(Re)Covered In Folk: Neil Young
(45 redefining tracks from a decade in tribute)


It’s been ten years exactly since we last drilled down deep into the Neil Young songbook here on Cover Lay Down, in a short feature introducing the transformative all-female American Laundromat double-disc for-charity tribute Cinnamon Girl, accompanied by several exclusive label-approved tracks from that record and a delicious set of similar delights from The Wailin’ Jennys, The Indigo Girls, Emmylou Harris, Carrie Rodriguez, Elizabeth Mitchell, and more great folkwomen teetering on the well-traveled intersection of rock, pop, and folk.

A decade later, Cinnamon Girl remains a go-to exemplar in the world of coverage: a powerhouse indie collection, “a great and well-balanced listen from cover to cover”, and “the tribute album Neil Young has deserved for most of his long and prolific career.” Several of its covers, including Lori McKenna’s unadorned twangfolk The Needle And The Damage Done, The Watson Twins’ sweet Powderfinger, and Canadian duo Dala’s beautiful, wistful harmony takes on Ohio and A Man Needs A Maid, continue to stand out as true-blue favorites. And – since it is still available – we would be remiss in taking this opportunity to redirect you to it, that you, too, might revel in its femfolk-to-riot-grrl approach, and support Casting For Recovery, who aim to enhance the quality of life of women with breast cancer through a unique retreat program that combines breast cancer education and peer support with therapeutic fly fishing.

But just as the past must be celebrated, so, too, do our ears and hearts evolve. As listeners, our subjective evolution in that decade has brought us closer towards a subtle appreciation of the deconstructionist approach. As cultural explorers, we respect and recognize Young’s recent move to put his entire archive online for free – a move that will surely spark deep artistic exploration and new coverage going forward. As agents of discovery and spread, we celebrate the ongoing reclamation of the Canadian singer-songwriter’s prolific portfolio, even as we note its turn towards the trends and tropes of its next generation.

And so, today, we revisit the Neil Young songbook with a collection of covers recorded in the intervening decade that trend towards the broken and bent, and the mellow and melodic: an omnibus mix, coupling beloved recordings from folk, Americana, indie and roots artists with newfound delights from Bandcamp, YouTube, and other discovery spaces. May it stand as our solution for those who, like us, struggle to reconcile our distaste for the songwriter’s whine with our great respect and admiration for both the grit and elegance of his pen, and his vast catalog of poetic yet straightforward songs which continues to give voice “to the plight of the powerless and the disaffected in modern American culture.”

Neil Young, Covered In Folk (2008-2018)
* listen track-by-track, or download the whole mix here!

Always ad-free and artist-centered, Cover Lay Down has been exploring the ethnographic intersection of coverage and folk roots on the web since 2007 thanks to the kind support of readers like you. If you like what you hear, click through to purchase albums and support the artists we love, the better to keep the music going in an age of micro-transactions. And, as always, if you wish to help us in our ongoing mission, we hope you’ll consider a donation to Cover Lay Down.

Comment » | (Re)Covered, Clem Snide, Covered In Folk, J. Tillman, Jeffrey Foucault, Marissa Nadler, Mark Erelli, Molly Tuttle, Neil Young, Reid Jamieson, Rickie Lee Jones, Sam Amidon, Tribute Albums

Single Song Sunday: John Henry
(16 takes on an American myth from bluesfolk to gospelgrass)


We’re generally cautious about celebrating Black History Month here at Cover Lay Down. Though the earliest roots of modern folk recording and song surely include both the African-American experience and, more murkily, the origin stories of several of the instruments (including the dulcimer and banjo) which form the core of its acoustic array, the world of folk performance itself skews heavily towards caucasian artists, making any address of these roots unfinished without exhaustive exploration of the ways in which these roots have been claimed and shaped by white folks – from Lomax and Seeger to Paul Simon’s infamous Graceland controversy, Jayme Stone’s recent exploration of Gullah and other Caribbean sounds, and beyond.

But there are other ways, too, to celebrate the influence of Black America in the folkways. Today, in our first Single Song Sunday since our 2015 deconstruction of popular live performance encore The Weight, we tug at the roots of a particular story found in a broad panoply of songs: that of John Henry, a larger-than-life African American whose pride and persistence in the face of power and progress have come to represent the American spirit both within and beyond our shores.

john-henry-stampEthnographic evidence compiled by Guy Johnson and Louis Chappel through interviews in the 1920s trace the particulars of well-known folksong hero John Henry to the 1870s, where workers in the West Virginia Mountains dug the biggest tunnel job attempted by man up to that date. And although more recent historians have proposed other digs as more plausible, all share a basic narrative: a single man, the best of many African-American convict laborers in a world still healing after the end of the Civil War, pits himself against the newly-introduced steam drill in a contest of strength and willpower…and wins in the end, though it takes his last breath.

But the story above is no more or less true when Lomax places the the Old John trickster slave narrative at the heart of the song’s perpetual motion, nor when he notes, correctly, the melodic and lyrical similarities to tradtune The Lass Of Roch Royal in many versions of the song performed during his time. And it is certainly no more true than the abstract purpose of the song: to show the triumph of the underdog, of body and spirit through perseverance, and in doing so, iterate and reclaim those values which stir at the core of our identity as Americans.

Our myth comes to us wrapped around truth, in other words. And in the end, what matters isn’t whether it’s real, but whether it’s true. Like Johnny Appleseed and Paul Bunyan, the legend of John Henry lives in our hearts and bones: grounded in the real history of real human beings just a hair larger in life than their peers, conflated to serve the cultural need for heroes symbolic of the particular sort of stubborn pride and determination that moves mountains in the rich panoply of American mythology. Man vs. nature, man vs. technology, man vs. self, and man vs. society collapse into a single story. An American myth, if ever there was one.

And this is how, today, the song serves: as cultural approbation and fatalist’s morality tale, in which we may lose to our machines both political and real, but the indomitable human spirit prevails.

And as long as we are still in struggle, so must the song be sung.

john-henry-51A plethora of songs recast the myth of John Henry. The Ballad of John Henry, for example – a standard in its own right – turns the morality of Henry’s death into a cautionary tale, pushing listeners to guard their life against the urge to spend it for foreman and fate; a “hammer song”, it is generally slow, but not always.

Not all recastings are covers, either. Modern troubadours from Songs:Ohia and Cuff The Duke to Drive-By Truckers and Driftwood Soldier have built from the ground up, applying the storyline to new tunes and lyrics, moving history into their own more immediate surroundings.

But do a simple search online of “John Henry”, and it’s clear that despite the mutability of over a dozen verses and perhaps ten times as many lyrical variants, one tune – paced and performed rhythmically, heavy on bravado and dialogue, that celebrates the man as myth for his determination even in death – remains dominant, even flush in the various byways of the folkworld. It drifts up to us from the earliest folk recordings, where it stands as a fieldhand blues number howled out in slackstring scratchy voices, filtered and reformed in a myriad of subgenres, from Leadbelly to Bill Monroe, through Doc Watson and The Stanley Brothers, John Renbourne and John Fahey, via John Jackson, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, Van Ronk and Guthrie and back again. (It is even familiar as an instrumental, especially with banjo and fiddle a la John Hartford or dulcimer a la Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, though we’ll stick to the lyrical conceit today.)

Some favorites versions, then, of an old song, easy to play and sing, its renewed relevance ever on our tongues as we continue our fight against the machine. Join us as we flesh out a vast and varied set of and beyond the American range, from the high-intensity Appalachian bounce of The Mammals to The Downtown Shimmy’s harmonica-driven blues, from Snakefarm’s psychedelic funk to the frenetic energy of Del McCoury’s high tenor wail, from Chris Jones’ gospelgrass to French duo Lonesome Day’s slow walking blues, from Thomas Hellman’s chug-along Quebecois trainsong to the hoot and holler of new primitive Appalachian interpreter Lebo Jenkins, plus the neo-traditional feminist turn of Elizabeth LaPrelle, a deconstructed atmosphere from Daniel Dutton, and the regionally diverse and differentiated grit of American-and-beyond singer-songwriters and cultural ambassadors Eric Bibb, Willie Watson, Andrew Calhoun, Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, Tim O’Brien, and David Broad.

John Henry, Covered In Folk
A Single Song Sunday Mix

Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been exploring the ethnographic intersection of folkways and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, like, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the music flowing? Please, consider a contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all donors receive undying praise, and a special blogger-curated gift mixtape of over 50 well-loved but otherwise unshared covers from 2016-2017, including exclusive live covers from our very own Unity House Concert series.

