One reflection on the ravages of the Grim Reaper is that it offers the opportunity for folks to be reminded of the breadth of talent offered by those on the wrong side of the grass. And what a talent Leon Russell’s was. One of the founding fathers of contemporary American music, Russell got his start in sessions with the Wrecking Crew, that seasoned band of players, gilding the lily of any number of better remembered performers. Next, he took on the task of ringmaster for Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs And Englishmen, thereby inventing the whole milieu of raggedy roots revues.
Thereafter, Russell cemented his reputation producing and playing for and with everyone, from Bob Dylan and George Harrison to most of the Rolling Stones. An early adopter was Elton John, much later able to repay the influence with 2009’s The Union, a record co-credited to each of them, boosting once again the standing of then then-ailing Russell. Seven years later, he was to die in his sleep, a heart attack complicating previous surgery, at 74. No more would he grace the stage in the guise of an Old Testament prophet, bedazzling in his white suit, with his mane of white hair and beard crowned usually by a hat, ten-gallon or top, white too.
A side arm of his career included a series of albums under the nom de guerre, Hank Wilson, wherein he took on the mantle of a country bluegrass rocker, with four albums of honky-tonk music, with another being his mentoring and production duties for funk outfit, The Gap Band; they also backed him on ‘Stop All That Jazz’, in 1974. Another fun fact: his 1978 album Americana was potentially the first sighting of the word, a full 21 years ahead the Americana Music Association coming into existence. So yeah, a whole lot more to him than just “Delta Lady,” “Superstar” and “A Song For You.”
With a body of work stretching to nearly 40 albums, solo or collaboration, studio and live, the problem for a Leon Russell tribute album is what not to cover, and what stones to leave unturned. A Song for Leon truly has its work cut out for it; for the most part, it does proud to both the tribute album genre and the Master of Space and Time himself. Continue reading »
Amanda Palmer and The Righteous Babes — The Last Day of our Acquaintance (Sinéad O’Connor cover)
You’re going to notice a theme here. We have the usual grab-bag included below (see “Best of the Rest”), but, for our featured covers up top, it’s all Sinéad. There were so many wonderful tributes performed, often in concert and always powerful and moving. Many did “Nothing Compares 2 U,” technically a Prince cover but really a Sinéad song now and forever, but others selected from elsewhere in her catalog. Of this one, which just came out Tuesday, Amanda Palmer wrote, “This song means a great deal to me, as does the artist who penned it, along with everything she still stands for.” A portion of the money from sales will be donated to The Irish Women’s Survivor Support Network.Continue reading »
Bob Dylan has been on a covers roll this year. On tour, he has primarily covered a number of Dead (“Truckin’,” “Stella Blue,” “Brokedown Palace”) or Dead-associated (“Not Fade Away,” “Only a River”) songs. But he’s dipped into other classic catalogs occasionally too. He did Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” for the first time and then, not long after, maybe the deepest cut yet: Merle Haggard’s 2016 track “Bad Actor.” The tape took a while to surface. It was worth the wait.Continue reading »
Willie Nelson’s giant 90th birthday concert in Los Angeles featured a whole host of covers. Some of them featured the man himself. Admittedly, that makes those not really covers, so we’ll feature a couple Willie-less Willie tunes. First up, Beck tackles Willie’s Red Headed Stranger classic “Hands on the Wheel.” (Find another cover of this song in the Best of the Rest list.)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
Billie Joe Shaver was one tough dude. The mere fact that he made it to 81 years old is a tribute as much to his constitution as to anything else, because his life and times read as if he wasn’t one much for compromise. Hell, too tough even for the Highwaymen, turning down the opportunity to be a member of that iconic grouping of his peers. As a performer he may not have been as celebrated as Waylon, Willie & Johnny, being very much in the gravel ‘n’ grits school of rough and ready, but his songs have gone right across the board and back again. You just might surprise yourself by how many you recognize on Live Forever: A Tribute to Billie Joe Shaver. Continue reading »