In February of 2013, Cover Lay Down's host went bankrupt, leaving us to reconstruct the blog from scratch. Happily, features from our first five years remain available thanks to the Wayback Machine Internet Archives, a non-profit working to preserve the web for posterity, and we are eternally grateful for their hard work. Check out the first five years of Cover Lay Down here!
When Chuck Berry passed last Saturday at 90, the airwaves swelled with gratitude and stories of the man who brought us the duck walk and My Ding-A Ling, did gigs as a beautician and a stint as a reform school kid on the way up, and built the genre from the freestyle of the blues, the whine of the country guitar, the simple call-and-refrain verse-chorus-verse of the folksong, the beat of a rhythm and blues nation, and the definitive string-led combo.
Finding a plethora of coverage of Berry’s canon seemed inevitable: many of the long-standing artist and performer’s greatest hits were also hits for other seminal rock and rollers, both peers and inheritors, from Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis to The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, and The Beatles, whose classic versions of Roll Over Beethoven and Memphis helped put them on the map in the first place. Indeed, arguably, Berry’s songs are so well covered, many of them have become truly folk, part and parcel of the vast spectrum that is the modern western songbook; it says what it needs to that Johnny B. Goode is the only rock and roll song on the Voyager spacecraft, where one day, it may well establish the Earth as a cultured rest stop for the alien mind, a truly exciting and excitable space among the heavens.
Anyone truly deserving of the name “architect of rock and roll” has enough influence to cross genre lines, too. And sure enough, Berry’s songs have found their way from punk to country, where their easily translatable lyrics and eminently playable beats bring comfort to new audiences exploring the sounds of the soul. Though many of Chuck Berry’s songs are so seminal, their transformations are hard to search for, our dip into the vast realm of folk and roots coverage here today reveals a broad influence, heavy on the real and rustic but unusually diverse in subgenre, from sultry country swing to fieldhouse rhythm and blues to contemporary fingerpickin’ folk rock, with stops in everyspace from jug band blues to crackling Cajun along the way. Guess it just proves that rock and roll will never die – at least, not so long as it continues to infiltrate the sense and sensibility of the multifaceted folkways.
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Vermont-slash-Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell was a fast-rising star upon her 2002 arrival to the scene, with out of the gate recognition from Kerrville’s New Folk competition and early adoption onto Ani Difranco’s record label, Righteous Babe, thanks to a strong debut recorded in a single afternoon and a distinctive knack for prescient hooks and heavy subjects couched in sweepingly intimate production and a distinctively, deceptively innocent yet complex and carefully honed voice. These days, her name-recognition runs high inside the broad boundaries of folk, and her talent is in high demand, as demonstrated by tours with Bon Iver, Josh Ritter, Punch Brothers and The Low Anthem, collaborations with Jefferson Harmer and Rachel Ries, and kudos from Pitchfork, NPR, The New York Times, and more.
If fame outside the folkworld or prodigious output were a measure of success, she would remain insulated. But although it has been three years since her last release, and five since her last of all new original work, there is something essential about Anais Mitchell right now. Just a half dozen studio albums into her career, Mitchell has become a true mover and shaker in the folkworld, cited by peers and press as central to the definitive depth and honesty that typifies the nucleus of the current folk generation.
A powerhouse out on the bleeding edge, her collaborative work, including our previously-featured exploration of the Child Ballads with Jefferson Harmer, which won a BBC Radio Two Folk Award for Best Traditional Track, is sharp. Her output – including the epic, introspective 2012 release Young Man In America, and folk opera Hadestown, which brought folk heavyweights Greg Brown, Justin Vernon, The Haden Triplets, and Difranco together to voice the Ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and has since been both toured with a rotating cast and turned into a New York stageshow due to return for the 2017-2018 season – reveals an artist exploring the potential of folk to speak deeply and cohesively about the world on a scale heretofore unattempted, illuminating the world of the political and the personal into sharp relief.