1 comment » | Billy Bragg, Single Song Sunday, Tradfolk, Willie Watson

New Artists, Old Songs: from Indiefolk to Americana
with The Ahern Brothers, Gina Clowes, Kyle Carey & more!

So much wonderful new music has hit the radar screen since the turning of the year, it’s hard to know just where to begin. But another snow day here in New England offers a great opportunity to pass along the good stuff ringing in our ears, making for a lovely mix to accompany the soft quiet of falling flakes.

So join us by the fire as we run down some of our favorite new covertracks and their rising star sources – a global smorgasbord of tasty treats and treatments from the wide, wide spectrum of modern folk and acoustic music. Life has never sounded as good as it does here, now, today.

aherns2Thanks to Aussie folkblog Timber & Steel for celebrating fellow down-under harmony singing folk duo The Ahern Brothers and their smashing self-titled 2017 debut in their end-of-year wrap-up – and apologies for taking so long to get to their delightful cover of Ryan Adams’ Prisoner, a video-sourced ballad that simply soars with pure, atmospheric harmonies a la The Milk Carton Kids and The Everly Brothers. It’s hard to decide which we like best: the sparse sound of this and other acoustic duo performances typical of an album that Rolling Stone called “A mesmerising contemporary folk recording: restrained, pithy, and pure”, or the crisp, lighthearted Simon-and-Garfunkel-esque studio production that typifies catchy new singles “There’s A Light” and “Passing Through”. Lucky for us, we get both.

ginaFrequent forays into the world of musical theater have me running hot for any version of a song originally written for the stage – as long as it isn’t dripping with schmaltz, that is. But where many of the folk covers we featured in our 2013 feature on showtune covers stick to the ballad-or-bombast model which so typifies the average musical theater performance, bluegrass rising star Gina Clowes’ album-closing take on Beautiful Land, a curtain-opener from mid-sixties class-consciousness musical The Roar of the Greasepaint…The Smell of the Crowd made mildly popular by Nina Simone, is a true transformation, turning what had been a b-side into a complex yet truly American neo-traditional delight that fits perfectly among the originals on September 2017 debut album True Colors, a solid survey of what’s new at the progressive crossroads of acoustic swing, gypsy jazz, and bluegrass, featuring performances from fellow members of the “absurdly talented” Furtado family and more.

kylecCeltic crossroads artist Kyle Carey‘s brand new recording is no debut – the honor belongs to 2011 release Monongah, recorded in western Ireland and produced by Donogh Hennesy of the acoustic super-group Lùnasa. But The Art of Forgetting, her third outing and her first recorded on American soil, nonetheless represents something new: a fully realized work that combines her deep reclamation of her Gaelic roots with the rich panoply of sound that typifies the contemporary integration of pan-regional folkways, supported by Dirk Powell’s stunning production and cajun-flavored studio work, Louisiana’s Sam Broussard on guitar, Scotland’s John McCusker on fiddle, Nashville’s Kai Welch on trumpet, and the warm harmonies of crossover superstar Rhiannon Giddens on a reinvented Irish tradtune. Heavenly, and highly recommended.

polhuellouIn his introductory email, Breton-based “Japanese music specialist” Pol Huellou calls his new album The Lost Agenda “kind of a musical UFO”, and that’s not so far off: his French acoustic boogie-woogie big band take on Just A Gigolo, to take just one example, is unexpected every time it comes around, as is the gentle instrumental harp-and-flute traditional that follows it; though the latter is a closer exemplar of what happens when you mix the genre-straddling Celtic, Breton, and Asian influences that typify Huellou’s panoptic ouvre, there’s little here that could truly be called typical of anything, really.

It’s complex, and often challenging, but the mix works, thanks to a dazzling and diverse set of songs, sources, and artists featuring everything from oud, sanza, and banjo on instrumental Irish tradtune-turned-arabic-melody The Star of Co. Down to his jazz-fueled chanson-style rendition of a Marlene Dietrich standard to the funky world-beat of album-closing Armenian traditional song Let’s Blues It. We actually included Huellou’s mostly-Celtic Serge Gainsboro cover on our 56-track end-of-year bonus mix, an exclusive for donors who give to support the continued existence of Cover Lay Down, but everyone should hear it; here’s a pair of the aforementioned, more Bela Fleck meets Morocco than anything, for those who, like us, just can’t get enough.

casstIf we’ve got a lot less to say about Harmless Sparks – a Tel Aviv amateur side project presumably named after the David Bazan song – it’s because all we’ve got so far is one admittedly stunning cover. But according to Israeli musician Omri Levy, whose previous covers and originals date back over a decade, and who sent it to us exclusively “since I really love your blog”, their dreamy take on Alphaville’s Big In Japan, a mournful, electro-atmospheric lullaby that leaves us breathless and wanting for more, will join three others on a soon-to-be-released EP; watch their Bandcamp page for upcoming covers of The Cure, Cyndi Lauper, and My Favorite Things.

vlcoverWe’re not above touting music before official release here at Cover Lay Down, especially when it comes from Hearth Music, one of our very favorite sources for authentic Americana, Cajun, old-timey, countryfolk, and other decidedly regional subgenres. This month’s case in point: Time Is Everything, a Pledgemusic-driven debut from surprisingly young Lexington, VA roots artist Vivian Leva, won’t drop until early March, but we’ve spent the last several weeks reveling in the deeply masterful set it presents, and now we just can’t help but pass it along, with kudos for its maturity, the rich-and-tender countryfolk-to-contemporary production that forces Leva’s heady voice and potent songwriting forward, and a sweet way with a vocal that wrings hope and heartache from a stunning survey of sentiment deeply rooted in land, loneliness, and languid country life.

2017_Sarah_McQuaid_1_LRUK-based singer-songwriter Sarah McQuaid‘s fifth outing If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous, its title sparked by a warning uttered to her son as he excavated an enormous hole in their backyard, offers an appropriate whirlwind of languid musings on mortality and hubris, with a thick and well-trained alto reminiscent of Annie Lennox astride ringing electric guitar and piano from McQuaid and legendary musician Michael Chapman, who lends both studio flourishes and producing credits to the effort. In the end, it’s a powerful album that simply shimmers with nuance, observational depth, and despair, just out and already named one of the top ten of the week by The Alternate Root magazine, and sure to please fans of The Unthanks, Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell, and Tom Waits equally.

foxgloves-1LA-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumental vocalist Kristen Lynn is joined by The Foxgloves, a full fourpiece gypsy-jazz folk Americana band, on her second foray into the world of Kickstarter-funded projects, making Lonely Girl an easy fit for our diverse set today, with a haunting, sparse arrangement of Wild Mountain Thyme and a number of solid originals that romp and stomp. But it’s our very favorite cut so far that demands sharing today, an interesting experiment that really works: listen as You Are My Sunshine moves from the sweet and gentle to the dark and heady hullabaloo of a high-octane drumkick funeral rag, neatly nestling the true sentiment of the song in the shift from major to minor…and then head back in time to her 2012 debut LALA to hear it again, all sweetness and light.

Screen Shot 2018-02-07 at 2.21.58 PMLast but not at all least: we’re hereby declaring Old Freight, a fine debut from flatpicking singer-songwriter Alan Barnosky released last November, nothing less than a new folk essential – one that doesn’t so much gather in the various influences which make modern singer-songwriter folk work as it reduces and transcends them, laying claim to the one-man, one-song center of the tent with little more than six sharp strings and warm, twangy voice, offering fair comparison to both Norman Blake and Townes Van Zandt. Barnosky also plays in a bluegrass five piece and an acoustic trio in and around his native Durham, North Carolina, and he’s played stages at Merlefest, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and the IBMA’s Bluegrass Ramble. But as the timeless originals and sole traditional cover on this record amply demonstrate, sometimes, simple IS best.

Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been digging deep at the ethnographic intersection of folkways and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, like, donate, and follow us on Facebook for bonus tracks – including our Jan. 31 track-by-track covered-in-folk mix of Paul Simon’s Graceland album – and instant notice of new features, like a brand new Single Song Sunday feature due to drop this weekend. And above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

Comment » | New Artists Old Songs

Little Sparrow: A Cover Lay Down Mix


The sparrow: a symbol of fragility, and a semaphore for desperation and despair. In our case, though, the term is literal: the elderchild’s been rehabilitating one in a small cage in her room after finding it trapped in a coal grate in one of the coldest days of winter, its tailfeathers mostly missing, its mate picking at it in a vain attempt to startle it into freedom. It’s been there a month, and sometimes, I forget she has it.

