Sixty years ago this month, The Beatles played on the Ed Sullivan Show. You don’t need us to tell you what a momentous occasion this was; entirebooks have been written on the subject. Suffice to say we’re using the anniversary as our excuse to finally devote a Best Covers Ever to perhaps the biggest band of them all. We’ve done Dylan. We’ve done the Stones. We’ve done Dolly and Springsteen and Prince. But there was one last giant remaining.
Though it’s difficult to measure this precisely, The Beatles are the most-covered artist of all time according to the two biggest covers databases on the internet (SecondHandSongs, WhoSampled). And that certainly feels right. “Yesterday” is often cited as the most-covered song of all time, though that needs qualifiers (a ton of Christmas standards would beat it). But, again, it feels right. The Beatles were ubiquitous in their day, and they’ve been ubiquitous ever since. They just had a chart-topping single last month, the A.I.-assisted “Now and Then,” which was duly covered widely. If “Carnival of Light” ever surfaces, no doubt a carnival of covers will soon follow.Continue reading »
The title More Than A Whisper – Celebrating The Music Of Nanci Griffith probably says it all, given the disproportionate heft of the footprint left behind by this self-effacing singer. Her mild and bookish persona, all ankle socks and cardigans, might suggest a small town librarian or primary school teacher, but what she gave, and what you got, was so very much more. A consummate writer of literate story songs (she called them folkabilly), Griffith could captivate any an audience with her Texas charm and sweet/sour voice, attracting the best musicians to play by her side. Both as a writer and an interpreter, she lived and breathed the characters in songs she made her own, several of which are well on the to becoming standards. Her run of albums, from her 1978 debut There’s A Light Beyond These Woods through to Storms, a decade and a bit later, was little short of astonishing, the traction of the one building on the next until she became quite the star. And if she became, latterly, drawn, or possibly led, more to the mainstream, with the country hayride honed down a little, still the songs remained the same, elegant constructions, meticulously put together. Illness quietened her workload this century, her last album made in 2012, before her death in 2021.
It is fair to say that most of the songs on More Than a Whisper come from Griffith’s imperial phase, 1987-9, a time where she could do no wrong, touring constantly, with new material pouring out of her. I must have seen her two or three times during those years; she always included the UK and Ireland in her itineraries. I was never less than enthralled by the show she and her Blue Moon Orchestra would put on, falling, always, a little more in love. And, lest you feel this project of such appeal as to bring back singers from the dead, this album has been several years in the gestation, it fitting, and vital, that it should include one singer always very closely associated with her. You’ll know who I mean. Continue reading »
Bria – When You Know Why You’re Happy (Mary Margaret O’Hara’ cover)
Bria’s “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?” made our list of the Best Covers of 2022. The track was a sneak peak at her covers EP Cuntry Covers Vol. 2, and the full thing dropped a few weeks ago. It includes a wonderful version of this much more obscure song. Bria explains: “Mary Margaret O’Hara is a creative force and one of my favorite Canadian artists. I have been a huge fan of hers for quite some time and really wanted to try my hand at one of her songs for Vol. 2. She is a real queen of vocal improvisation. It’s a trait of hers that I’ve always admired, so I really wanted to explore that when recording this cover. The video for this track is special to us, a sort of collage of memory; fragmented footage of summer taken over the last two years is dispersed throughout shots of a vast winter scene, filmed while we finished the record up North with our live band.”Continue reading »
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.