The proof, of course, is in the coverage, both in its richness and in its very fact. Note notables such as Billy Bragg and Bon Iver in the mix below, taking on the Anais songbook in homage and early tribute to a truly worthy songwriter and craftsperson. Take note, as well, of the flexibility of song here, as the lo-fi acoustic and the rich mix rebuilt, the balladeer and the barroom singer, the mellow and the mean, the jamband and the celtic take their turns on the canon, and come up roses.
Listen as others come to echo the echoes – revealing a set rich in Bandcamp discoveries, and diverse in tone and tenor, as befits the deep, versatile songbook that Mitchell offers forth. Pick and choose, or download them as a single set. And then, as always, click through to go back to the source – to celebrate, as it were, the artists who continue to circle around song, and around the whole of us, from Anais Mitchell herself to those who would braid their gifts with hers, to the betterment of us all.
An apt introduction from folk and social justice icon Billy Bragg, whose respect for Mitchell and for the power of political song frames a transcendent performance of a song originally performed by Greg Brown as the modernized king of the underworld. Put it against the bold potency of Chi-town amateur Carey Farrell, whose slowly deepening production slowly drowns us in despair, for a hell of an opening set.
Toronto-based filmmaker and soundtrack soundscape creator Nicole Goode records tense, echoey, glitchy cover goodness, nominally with her morning coffee. And it is mesmerizing, rough and raw and bottomless.
New York-based “folk rock Japanese band” Robin’s Egg Blue‘s sudden turn into newgrass jamband territory turns a transitional Hadestown track into a resting point reminiscent of the psychedelic Steeleye Span era, lingering in the river of madness until it seems like the struggle will never end. Epic, indeed.
A straightforward plainsong approach to a personal favorite from Soundcloud amateur Justin Paul Ortiz. Don’t underestimate this one: the lack of adornment lays the song bare, revealing strong bones at the core.
A simple, elegant popfolk setting from prolific Ithaca, NY singer-songwriter, activist, and mindfulness practitioner Travis Knapp‘s 9th annual covers collection evokes grand pianos and candelabras as it pays homage to the tender, confessional side of Mitchell’s early canon.
A slightly countrified, well-produced lullaby version of Mitchell’s transposition of two West Bank refugees: one to be Jesus, the other a forgotten Palestinian. Joyce Andersen‘s hearty, heart-filled voice makes for a perfect pairing alongside Harvey Reid’s subtle pick and slide.
South Carolina ex-pat Garris, now living in China and preparing for a stint as a yoga teacher in India, partners with friend Kira for a four-track EP featuring a solid Tom Waits cover and this subtle slackstring soft-track, gentle, wistful, and aware of its unrefined honesty.
If there is such a thing as perfect lo-fi experimental anti-folk in the modern marketplace, it is embedded in The Last Clarissa’s hollow covers and recordings, each one rushed and anxious, resonant as a silo sing, and honest as the night.
Broken, flickering life from Bryan McFarland, another amateur hard to uncover. No matter: the song speaks for itself, with low recorder and layers of lush guitar pulsing around grungy octave harmonies for a dirge-like dark despair.
Justin Vernon at his most tender and fragile, with gentle guitar and piano in low, tinkly parallel; Vermont bluegrass duo Cricket Blue at their tightest in sorrow, singing the fear of Icarus towards the sky and sun. And so we end as we began: vulnerable to the world, and the variances and vagrancies of song and lyric in tension: the crash impending, the loss palpable, the hope everlasting.
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As the posthumous subject of songs penned and performed by Townes Van Zandt, Lucinda Williams, and other luminaries from his own era, it’s not hard to see the influence Blaze Foley had on his scene, especially in the context of Van Zandt, with whom he traveled and performed frequently. But if you only faintly recognize his name, it is because the Texas singer-songwriter was the Daniel Johnston of his time and place: a drifter and drinker, troubled yet iconoclastic, earnest and yet just plumb weird; a difficult and often lost soul who wore duct tape on his cowboy boots and lived in a tree, wrote plain, plaintive songs about big cheeseburgers and high school heroes, got kicked out of the Kerrville Folk Festival, and died at the end of a gun in mysterious circumstances at the age of 39 over 25 years ago.