But Saturday night, in a rare moment of hubris, she brought it downstairs to show our dinner guests, and suddenly, it sprang free. What followed was more reality television show than sitcom: two and a half hours of climbing up furniture and taking apart Ikea bookshelves, punctuated by frantic minutes chasing a tiny, terrified bird as it skimmed the ceiling from room to room, occasionally touching down on window dressings too high to reach, or diving into piles of boxes and wrapping paper, inviting us to uncover it time and again through intense intervention and careful disarray.

Eventually, we managed to chase it into the elderchild’s room, where the door could be closed, and the still-wobbly flier coaxed into its rehabilitative cage. And because we are who we are – easily exhausted, generally busy, prone to procrastination – today, the place remains a disaster: childhood photo albums piled high on the playroom daybed, the pantry undone, half the bookcase disassembled, pink screwdrivers and boxcutters scattered around it.

Our house is often messy. Our inner lives are, too. We are too easily goaded into self-celebration, and risk the sanctity of our service in the name of pride. But if this fragility is made of our own foibles, then we are wise to attend to it, indeed.

And so we turn to the songs of the sparrow. In the name of our children, and the fears we harbor within.

Little Sparrow: A Cover Lay Down Mix

Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been digging deep at the ethnographic intersection of folkways and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, like, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the music flowing? Please, consider a contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all donors receive undying praise, and a special blogger-curated gift mixtape of over 50 well-loved but otherwise unshared covers from 2016-2017, including exclusive live covers from our very own Unity House Concert series.

2 comments » | Mixtapes, William Fitzsimmons

Looking Forward: New Coverfolk for 2018
(Laurie MacAllister, Tracy Grammer, Heather Maloney, Low Lily & more!)

One of the great joys and privileges of being a music blogger is the access it grants us to pre-release content, usually via promoters and artists, months or weeks before it can be celebrated officially and out loud. But add this to our increased support of Kickstarter, Pledge Music, and other crowdsourcing platforms where rewards for supporting a pending release often include exclusive early access to that music in hardcopy, download, or stream, and we’ve got a conundrum: sometimes, the best of what we’re listening to can’t be shared yet.

It was hard not to spill the beans on these early 2018 releases before the new year turned over, in other words. But we’re thrilled to be here, today, to tout and celebrate that which has been pleasuring our hearts and ears for weeks. Join us as we foray into a set of new and impending coverage from artists we love, and have shared work from here before.

liespoetsDisclaimer: I once spent a hot, humid Sunday afternoon in a shady folk-festival tent hosting Red Molly co-founder Laurie MacAllister, drinking beer and brainstorming songs for the band to cover on their next album. None of them made the cut, but I’m still pushing for the trio – now gearing up for a Spring tour as the band promotes a set of new Pledgemusic-driven solo works from each member – to take on Marc Cohn’s second album, and some deeper cuts from Patty Griffin’s debut.

But MacAllister gets high honors for her own solo disc, an all-covers affair titled The Lies The Poets Tell, a Pledgemusic reward that arrived mid-December but does not officially drop for another week or two. Sumptuous in its arrangement and instrumentation, it’s high-production contemporary folk, and as such, it takes some songs, like Lucy Kaplansky’s Ten Year Night, a bit farther than I would have thought they needed to be taken – but in the end, every track counts, and that’s a rarity we’re thrilled to welcome. Overall, The Lies The Poets Tell is a gorgeous, intensely intimate translation of favorite songs and deep cuts from a veritable who’s who of the songwriter’s songwriter’s scene, including duets with the late great Jimmy LaFave, Mark Erelli, Ellis Paul, and Richard Shindell on a Richard Shindell song. Look for it in our Best of 2018, and find it as soon as you can.

0012075037_10Tracy Grammer‘s newest record is being touted as her first true-blue solo set, and technically, that’s right, as her ten previous works were either collaborations with Dave Carter, or posthumous recordings of his work. In many ways, it’s also clearly about time: Low Tide, now available and streaming in full at Folk Alley, represents a strong next step for Grammer’s independent voice as a songwriter, with potent songcraft that reflects the tender and stubborn heart that got her here, and a way with words and images that doesn’t so much transcend the legacy of her earlier work as it marks the beginning of a new path to glory. A bold and beautiful collection, the album is equally high-production, thanks to strong Kickstarter support, Signature Sounds stalwart Mark Thayer’s strong hand in play as engineer, and Lorne Entress and Jim Henry as studio sidemen; its single cover, a reinvention of Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting, is both a perfect fit for the disc, and an essential teaser for a career blooming anew.

a1654650411_16We last saw local hero Heather Maloney on these pages alongside Darlingside, thanks to a split-bill EP that saw them matching wits and voices on Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock and more. The New England native’s newest EP has been listed on Bandcamp for a while, but the tracks just dropped yesterday, and we’re glad: the originals here, including straight-to-single album-opener Let Me Stay, are warm and delightful, with smart, sincere, and sassy lyrics; the closing cover is sparse and straightforward, emotionally rich and acoustically intimate, a coda for something wonderful and new.

unnamed (1)Looking farther ahead is a risk, of sorts – run the buzz out too early, and by the time a record hits, you may have forgotten about it. But although Low Lily’s newest album 10,000 Days Like These won’t hit the streets for a while yet, as Indiegogo supporters, we found the tracks in our mailbag earlier this week, and we’ve had the album on replay every day since, thanks to catchy, complex melodies, lovely harmonies, and some of the best fiddle-and-strum on the folkscene today. As coverhounds, we’re especially excited by two tracks in particular: covers of a Gillian Welch barnburner and a Dire Straits ballad which bring studio prowess and the precision of three masterful multi-instrumentalists to songs we’ve heard before in live session in our very own Unity House Concerts, and would cherish in any venue or medium. Preorder now, and hear the glory for yourself.

a1437275302_16Finally, Cover Me picked one of the earliest tracks off new Mountain Goats curated covers album I Only Listen To The Mountain Goats for it’s honorable mentions list at the end of 2017. But the one-per-podcast, track-by-track trickle-down tribute to Mountain Goats album All Hail West Texas isn’t finished, and the hits keep coming, even as we wait for the album to officially release upon completion in April. It’s been a long time since we heard from Erin McKeown, but this is a great indicator that she’s still got it, with a little more indiepop flair and all the usual swing. Eliza Rickman and Jherek Bischoff’s sharp chamberpop are worth the earworm. Even unfinished, with Carrie Elkin and Andrew Bird still waiting in the wings, the collection is already a strong contender for best mixed-genre tribute album of 2018.

Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been digging deep at the ethnographic intersection of folkways and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, like, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the music flowing? Please, consider a contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all donors receive undying praise, and a special blogger-curated gift mixtape of over 50 well-loved but otherwise unshared covers from 2016-2017, including the live versions of Low Lily covers mentioned above, and more exclusive live covers from our very own Unity House Concert series.

1 comment » | Dave Carter, Heather Maloney, Red Molly, Tributes and Cover Compilations

Born At The Right Time:
A Cover Lay Down Birthday Mix

baby feet

I was born on Superbowl Sunday 1973, in a hospital just outside Atlanta; apocryphally, the doctor praised my mother for completing her labor just in time for kickoff. It would be another decade before Ronald Reagan signed Martin Luther King Jr. Day into law, tying my birth to King’s, and in the process making my birthday weekend a bank holiday, and – as I have become a teacher by trade – a long weekend ripe for pensiveness.

Now I’m 45, and in many ways, I’m still finding my footing. It’s not impostor syndrome – I’m good at what I do, own my faults and habits, and work hard to do it well every day. I teach my students that life is greater with a sense of grown and growing capacity, and a honed-to-instinct sense of how and what to offer in a given situation, and I practice what I preach. But I’ve learned to embrace the moment, too: to watch, and be watchful, knowing that to account for ground conditions quickly, and adapt accordingly, is built on a foundation of trust that there is a place for me in the things to come, so that we can find it, and serve therein.

I’m not a fatalist. I’m not one of those folks that believes in destiny. I’m not sure if I was born for anything, particularly. But I do believe that the world has given me much, and I owe it the best of what I have to give. And it is this sense of grateful obligation, more than anything, that fuels my days and my choices, pushing me towards mindful motion, even on days such as this, when the cold comes, and – for a moment, at least – we have time for reflection.

So come, celebrate with me the possibility of birth and being with this haphazard mix: in honor of Reverend Doctor King, and of my own birth, and of yours, too, in an era where social justice is both needful and named. We were born for this, whatever this is. How wonderful it is to share this path together, today and in the days to come, as we work to build the world anew.

Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been digging deep at the ethnographic intersection of folkways and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, like, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the music flowing? Please, consider a contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all donors receive undying praise, and a special blogger-curated gift mixtape of over 50 well-loved but otherwise unshared covers from 2016-2017, including exclusive live covers from our very own Unity House Concert series.

