Over our time tracking cover songs (13 years this month!), we’ve written about hundreds of new tribute albums, across reviews, news stories, and, when they’re good enough, our best-of-the-year lists. We also have looked back on plenty of great tribute albums from the past in our Cover Classics series. But we’ve never pulled it all together – until now.
It isn’t any longer a surprise when avowed adherents of one tradition tackle another, and folk singers tackling the pop charts is one of the staples of current expectation. And it can be a mixed blessing.
Kate Rusby has one of the purest and most distinctive of voices that grace the UK folk circuit, and has been one of the most successful, her career stretching back over three-plus decades. Firmly associated with the trad. arr. firmament, her voice, with acoustic guitar, fiddles, and squeezeboxes reaping the songs of old England, she also writes material that can fit into that style seamlessly. An unmistakably Yorkshire presence, her accent unadorned by any need to adopt the faux-ploughboy (or -girl) many folkies seem to adopt, her whole persona seems inhabited by the tradition. There are no messages, she has no soapbox–just the singing.
Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
Deadicated is so much more than a great covers album; it’s a great album, period. But more, it also heralded the era for covers albums to be more than a leg up for aspiring musicians to get a grip on the slippery pole, by riding on the laurels of another more established act. This was one of the first tribute albums where the great and the good lined up to salute their peers.
But I’ll get back to that. My reasons for it attaining classic status stemming a whole lot more than from the fearsome reputation of the Dead. As a… well, whatever I was, I loved the idea of the Grateful Dead. But over here in Britain, there was no Deadhead culture as such. They came over, what, once? (Yup, Bickershaw Festival, 1972, as at least one contributor to the album knew only too well.) As an avid reader of New Musical Express and Melody Maker, the UK “inkies”, the musical press within whose hallowed pages they were ensured good copy, to me they were just the coolest dudes ever. I’d also read Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and was smitten.
But where to start? In truth, I was daunted, happier to wear the T-shirt than buy the music. I didn’t want it spoilt by any risk of finding the idea to be less than the reality of the dream.
Luckily a trip to Orlando, circa 1987, solved that conundrum, around about the time of In the Dark. Of course, the big hit single helped, even if there were more filler tracks than killer tracks on the album. Clearly I hadn’t quite got that the Dead were more a live experience than a studio band. Still haven’t, really; to this day, listening to live records has never been a great immersive for me. But, praise be, I loved the studio records, snapping up the back catalog.
When Deadicated dropped in 1991, I bought it, unheard. The roster of artists included an impossible array of my favorites: Elvis Costello, Los Lobos, Suzanne Vega, Dr. John, Indigo Girls, Cowboy Junkies and more. Catnip and heaven combined. (Deadicated also served as a benefit for Rainforest Action Network, active to this day, a charity dedicated to the preservation of these vital once macro-climates, shrinking by the day through the scourge of deforestation.)
‘The Best Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.
The so-called “Day the Music Died” occurred 60 years ago this month. One night after an Iowa concert, that fateful plane crash took out a host of young pioneers of the first wave of rock and roll: Ritchie Valens, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson (in a last minute seat-trade with Waylon Jennings), and, of course, Buddy Holly.
Over at 22, Holly’s career had barely begun. But in a few short years, he’d written and recorded some of the most foundational tracks of rock and roll. So, to remember him six decades on, we’re ranking the best covers of his songs – from “Rave On” to “Not Fade Away” to a host of deep-cut gems that deserve wider recognition.
We were going to include 22 covers to honor Holly’s age but – in a testament to how much he accomplished in such a short time – that turned out to be not nearly enough. So we expanded the list to 36, his birth year. And frankly, we could have easily doubled it. That’s how often his songs have been covered by his admirers of yesterday and today. So rave on, Buddy, with these 36 fantastic covers of your songs.
I had high hopes for Robert Earl Keen’s new album, Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions. My first exposure to REK was 1989’s West Textures, still for me his best work, partly because the acoustic band accompanying him on that is a bluegrass band, even if the songs aren’t. Keen’s style, for me, has never quite suited electricity. Combine this with my love of bluegrass, and surely this would be a no-brainer?
Well, I liked it, but if I’m honest, I only liked it some. Positives first: Keen has the ideal woebegone plaintiveness for this sort of material (think Droopy with a recording contract), as he plumbs death, prison and heartbreak in turn. (Have you ever heard a truly happy bluegrass song?) The band, including Danny Barnes of Bad Livers repute on banjo, underpin his singing with zest and vim, and a plethora of guests add to an agreeable mix. Of these, special mention to erstwhile Dixie Chick Natalie Maines (daughter of Lloyd Maines, the album’s producer), bringing more sprightliness to the oft-covered “Lonesome Stranger” than can be found on some of the album’s other numbers.
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!
When Lyle Lovett first arrived, the country music scene was proud to call the tall Texan one of their own. As his career developed, though, the top-twenty hits dried up, and the establishment took a wary step back. Lovett’s songs may have had a southern feel, but they were also infused with folk, jazz, blues, and big band (make that “large band”), and there was nothing formulaic about his lyrics, which never met a cliche they couldn’t leave sprawling in the dirt.