Reinterpreting the song of another artist is a strong tradition in country music, perhaps more than any other genre. The catalogue of classic and iconic songs stretches back nearly a century. From The Carter Family to Hank Williams, George Jones to Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton to Emmylou Harris – the collection of timeless songs to cover has expanded and evolved, with the universality of their themes making them as vital today as they were when they were first written.
Take Parton’s ‘Jolene’ for example. Over the last 40 years it has been covered by a diverse range of artists that include The White Stripes, Ray La Montagne, Olivia Newton-John, The Sisters Of Mercy and Me First and the Gimme Gimme’s to name but a few. It’s a testament to Parton’s songwriting ability that artists can be inspired by both the musicality of the song and its tale of a woman pleading with another who threatens to steal away her man.
For the last decade, author, journalist and broadcaster Stuart Coupe has been hosting a radio show that focuses exclusively on cover versions and he’s “played a real lot of covers by country artists – or reworking of country songs.” Hosting Tune Up on FBi he’s discovered there are two fundamental reasons why he loves covers. “You often get to experience an artist’s key inspirations and/or formative music listening as they sing the songs of others that have shaped them in their own voice. And so often I find myself hearing again a song that I’d maybe dismissed and through the often radical reworking by another artist I hear the song with fresh ears and realise how great it is.” Coupe gives a perfect example of this with South San Gabriel’s long (almost nine minute) stripped back and countrified take on Lionel Richie’s ‘All Night Long’. “It transforms a song you thought you maybe never wanted to hear into a song you want to hear over and over and over again,” Coupe enthuses.
As shown, it can be a two-way street. Non-country artists covering country songs and country artists performing their own versions of non-country compositions (let’s call it the Lionel Effect). The Rolling Stones borrowed heavily from country music and many artists recognised the quality of songwriting and authenticity the group of English reprobates brought to the music. ‘Honky Tonk Women’ was covered by Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers, Waylon Jennings and Charlie Walker. ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ was given the smooth 70’s treatment by Sandra Rhodes and put through a country funk filter by Cymbal & Clinger. Jerry Garcia added a country-rock sway to ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’, Townes Van Zandt took ‘Dead Flowers’ to a heavy and heartfelt place and Rodney Crowell added fiddle to ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ on a covers album called Stone Country.
Some of my favourite country covers are the ones that dial into the heart of the song and expose the fragile beauty of it. Caitlin Canty’s version of Neil Young’s ‘Unknown Legend’ is absolutely beautiful, the combination of the sparse instrumentation and her voice conveying the devotional aspect of the song. A more unlikely pairing is Gillian Welch’s cover of Radiohead’s ‘Black Star’ which you can track down online. She completely makes it her own with her and David Rawlings’ heavenly harmonies and his guitar,. So much so that when I play it for people they usually know the song but can’t place the original artist. Finally, it’s hard to go past the late-career run that Johnny Cash had with Rick Rubin. Countless commanding covers given the weight and authority of Cash’s pathos and voice, particularly the deeply affecting performance on Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Hurt’. It all goes to show that in the afterlife, reincarnation is a real thing in the world of song.