2 comments » | Mixtapes

The Year’s Best Coverfolk Singles (2017)
A-sides, b-sides, deep cuts, one-shots and more!

Screen Shot 2018-01-04 at 12.59.58 PM

We’re later that usual this year with our annual singles mix, but it’s not for lack of trying. For several weeks, behind the scenes, we’ve been involved in the process of sifting and surveying, mining bookmarks, tags, and the archives for this year’s best coverfolk.

It’s a joyful process. Heartbreaking, sometimes, but always joyful, too. And if we’ve rediscovered anything, it’s that great music demands listening to.

Through Christmas and the long, slow days afterwards, the conversation among us – future and past – that the resurrected and reformulated song represents served its purpose, leaving us breathless at the scope of it all, and the sheer diversity. And in the end, we emerged refreshed, reinvigorated, and triumphant with yet another 52 track mix – one for every week gone by, and as last year, a whisper in the wings of what wonders are to come.

Now it’s snowing here, and the hiss of the falling snow and the whine of the pellet stove mask the tinnitus perfectly. The children are sleeping, and will be for hours; in the corner, the tree slowly settles as it dries, branch and bauble slowly bending towards the floor. Those of us on the East Coast, at least, hunker down against a growing storm, the first of a new year, taking comfort in the fact that we are here, together, safe and ready, and sure of reinforcements.

So, take a long afternoon and shuffle through the mix with us. Savor the delight and despair, the raucous and the resonant: our subjective best of the realm that is folk, and the vast diversity of sources reinvented for our pleasure; each reinvention a gem, borne up against the world-that-is like a torch; each burning performance exquisite, and beautiful in its own way.

Download it all, that the songs might linger, and bear repeating. And if you like what you hear, follow the links, as always, to purchase and share your own favorites, the better to keep the music and the music-making going for our children, and theirs.

The Year’s Best Coverfolk Singles (2017)
A Cover Lay Down mixtape

Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been digging deep at the ethnographic intersection of folkways and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, like, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the music flowing? Please, consider a year’s end contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all donors receive undying praise, and a special blogger-curated gift mixtape of well-loved but otherwise unshared covers from 2016-2017, including exclusive live covers from our very own Unity House Concert series.

Comment » | Best of 2017, Mixtapes

The Year’s Best Coverfolk Videos (2017)
Living room covers, live cuts, in-studio sessions & more!


By its very nature, the cover celebrates iteration over song. And our Year’s Best Coverfolk Videos collection was originally envisioned as a way to acknowledge that, by celebrating in their “native medium” those performances which truly lose something essential when what we see is separated out from what we hear – an approach which favors live and in-studio performances over produced videographic content, and generally eschews the promotional post-recording “music video”.

How we celebrate this specific source and its coverfolk has come in and out of fashion here at Cover Lay Down, growing from a single category in our Year’s Best Coverfolk Albums features as recently as 2013 to a two-parter, with separate features for our top Coverfolk Video Singles and The best cover sessions, sets, and series, in 2015. This year, any attempt to commodify just “the native ones” is further complicated by the facts that a) we’re much later than usual, and b) despite previous-year concern that stripping the visuals from these multimedia texts potentially undermines their in-the-moment intent, we did it several times this year, most often in service to themed features where the startling-yet-intimate eye-candy atmosphere of a video might interrupt or even overwhelm the tonal focus of the writing itself.

In turn, although we tried to stick to those which stood on their own as audio-only, our trend towards flattening videos into Mp3s seems driven by a prioritization of the personal over the critical here on the blog as life grows ever more complicated, and what was once a twice weekly behemoth has become a less frequent but – we hope – in many ways a more deep ethnographic exploration of the ways in which the folkways influences both artists, and us. But this, too, is not so much a problem as an artifact of what we do, exactly: to live as a coverblogger is, after all, to embody the give-and-take ownership between artist and listener, both on a mass scale and on a very personal one.

Call it an artifact of context over convenience, then. Although a few performances we originally discovered on video (including great cuts from YouTube-to-TV stars Holly Henry and Janet Devlin, frequent-flyer and indie-slash-electrofolk genre-crosser Nataly Dawn, a lovely series of 10 covers of Canadian artists presented in honor of Canada’s 150th anniversary by Bailey Pelkman, and a wonderful Outkast cover from vocal popgroup Pentatonix’ departed bass-man, all of whom will appear in our Best Singles Mix) do in the end stand up just fine as audio-only cuts, we still believe that, in the ideal sense, the very design of at least some subsection of the vast array of ‘tube-sourced recordings that populate the sharing sites beg to be experienced in their native medium. For now, anyway, and for this year.

And so – while we finish curating our Best Coverfolk Singles Mixtape of 2017 (which we intend to release soon!), and wait for the last guests to wake up, eat breakfast, and depart from for our annual early-bird New Years party – Cover Lay Down proudly presents our very subjective favorite videographic performances of 2017, an amalgamated mix of 13 favorite singles and coverset selections. Enjoy, and Happy New Year!

The Year’s Best Coverfolk Videos, 2017

Kina Grannis: When You Come Back Down (orig. Nickel Creek)

Kina Grannis is welcome and well-celebrated here on Cover Lay Down; she was one of the very first YouTube stars, and one of our first YouTube discoveries. But Grannis has been on fire this year, releasing a mix of sparklingly well-produced single-shot video covers that trend towards the polar ends of coverage, the undone and the redone: this year’s gems include stripped-down recasts of rap and pop tracks such as Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise, Jimmy Eat World’s In The Middle, and Khalid’s Young Dumb & Broke, and softer folk and indie sources such as Bob Dylan (Blowin’ In The Wind), Etta James (At Last), and Sting (Fields of Gold), which, although closer in tenderness to the originals, nonetheless leave us breathless. Here, in her final cover of the year, she takes on our favorite Nickel Creek song, joyfully and with eyes half-closed, as always – and we’re glad, indeed, that she knows it, and has the chops to do it so well.

Passenger: A Change Is Gonna Come (orig. Sam Cooke)

The thirteen coversongs that comprised Passenger‘s Sunday Night Sessions – a set of video occasionals, with takes on Van Morrison, The Rolling Stones, Tracy Chapman, Bill Withers, Don McLean, Joy Division and more, recorded and filmed on location as the artist and his band toured the world – comprise a would-be hands-down favorite this year in our annual look at the single-artist cover series. The songs have since been recast and released as a ten-track streaming-only covers album, and it was mighty tempting, indeed, to include the album in our Best Coverfolk Albums rundown earlier this week – but the site-specific energy of these covers are so potent an addition to their musicality, in the end, we saved them for fuller feature here.

Tallest Man On Earth: Both Sides Now (orig. Joni Mitchell)

The Light in Demos is a pensive and deeply personal acoustic video project after our own heart, produced, written, directed, recorded, shot and edited entirely by Swedish artist Saras Per Kristian Matsson, also known as The Tallest Man on Earth. Eight songs in, the set includes six reworked and unfinished originals which bring new life and resonance to the growing search and songbook of one of our favorite musical explorers, and two covers: A Nick Drake familiarity, and this, “the best song in the world”, performed barefoot and with ringing reverb that brings a layer of stillness and eternity to both song and setting.

Twisted Pine: Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds (orig. The Beatles)

Announced just last week as recipients of one of Club Passim’s newest Iguana Music Fund grant recipients, Boston-based production-house Red Line Roots’ Old Spruce Sessions are recorded largely in found spaces, in off-stage moments borrowed from touring artists. Unlike their previously-celebrated Locals Cover Locals collections, a Bandcamp-sourced product chock full of predominantly singer-songwriter and small folk duo-and-trio performances, their video series is heavy on the earthy and organic, chock full of bluegrass and old-timey stuff; lo-fi delights worth celebration include a multitude of up-and-coming artists’ originals, Billy Strings’ backstage take on Cocaine Blues, and two Beatles covers: a gentle take on Norwegian Wood filmed in the attic of a rural Vermont town hall, and this tense, terrific wonder from deconstructed bluegrass quartet Twisted Pine, recorded in the fields of this year’s Green River Festival.

Darlingside: 1979 (orig. Smashing Pumpkins)

We’ve shared versions of this cover before. And we’ve loved video of it, too, such as this 2015 Kitchen Sessions performance, which arguably maintains a bit more in-the-moment fast-paced energy. But this one is balanced and pristine – the perfect, grungy-yet-polished final cut we’ve been waiting for since we first heard Darlingside’s arrangement of this Smashing Pumpkins tune raw and barely rehearsed in the fields of Falcon Ridge, where we first discovered the band, perhaps the perfect ambassadors for what well may be the newest branch of folk. Subscribe to Under The Apple Tree for more strong video coverage, too, including a potent full-band posthumous cover of Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’ from Robert Vincent, a slow and gorgeous three-part harmony take on Dolly Parton’s Jolene, and a beautiful live take on Dire Straits tune Brothers In Arms from Xander & the Peace Pirates which almost, almost, took the place of the above.

