Last weekend, CMT broadcast “A Celebration of the Life and Music of Loretta Lynn” at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry House. A host of country music royalty turned up to play her songs, from veteran industries stars like George Strait and Tanya Tucker to newer outlaws like The Highwomen and Margo Price. Jack White sang “Van Lear Rose,” off the album of the same name he produced for Lynn in 2004. Keith Urban busted out a banjo-guitar for “You’re Lookin’ at Country,” Lynn’s 1971 hit. Strait tackled early chart-topper “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind).” Her tracks pushing at the conservative country establishment got airings too: Price performed the pioneering birth control song “The Pill” – a song the Opry, where this show took place, once tried to ban – and Darius Rucker (of all people) performed the feminist anthem “Fist City.”
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.
Thirty years ago, Garth Brooks released his breakthrough album No Fences. Powered by instant classics such as “Friends in Low Places,” “The Thunder Rolls,” and “Unanswered Prayers,” the record would ultimately sell 18 million copies. In the process, it transformed Brooks into a stadium-filling phenomenon and redefined the parameters for success in country music. The album is a quintessential piece of what we now call ’90s County, a hybrid of neo-traditional country twang mixed with ’70s-style acoustic rock and pop balladry.
Listening to No Fences with three decades of hindsight, it’s clear Brooks is more than a singer. He’s an epic storyteller. Whether he’s singing about bank foreclosures, religious epiphanies at high school football games or going to that place where “the whiskey drowns, and the beer chases” one’s blues away, he delivers every line as if he’s trying to convey some deep universal truth. Like many a country star before and after him, Brooks is a master of interpreting other people’s words. Though he co-wrote several of the songs, he sings every track as if it’s his own.
Life experience can transform a song. While Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails went deep into the emotional hell pit on “Hurt” in 1994, Johnny Cash’s 2002 cover took it even further, transforming the already heartbreaking into the emotionally devastating.
Like Cash, Tanya Tucker is a country legend. She was only 13 years old when she had her first hit record, 1972’s anthem “Delta Dawn.” And in the tradition of those “blessed” with huge success at a young age, she embarked in earnest on her mission to be country music’s wildest child. A female outlaw in the mold of Waylon and Willie, she became as famous for her partying, drinking, drug-taking, and relationship choices as she was for her music (check out her excellent, revealing autobiography Nickel Dreams for all the painful details).
Tonight, when the Eagles take the stage in Indianapolis for the start of their 2018 tour, they will be joined by country crooner Vince Gill to fill the void left by the death of Glenn Frey. Those who have followed Gill’s career know that his journey to Eagles-dom began in 1993. That year, he recorded a cover of “I Can’t Tell You Why,” for the triple-platinum covers album Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles. The album, which will mark its 25th anniversary this fall, was such a commercial success upon its release that it played a major role in reuniting the band.
In the early ‘90s, despite having not played live or recorded in over a decade, the Eagles were as popular as they had ever been. The band’s music dominated classic rock radio. Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) was on its way to becoming the best-selling album of the 20th century in the U.S. And most of the music coming out of Nashville sounded, well, a lot like the Eagles.
To capitalize on the group’s popularity amongst the boots-and-spurs set, Don Henley and Eagles’ manager Irving Azoff organized the tribute album as a fundraiser for Henley’s environmental charity The Walden Woods Project. To serve as executive producer, Azoff and Henley tapped James Stroud who assembled many of the hottest country stars of the era. “Everybody wanted in,” Stroud told Entertainment Weekly. “Once we started, the phones lit up.”
Common Thread was to Music Row in 1993 what Law & Order was to the New York branch of the Actors Equity Association: a full-fledged jobs program. The album featured 10 solo artists, two bands and one duo. More than 70 musicians and backup singers are directly credited as well as an orchestra called the Nashville String Machine. On the production side, 14 people were listed as producers or co-producers, including Stroud and two of the artists themselves: Suzy Bogguss, who produced her version of “Take It To the Limit;” and Billy Dean, who co-produced his rendition of “Saturday Night.” There were also 25 people listed as engineers, assistant engineers or mixers and seven production assistants.