. Really. Let’s investigate. Continue reading »
Today, Steve Earle releases the fourth in his occasional series of covers albums. They pay tribute to his musical heroes and teachers who’ve passed on – Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker – plus, in one tragic case, his son Justin Townes Earle, who died in 2020.
We’ll be reviewing the new one, Jerry Jeff, in the near future, but as we celebrate covers by Steve Earle, we thought we’d also celebrate covers of Steve Earle. Though he’s never been a big generator of hit singles, this songwriter’s songwriter has had a number of songs become stealth standards, particularly in the Americana, folk, and alt-country worlds. When everyone from Johnny Cash to The Pretenders is singing your songs, you know you’re doing something right.Continue reading »
“I usually come in second to Dylan,” Paul Simon once said, “and I don’t like coming in second.” Indeed, he’s had to deal with it literally ever since he was born, in 1941. We already celebrated Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday in May, and today we turn to the man Dylan has called “one of the preeminent songwriters of the times,” Paul Simon, as he hits his own 80th. Simon’s in the rarified air of someone whose songs get covered almost as much as Dylan’s (ugh – second place again), so for this month’s Best Covers Ever, we’re diving into covers of the entire Paul Simon catalog, both solo and with Simon and Garfunkel.
Another thing Dylan once said about Simon, in relation to his own music, is this: “I’m not Paul Simon. I can’t do that. My songs come out of folk music and early rock n’ roll, and that’s it. I’m not a classical lyricist, I’m not a meticulous lyricist. I don’t write melodies that are clever or catchy.”
False modesty aside, Dylan hits on some of what makes Simon’s work so beloved by other musicians. His melodies are clever and catchy. His lyrics are meticulous. In both words and music, Simon can use a little to say a lot. His songs have strong cores, but leave a lot of space for other artists to play around with. So it’s no surprise that the list below spans genres from punk, dance music, gospel, and more. You’ll hear every sound except one: Silence (sorry). No matter how afield the songs roam, though, they still sound like Paul Simon.
So enough talk about Simon being a perennial silver medal winner. His craft and his talent have earned him and his songs a place at the top of the medal podium, and these fifty covers prove it.