Walk Off The Earth: Shape Of You (orig. Ed Sheeran)

Though they’re more an acoustic rock band than a folk act, the cheerful, playful work of Hawaiian video project Walk Off The Earth, whose work is almost always designed to be seen as much as heard, has thrilled us before – see, for example, their lovely cardboard video for Malvina Reynolds song Little Boxes, which we raved about five years ago, and last year’s sunny version of The Chainsmokers’ Closer. This year, tightly choreographed, highly percussive and energetic performances continued to be the norm, and along with a campfire tribute to Tom Petty, this Ed Sheeran earworm is one of their best. With over twelve million views on YouTube already, you’ve probably heard it before – but it’s catchy, gleeful, and worth hearing again.

Katie Ferrara: Tangerine (orig. Led Zeppelin)

We featured LA busker and bar-singer Katie Ferrara back in July, celebrating her “convertible-top-down folk-pop powerhouse” EP with “a well-produced, subtly sensational, and eminently summery doozy of a Creedence cover” that matched in-studio recording shots with dreamy images and video from a recent flight from Miami. But there’s something lovely and intimate about Ferrara’s new Lemon Cat cover sessions, appropriately filmed against a yellow background, and all from December. Click through for more, including an electric take on Bob Marley’s Turn Your Lights Down Low, and – as if to justify our late entry into the universe of 2017 – her sultry version of Aerosmith’s Crazy.

Jeffrey Foucault: Senor (Tales of Yankee Power) (orig. Bob Dylan)

Like a few others on this year’s Best Videos list, we shared this cut first via our Facebook page – in this case, way back in February, along with another of Jeffrey Foucault’s political covers, originally by Danny O’Keefe by way of Chris Smither, which seems to exist only on the etherial social space, and thus confounds our ability to embed it here. But these stark, faceless, sepia-toned videos from the current champion of dustbowl despair ache with angst and anger, offering perfect settings for the songs themselves. They still haunt us, and they should.

Mark Broussard: Sweet Baby James (orig. James Taylor)

A slow-release February-into-March mostly-covers session with his father Ted playing alongside him converted us, instantly, into fans of the soulful Marc Broussard – and sent us scrambling to collect the entire set, including their takes on Do Right Woman, Do Right Man, Loggins and Messina classic House at Pooh Corner, and a slam-dunk version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow dedicated to a very special lost soul. Simple yet nuanced, this bluesfolk is bare and bare-bones, as it should be….and should Broussard decide, after all, to record a for-charity children’s lullaby album, we’ll be one of the first in line to help push it into the world.

Rus Reppert: Fly Like An Eagle (orig. Steve Miller)

It’s dark, and cavernous – like the deserted warehouse in which it was filmed – and maybe that’s the point. And it’s a loop cover – which, for the uninitiated, means it’s built live from the ground up, just one man and a solo guitar, and a set of pedals to control it all. For all these reasons and more, this December-filmed, February-released Steve Miller cover from West Virginia songwriter Rus Reppert absolutely, positively belongs here on our Best Videos collection; strip the visuals, and you’d lose both the darkness and the intimate immediacy of it all. Follow the threads, too, to Candyrat Records, which is chock full of utterly stunning live acoustic fingerstyle covers and originals, most without lyrics.

Upstate Rubdown: I’m Looking Through You (orig. The Beatles)

We made some wonderful new discoveries and a host of great memories at Falcon Ridge Folk Festival this year, but it was hard not to love Upstate Rubdown, a down-to-earth all-acoustic “big band” from New York’s Hudson Valley region whose music fuses folk, roots, funk, swing, and more, and every performance is a party and a half. We named this video one of our Year’s Best the moment we found it, and we don’t regret the early call one bit.

I’m With Her: Send My Love (To Your New Lover) (orig. Adele)

This bass-and-vox cover from indiefolk supergroup I’m With Her, recorded live on their American Acoustic tour over the summer, was released “on all streaming/downloading apps” as a benefit recording for Thistle Farms, a Nashville-based nonprofit that heals, empowers and employs survivors of trafficking, prostitution and addiction. Switch out the video, though, and you’d miss both the intimacy of the performance, and the way the high, stark contrast of black dresses and blond wood stage reflects this every-note-counts homage to Adele.

The Sea The Sea: I’ll Keep It With Mine (orig. Bob Dylan)

A transformed Dylan tune filmed and recorded live mid-year by way of introduction to old friends (and now married couple) Chuck and Mira’s newly expanded foursome, still playing under the The Sea, The Sea moniker. A tight, controlled percussive sound and lush vocals that nonetheless retain the careful and sparse arrangements typical of their performance. After this fishbowl fantasy – and a lovely tree-side Concert Window session of holiday songs and carols that filled our own living room the night we brought our own tree home – we’re looking to have them back to our Unity House Series as soon as we can find a date.

Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been digging deep at the ethnographic intersection of folkways and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, like, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the music flowing? Please, consider a year’s end contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all donors receive undying praise, and a special blogger-curated gift mixtape of well-loved but otherwise unshared covers from 2016-2017, including exclusive live covers from our very own Unity House Concert series.

Comment » | Aoife O'Donovan, Best of 2017, Darlingside, Ed Sheeran, James Taylor, Jeffrey Foucault, Kina Grannis, Passenger, The Sea The Sea, YouTube

The Year’s Best Coverfolk Albums (2017)
Tributes, Tradfolk, Compilations & more!

Every year at around this time I take a moment to reconsider: both how we do this, and whether to do it at all.

But although the folkgenres are slippery, and the question of what and what is not folk enough for the blog continues to elude clear delineation, there is still this love inside me: for the way a song recreated can tie together the memory, the culture, the heart, and the mind. It’s like a form of meditation, an approach to wholeness. The urge remains.

And so, here we are, at year’s end again, sifting through a year of that aching in the chest, the surge of joy and gladness, the still moment by the hearth or in the sun, that sudden song on the radio that hits you so hard you have to pull over, panting and sobbing, into the nearest grassy patch, and just feel.

Which is to say: it was a wonderful year for coverage, if not always for blogging it. The soundtrack of our struggles and sorrows, our travels and triumphs, was spiked with hope and beauty, empathy and grace. And coming back to it at year’s end again brings closure, of a sorts, even as it reminds us to keep our love near and dear, and cherish that which has made us, and will make us whole once again, lest it fade into the night, and be lost to the world.

And so we embrace the pensive purpose of Winter by sharing with the world our wholly subjective pleasures, once again carefully curated and celebrated, the better to bring the community closer, and the music more sustainable.

From the smooth to the ragged, then. From the delicate to the deep. From the bringers of light to the media of our melancholy; from the hoot and holler to the hushed and harmonic. From all corners of the broad tent that spans the folkways, shading it from the harshest of weather and whim.

Cover Lay Down is proud to present our Best Of The Year, starting with our very favorite folk, roots, bluegrass and Americana tribute albums and covers compilations of 2017 – with thirty five albums and over fifty songs in all, and all beloved. May your winter, too, be filled with the light of a year gone by.

The Year’s Best Covers Album (single artist)
+ The Wailin’ Jennys, Fifteen
+ Mark Erelli, MIXTAPE!

+ The Sumner Brothers, To Elliot: In Remembrance of Wolf
+ Misner & Smith, Headwaters
+ Travis Knapp, Wintery Mix 2018
+ Ane Brun, Leave Me Breathless
+ Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer, Not Dark Yet
+ Eric Brace, Cartes Postales

It’s nice to see familiar faces atop this year’s solo artist list. Reassuring, too, to recognize that though their sounds are distinctive in every case, all six of the artists whose covers albums lingered longest and – as a consequence -
were loved most here at Cover Lay Down in 2017 define themselves as folk in one way or another.

But after winnowing down past a strong field of honorable mentions, our final solo-artist Best Covers Albums list for 2017 is also notable in that it is representative, in its way, of the two separate threads which intersect here at Cover Lay Down. For in just four albums, we find both the vast breadth and diversity of contemporary folk – itself a mode or subgenre hard to define – and a pitch-perfect spread of the various approaches to considering source material in choosing coverage for the covers album, most especially as an increasingly de rigueur mid-career movement in the artistic community.

Call it a tie for first, then. On the one hand, The Wailin’ Jennys, still at the very peak of their sound fifteen years after their founding (and five since we featured their coverage in full): a deliberately lush, gentle, sweetly arranged trio of voices in tender treatment of well-beloved sadsongs, celebrations, and ballads from Patty Griffin, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, and other beloved songwriters of the folk-and-beyond community. On the other, local hero and Americana troubadour Mark Erelli, whose Kickstarter we celebrated a few months ago, wringing raw, almost primal soul from Mixtape, his thirteenth outing, an oddly comforting spread of popular songs from Richard Thompson to Phil Collins rebuilt from the inside out – technically not fully released until mid-January, but easy to preorder, and too amazing to hold back on now. Taken as ethnographic mile markers, they offer a field tender and intimate, triumphant and torn: albums to take us anywhere, and back.

A strong second this year goes to another surprisingly representative pairing from a slightly younger generation which also matches slow and broken with upbeat precision. First, Headwaters, the fifth album from California duo Misner & Smith, and their first covers compilation; a homespun collection that finds Sam and Megan, a pair of actors-turned-folk rock/Americana band, yawing wide as they bring diverse songs and influences from The Talking Heads and Dr. Dog to Gram Parsons and The Lovin’ Spoonful into their own sharp and distinctive harmonic register. Alongside it: Vancouver alt-folk band The Sumner Brothers, whose traded vocals drip with Van Zandt heroin and dust as they meander through a host of slower alt-country songs on To Elliot: In Remembrance of Wolf, wringing hoarse depth and angst from Springsteen’s ghosts, Warren Zevon’s western saloon town, Hank Williams’ morose guitar, Jolie Holland’s timeless bluesfolk, and more. Both Headwaters and To Elliot are short – just 8 tracks – but cohesive, easily transcending the brevity of the EP format, providing a full and immersive experience for new listeners and long-time fans the respective duos.

And those honorable mentions? Almost too many to mention – it was, in the end, a banner year for coverage. Favorites include wonderful albums from Travis Knapp (whose tenth annual Wintery Mix, released just last week, offers a perfectly imperfect collection of bedroom folk covers of Anais Mitchell, Marc Cohn, Amos Lee, Chris Stapleton and more, on piano, banjo, and guitar), Ane Brun (whose Leave Me Breathless does, with a dreamy folkpop vibe that fans will find both comforting and crystal clear), Eric Brace (whose Cartes Postales, released last month on Red Beet Records, is a fun, jazzy, squeezebox-and-clarinet driven croissant of a tribute to the French-language favorites of his father’s generation) and Allison Moorer and Shelby Lynne (some of whose slippery country fried rockers, like the hard-edged Nirvana classic Lithium, hardly count as folk, though overall, Not Dark Yet – the first collaboration between these siblings – is a true-blue delight). Ah, such riches.

The Year’s Best Covers EP (single artist)
+ Genevieve Racette, Covers
+ Erin Drews, Caught, Kept
+ Mia Mallet, Chapter One / Chapter Two
+ The Chinworth Brothers, Six Songs
+ RM Hubbert, Recovery (EP1)
+ AJ Lee, Aj Lee

Sometimes, simple is best. Take, for example, Caught, Kept, a precious four-track released way back in February from Minnesotan amateur Erin Drews – a perfect teaser for her full album of originals, released in May – which captured our heart and ears with throaty voice, etherial harmonies, and the gentle strum of the singer-songwriter diamond in the rough. Or Montreal-based Genevieve Racette’s pitch-perfect transformations of Bonnie Raitt and Nirvana, Dylan and The Beatles, hushed and lush, tense and true, with sparse synths over floating indie guitar and sweet, supple voice. Or Parisian songstress Mia Mallet’s two tiny, gorgeous, hollow lo-fi covers EPs, with their ringing piano and airy, layered voices that leave us weak.

If it was, as they say, a very good year for the shortform covers collection, it was thanks primarily to a spate of independent Bandcamp sets like these, from a host of bright rising stars, previously undiscovered. Like The Chinworth Brothers, who turned in a six song powerhouse, split evenly among soaring-yet-earnest traditionals and startlingly non-traditional indiefolk-and-more treatments of Elliott Smith, Phil Ochs, and Sashatchewan singer-songwriter Andy Shauf. Or Glaswegian RM Hubbert’s “sincere and melancholic” EP Recovery, a broken, rusted artifact from the anti-folk junkyard which broods its way into our psyche.

In the end, of all these amateur and truly indie tiny loves, it is Racette’s Covers that edges out ever so slightly over the rest – if only for the diversity of sound it packs in so tight a space, and the poise it manages to maintain between pristine and purposeful as it takes on the small canon. But all of these small albums deserve our respect and celebration, nonetheless.

Still, let us not forget, at least in passing, our one exception to the Bandcamp trend this year: young California bluegrass breakthrough AJ Lee’s self-titled EP, an eagerly awaited delight “paying tribute to…the founding voices of [the] California cosmic country sound” via songs by Gram Parsons, Merle Haggard, Gillian Welch, and Bob Dylan which arrived in hard copy. Tight and highly produced alongside a four-piece band, the songs evoke the rich summery sound of the originals, with perfect Grateful Dead vibe and harmonies on Herb Pedersen’s Wait A Minute the crowning glory of a still-growing career. A rich field, indeed – like folk, and like the songs it brings together.

The Year’s Best Covers Compilation (multiple artists)
+ Burst And Bloom 50
+ Sad! A Barsuk Records Compilation for the ACLU

As has sometimes been the case – see, for example, last year’s Best Of collections, which featured covers albums from Fast Folk, tribute-house American Laundromat Records, and a third iteration of Locals Covering Locals from production house Red Line Roots – digital-only label-driven navel-gazing held sway in the world of mixed-bag covers compilations again this year, a trend which pushes the boundaries of our focus on folk, and on the very concept of album. We say this not to denigrate the category – there’s much to celebrate here – but mainly to warn those lulled into a sense of delicacy by the previous category winners that folk is a wider tent, and the alternative crowd is where the labels often live and breathe great coverage.

Enter exhibit A: Burst and Bloom, a small, independent record label and book publisher based in the increasingly hip seaside town of Portsmouth, NH, which came out of nowhere this year to blow us away. We’ll see more of their loving curatorial work in our Best Tribute Albums below, too, thanks to a 2 CD tribute to Brown Bird. But here, in our compendium of mixed-artist covers albums, it is Burst & Bloom 50, a loving tribute to the label’s own roster in celebration of their fiftieth release, which nets our highest honors, as a stunning, raw gem, with 25 covers, no more than one per original record, comprising a discomforting set which vibrates on the edge of freakfolk, alternative grunge, and other underground sounds associated with but not always squarely under the folktent.

And who cares if we don’t know the originals or recognize most of the original artists? The Burst & Bloom collection serves its purpose, sending us into the back catalog, starting with 2009 release ‘All My Friends Are Right Here With Me’, a CD compilation of fringefolk artists covering songs by the indie-folk collective Tiger Saw, 2012′s Lucky Numbers, a tribute to indie DIY rock and soul legend Viking Moses, who has toured with Jason Molina, Phosphorescent, and Devendra Banhardt, and of course Through The Static and Distance, their marvelous 2015 posthumous tribute to Jason Molina.

Barsuk’s smaller collection Sad!, a glitchy 7 song indie-slash-alt-folk collection spearheaded by Mates of State, David Bazan, Nada Surf, and Maps & Atlases covering fellow labelmates John Vanderslice, Pedro The Lion, Death Cab For Cutie, Ra Ra Riot, and more, comes up roses, too – both for its strong musicality, and its unabashedly political bent, arriving as it did on the eve of a new presidential ascension, with all work donated by the artists in solidarity, and all proceeds from the dollar-a-track release going to support the ACLU ” in defense of the civil liberties of all Americans”.

The Year’s Best Tribute Album (single artist)
+ Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Best Troubadour
+ Old Crow Medicine Show, 50 Years of Blonde On Blonde

In a year where long-awaited Dylan tributes from Joan Osborne and Old Crow Medicine Show ran closer to sultry radiopop and R&B and brash twangy roadhouse country rock than folk, respectively, it was hard to figure out whether we should collapse the single artist tribute album category or simply let it go. A sigh of relief and a tip of the hat, then, to indiefolk maverick Bonnie “Prince” Billy, whose usually broken voice is surprisingly melodic and aptly troubled on his category-saving Merle Haggard tribute Best Troubador, a May 2017 release which flew under our radar for months before earworming its way in via an unexpected encounter with radioplay late at night on a fleeting local college station.

It’s a thread we’re glad to have pulled. Regular readers may note that we have long had a love-hate relationship with the artist formerly and sometimes also known as Will Oldham, though we did name his last tribute album, a tribute to the Everly Brothers recorded with Dawn McCarthy, atop this same category in 2013. But this collection is redemptive, with guest vocalist A.J. Roach, fiddler Cheyenne Mize, and singer and flautist Nuala Kennedy, and other underground luminaries lending their talents to a fitting tribute to a lost soul whose earnest honesty and iconoclastic outlook have, clearly, deeply influenced Oldham’s approach to music and the universe. The Bonnie “Prince” gets full marks for an especially intimate tribute to both Haggard himself, and to the ache of the country.

The Year’s Best Tribute Album (multiple artists)
+ Cover Stories: Brandi Carlile Celebrates 10 Years of the Story
+ A Light I Can Feel: A Tribute To Brown Bird
+ Treasures of the Broken Land: The Songs of Mark Heard

The multi-artist tribute album is so often imperfect. Even our favorite homages generally have a weak spot: a track or two to skip as well-intentioned artists and songbooks find their mismatch. The potential for trouble doubles down when artists have the sheer unadulterated chutzpah to take on recreation of a seminal album, such as Brandi Carlile’s 2007 release The Story; it triples when it is the original songwriter herself who solicits and curates the album. And surely, it’s pushing our luck to name an album featuring both Pearl Jam and Adele as a folk tribute, let alone our favorite multi-artist tribute of the year.

And yet. Adele performing Brandi Carlile’s Hiding My Heart with nothing but solo acoustic guitar is folk, for sure. The Avett Brothers, the Indigo Girls, Shovels & Rope, Old Crow Medicine Show and Dolly Parton turn in stellar performances. The Secret Sisters are now our new favorite female duo. Cover Stories: Brandi Carlile Celebrates 10 Years of the Story shouldn’t work, at all, but in the end, the syrup of Kris Kristofferson, the psychedelic jam of Jim James, and the fully typical fuzz of Pearl Jam are anomalies on what is otherwise a strong survey of modern Americana and Roots performance. And Brandi Carlile earns our respect over again, over a decade after we first fell in love with her – and then once again, for using this album to highlight the plight of children in war-torn regions of the world.

A close second, as noted earlier, comes by way of A Light I Can Feel, a tribute from label Burst & Bloom that simply overflows with warm friendship and respect for beloved RI-based folk duo Brown Bird, whose co-founder David Lamb passed from leukemia in 2014. Originally conceived of as a fundraising venue for Lamb’s treatment, the sprawling 32 track tribute was released posthumously in March, with proceeds to benefit others through the Sweet Relief charity organization, and “to continue to share the music of Brown Bird with the world.” Chock full of raw performances, each mesmerizing in its way, the album pulls off what it aims to, and more: a triumph of scale, and a tender homage.

Third place honors go to the predominantly country side of folk represented on Treasure of the Broken Land: The Songs of Mark Heard – not the first such folk tribute to Mark Heard, but the first in 20 years, which explains just how many newcomers appear on the album. Like previous folk tributes to this undersung, unabashedly Christian singer-songwriter who passed from an on-stage heart attack in 1992 on the cusp of greater glory, this collection offers both Buddy Miller and a mixed bag of good-to-great performances of a songbook cut short, predominantly gathered from Heard’s final three releases, with the worst suffering from a touch of the same overproduction that typified their original contemporary folk radioplay era. Still, with strong coverage by Birds of Chicago, Sean Rowe, Amy Helm, Sierra Hull, Over The Rhine and more, the collection is worth pursuit and ownership.

The Year’s Best Tradfolk Album
+ Max Godfrey, Before The Ice Melts
+ Offa Rex, Queen Of Hearts
+ Nathan Lewis Williams, Across The Water
+ Lindsay Straw, The Fairest Flower of Womankind
+ Jayme Stone, Jayme Stone’s Folklife
+ Alathea, His Eye Is On The Sparrow
+ Ranky Tanky, Ranky Tanky

As both the year’s archives and the huge list above anticipate, it was, in many ways, a gold standard year for traditional folk recordings from across the globe, from the Gullah strains of newly-formed jazz-meets-roots quintet Ranky Tanky (featured back in July, in anticipation of its well-celebrated September release) to The Decemberists and Olivia Chaney, collaborating together as Offa Rex, in a faithful but still sweet retro turn on the UK tradfolk canon, as channeled and strained through both the arrangements and the influence of the “genre heavyweights” of 60′s folk and rock revivalists Martin Carthy, Ewan MacColl, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Colin Meloy fave Shirley Collins, and more, with clear echoes of Maddy Prior, June Tabor, and Sandy Denny in the mix thanks to powerful, nuanced vocals from Chaney.

But in the end, if I prefer the polished quietude of the canon, why, here were joys enough for days: delicate, broken balladry selected and arranged to emphasize lyrical gender empowerment by Iguana Fund recipient and local hero Lindsay Straw, whom I very much hope to catch live at this year’s Boston Celtic Music Fest towards the end of January; the soft, almost faerie-found strains of Glastonbury’s Nathan Lewis Williams and Caelia Lunniss; Jayme Stone’s next generation Folklife album, a follow-up to his 2015 Lomax project, which sees the bandleader and archive revivalist taking on a wider swath of cultural catechism alongside Moira Smiley of tune-yArDs, Dom Flemons of Carolina Chocolate Drops), Felicity Williams of Bahamas, and more luminaries on a musical journey through the Appalachians, the Sea Islands and the Caribbean; Christian folk duo Alathea’s His Eye Is On The Sparrow, a bright, often boisterous crowdsourced collection of hymns noted earlier this month in our first holiday coverfolk feature.

Our surprise frontrunner, though, comes from sifting through precious gems from the amateur set: Max Godfrey’s Before The Ice Melts, which mixes tradsongs (and one Dylan cut, and a 1920s hit later revived by Bessie Smith and others) with new lyrics and a few licks, is truly down to earth, a fine sophomore outing from an artist just now making the traditions his own. Just for fun, and because Godfrey makes them sound so…well, traditional, we’ve shared just the non-trad tracks here; download the rest to see just what that creaky, timeless voice can do with the truly traditional canon.

The Year’s Best Tradfolk EP
+ Thom Ashworth, Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture

English folksinger and bassist Thom Ashworth is just starting his career, but two small releases this year promise big enough things to make it worth sustaining a category despite a single entry. If the first, January 2017′s 4-track EP Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, is the feature here, it’s only because November’s second release, Hollow – also a 4-track – is a half-and-half, with two originals and two traditional songs arranged by Ashworth himself. Both are worth pursuit, however, and bookmarking, too, as we watch for Ashworth’s continued output with bated breath.

The Year’s Best Half-Covers Album
+ Laura Baird, I Wish I Were A Sparrow
+ Brock Simpson, The Gardener Child: Scots Songs Both New and Traditional
+ Red Molly, One For All & All For One

The two records which top our final folk category this year are similar in many ways: sparse neo-traditionals, perfectly balanced, with little in the way of flourish and a lot in the way of authenticity. Our by-a-hair favorite is Laura Baird’s simple, unadorned tribute to the fiddle-and-banjo tunes of her own Appalachian youth, her first full-length solo outing after years of performing with her sister Meg, and an even-steven six-and-six split of covers and originals that intermingles her own work with the songs of her Great-Grandfathers’ hills so smoothly and successfully, we had to keep the liner notes handy.

Toronto teacher-musician Brock Simpson’s The Gardener Child is a similar but blurrier halfling: simple and elegant solo stuff, framed with but a winsome, sensitive voice and gentle guitar. Here, too, unlabeled tracks had us scurrying to figure out which was which, until we realized that – as with Baird’s delight – what matters most is the sound, and the consistency of sentiment.

Our third-place finisher in the half-covers category couldn’t be more different in its approach to its respective canon, a four-and-two EP with energetic close harmonies familiar and fine recorded and released as part of Red Molly’s swan song crowdsource project, designed to drive the production of solo albums from all three band members. I’ve heard two of three of these albums so far – and am proud to announce that Laurie MacAllister’s delightful contemporary all-covers album The Lies The Poets Tell will be the first album of 2018 to grace these pages in the new year, and may well be our earliest contender for a following-year Best Of award in the history of our nominal countdown. In the meantime, we’ll include a favorite from what well may be Red Molly’s last record, at least for a while, as we bid our own list adieu.

The Year’s Best Mixed Genre Covers Album
+ Various Artists, Don’t Stop Now: A Collection of Covers
+ Love + War, Nine Lives

+ Various Artists, Cha Cha Cha: The Songs of Shotgun Jimmie
+ Various Artists, Failed Tribute Bands 2

If you come here for the folk and only the folk, now would be a good time to skip to the last few songs below; we’ve winnowed out the best and folkiest of this year’s mixed-genre covers collections, and if they’re all you want, we won’t hold it against you.

But true cover-lovers know that sometimes the very best tracks come from surprising sources. And so we present our annual coda: four albums which are decidedly NOT folk records, but which provide so much more in the way of breadth and beauty, we just had to mention them.

Our utter tie-for-favorite here is sprawling, indeed: a 37-track collection, released on Inauguration Day 2017 just like the aforementioned Barsuk collection, and – like it – a decidedly politicized collection, pre-emptive and angrier in its way, designed to support the ACLU. But where both Burst & Bloom and Barsuk produced covers albums which were at least nominally folk, Don’t Stop Now is unabashedly mixed-genre, with plenty of potent indiefolk tracks plus retro-alternative rock, post-punk, and hopping, hopeful otherstuff taking on songs from Joy Division to Harry Chapin.

Meanwhile in an unusual turn, a solo artist appears atop the category, at least on paper: Nine Lives, a covers collection from Nashville-based writer-producer team Coury Palermo & Ron Robinson, aka love+war. Glitchy electro-soul and grungy folkpop tracks mix oddly well in this covers album, pushing it to the top of the list as a second strange bedfellow. Drowning in tape hiss and lush with click-track reverb, with pitch-perfect guest vocalists like Angel Snow – the very first artist featured here, ten years ago, in our New Artists, Old Songs series – the entire thing, from covers of Prince and Springsteen favorites to hits from Terence Trent D’Arby, Depeche Mode, and The Eurythmics, is a guilty pleasure, with emphasis on pleasure.

Honorable mention? Easily Comin’ Around Records’ lovely lo-fi tribute to the songs of Polaris Prize nominee and art school student Shotgun Jimmie – a mixed bag, but with some solid tracks from familiar North-of-the-border fringefolk standbys like Old Man Luedecke and Woodpigeon, all to raise money for the Dawson City Music Festivals’ Songwriter in Residence Program.
And Failed Tribute Bands Two!, which earns its emphatic punctuation easily: by the time you get to the fifth track, it’s hard to figure that there’s going to be anything approaching folk here…and then, suddenly, Allysen Callery, whose recently completed 12 Days of Covers Soundcloud series is a bonus trove of DIY ghost folk treasures.

Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been digging deep at the ethnographic intersection of folkways and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, like, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the music flowing? Please, consider a year’s end contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all donors receive undying praise, and a special blogger-curated gift mixtape of well-loved but otherwise unshared covers from 2016-2017, including exclusive live covers from our very own Unity House Concert series.

1 comment » | Allysen Callery, Angel Snow, Best of 2017, Infamous Stringdusters, Mark Erelli, New Artists Old Songs, Old Crow Medicine Show, Red Molly, Shovels & Rope, Sierra Hull, The Wailin' Jennys, Tributes and Cover Compilations

Covered In Christmasfolk, 2017 (Vol. 2):
Contemporary Carols, Holiday Compilations, and More!


It’s coming on, indeed: presents under the tree, Christmas Eve choir services all day Sunday, and a weather advisory for ice and snow tonight through the day itself across most of New England which keep us home tonight, watching the skies. School and work fritter down to the final hours, accompanied by a holiday soundtrack rich and festive with trumpets, bells, and the crooning, yearning voices of the canon on shuffleplay above the fire.

Our second and surely final installment of new and newly-found Christmas recordings is sourced almost entirely via independent digital releases, and filtered through the new season. Ribbons and bows, the lot of them – perhaps the best crop in years, and one of the biggest, too. May your stocking be as full, and your hearts as light.

From the quiet, almost tantalizingly still kick-off track O Little Town Of Bethlehem to the subtlest Joy To The World the world has seen, James Hoffman’s Advent is a gem: a coherent collection of fragile, hushed holiday hymnal reinventions, ancient and gentle, sublime, sensual, and spare, wrung forth in darkness with little more than tinkly piano, slow guitar, and intimate voice. Yeah, you could try a few sample tracks for download, but for full effect, don’t pick a favorite, just snag the whole thing.

Two perfect indiefolk tracks – a gorgeous popfolk piano arrangement of O Come O Come Emmanuel and the ringing guitar-and-shaker urgency of Blake Flattley’s Silent Night – plus a delight from last year’s archive typify the best and lightest of what is now a beautiful multi-genre regional compilation series 9 years in the running from Winter Is On My Head, an annual holiday music compilation that donates all proceeds from online sales to ABAN (aban.org) a non-profit dedicated to empowering young mothers in Ghana by selling unique, handmade products from recycled materials, and it’s worth the cost, chock full of glorious coverage and originals from power punk to electronic garage rock.

Sometimes, simple is best. Originally broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, this fine, sparse Celtic carol – transformed from front stoop to divine intimacy – came out just after our final installment of our annual holidayfolk series, but we’re glad we found it again, to let the lilt of Ben Savage‘s classical guitar and bluegrass slide pull us into co-arranger and vocalist Hannah Sanders‘ clear-as-water delivery once more at Christmas. (PS: If you like this teaser, check out their 2016 full album Before The Sun, too – it’s exquisite.)

A family affair, we assume, given the two last names among four artists listed, Rich Mountain Revival‘s beautiful minimalist gospelfolk collection With True Love & Brotherhood is another set worth pulling from the archives after missing it in 2016: wonderfully whispered, with banjo and backporch harmonies joyful and triumphant in their ragged neo-appalachian settings.

Like your holiday tunes a little more twee? Look no further than Miki Fiki and Friends’ 2017 Charity Compilation, recorded to support the Southern Poverty Law Center. The hiss, hum, harmonies and strum of Katy Kirby’s O Holy Night may be the closest to folk the album comes, but its Roches-meet-Sufjan vibe is a tug down the rabbit hole, where some quite stellar and solid originals, plus a soulful rhythm & blues version of Last Christmas, a grungy alternative countrypunk take of Pretty Paper, and more gifts galore, lurk under the hipster’s tree.

Let This Be Christmas, another wonderfully amateur Christmas benefit album – this one to provide micro-enterprise grants for families with bleeding disorders in developing countries – comes from the Utah-based LDS duo of Emma Huntington and Hunter Montgomery, about whom I can find little in the way of press or promo. Happily, as the artists note on Bandcamp, the music speaks for itself: Montgomery’s soaring viola and Huntington’s additive, distinctive voice feature highly on a surprisingly diverse arrangement of classic carols that comes off as beautifully simple, and simply beautiful.

Sometimes a band describes themselves so perfectly, it’s hard to add value when touting their sound. Forest Creatures is “an eclectic trio of siblings and friends making lo-fi folksy music with their friends”, and their full-length collection Was That Christmas? sounds like it: warm, wistful, eclectic, and languidly percussive, but overall kind of like the lo-fi alternative version of Kate Rusby, which is a good thing, indeed.

Guitar, horn, and voice combine exquisitely as they swing among Herb Alpert jazz, neo-classical pop, and soft triofolk on A Little Christmas Nog, a project spearheaded by Bach trumpet artist John Dover of Portland, Oregon. Played soft and low with close friends and family, Still Still Still is a sweet lullaby; What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve hops along lightly, a ballad for the ages.

File under hard to categorize: French and American duo Freedom Fry plays an amalgam of beat-heavy folkrock, indie and twee, with echoes of the British psychfolk revival, French folkpop, the California sixties scene, and more. Their Holiday Soundtrack EP offers four songs more for the hip set, including the oddly satisfying “la la la” lyrics and muddled spoken word of their Silent Night dreamscape.

Brooklyn’s Hoover Dam Collective offers a mixed-bag of bedroom folk on this year’s A Blue State Of Christmas – covers of popular holiday songs and settings from John Prine to The Handsome Family. But again, simple is best; in these almost entirely unadorned performances, voices imperfect and tempos impure make for a tense holiday grounded in history and uncertainty.

We close our set today with another multi-genre album, this one from Irish monthly radio programme The Co-Present, whose host Dwayne Woods has assembled a fine collection of odd and mostly acousto-and-synth alternative DIY music performances for our holiday. If this is what radio alternative truly sounds like, we’re in for the new year.

Always ad-free and artist-friendly, Cover Lay Down has been digging deep into the folkways at the intersection of coverage and performance since 2007 thanks to the kind support of donors like you. Stay tuned this week ahead as we present our Year’s Best Covers Albums and Tributes, Singles, and Videos – over 100 songs in all!

2 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk

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