In no small part because the sandpaper influence of his personality made recording opportunities scant and scattered, if Foley is remembered, it is because of his songcraft, not his recordings. Tracking Foley’s songbook is possible, mostly, thanks to Live at the Austin Outhouse, a 15-track “greatest hits” performance from the month before his death, once out of print but rereleased at the turn of the century to find a new audience looking for the roots and branches of their underground heritage.
But this small collection contains the seeds of greatness realized. A true poet, unafraid of both the political and the personal lens, whose simple, direct images spoke loudly to universal themes of love, loneliness, leaving and loss, Foley was in many ways a songwriter’s songwriter, famously covered in his lifetime by the likes of John Prine, Lyle Lovett, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, with If I Could Only Fly cited by Haggard upon his first listen as ““the best country song I’ve heard in fifteen years.” And although finding these rare original performances, to seep into them as their fumbling, couch-syrup tones rise and fall, is a visceral experience, well worth pursuit, it is Foley’s songwriting, and its continued influence – both beyond his lifespan, and beyond the world of Texas country – that interests us today.
Unsurprisingly, with a few exceptions, Foley’s songs are difficult to interpret, making coverage rare. But happily, those who have chosen to take on the challenge of reimagining them do so without trivializing, giving the lyrics and chords new voice and clarity through interpretations inevitably crisper, and more deliberately nuanced, then their original raw and dirty forms. Read on for our favorite next-generation coverage, as growled and soft-shoe traditionalists and indiefolk reinventionists alike take on the Blaze Foley songbook in all its weird, wonderful, yet still prescient north-by-northwest madness.
From afar, at 26, Taylor Swift – the youngest woman to make Forbes’ 100 Most Powerful Women list, and well on her way to becoming the best selling artist of all time – seems to have grown into a strong yet sensitive woman who is unafraid to be vulnerable, even sophomoric, as her understanding of the world slowly starts to deepen past the innocence of Love Story, You Belong With Me, and dozens more girl-meets-boy chart-toppers.
But a deeper dig suggests that this maturity is innate, not developed. Swift’s ability to tough it out among the big players as she transitioned from the world of country to the world of true-blue pop reveals the same grit and determination that drove her parents to move to the Nashville area to support her career while she was still in middle school, got her a development deal from RCA at the age of 14 – and led her to walk away from that deal later that same year, concerned that the industry would eat her alive before she had a chance to capture her early years authentically, while they were still fresh in her mind.
As Ryan Adams showed in his recent reinvention homage to Swift’s album 1989, Swift’s lyrics go much, much deeper than their pretty face. And unlike other pop icons who started out in the industry before adulthood, including several we’ve featured here in our Covered In Folk series (see, for example, our recent feature on Justin Bieber), the youngest songwriter ever signed by the Sony/ATV Tree publishing house has always written her own songs, trusting the production process to transform them into the crossover countrypop gems that have dominated the airwaves for the last decade or so.
Though Swift has a healthy understanding of the industry she serves, in other words, she is clearly a songwriter first. But she also knows coverage matters. She has recorded few of her own in the studio – a trend that surely stems from both artistic and professional concerns, and tepid reception to both a 2007 Christmas cover of Last Christmas and a 2009 take on Tom Petty’s American Girl that was, at best, merely a retread – but she does songs from all over the genre map in concert, and has good taste in those of others, too; indeed, one of the choice cuts below was featured on her Twitter feed, a high praise she has reserved for less than a score of other interpretations.
Others in our Taylor Swift mix today come from the usual wide assortment of sources: amateur uploads, tribute sessions and albums, b-side and deep cut delights. As is our wont, they span from delicate to disturbing, from joyous to somber, though they certainly trend towards the slow, the soft, and the stripped down cover; taken as a set, they are, indeed, greater than the sum of their parts. So join us as we celebrate through coverage the well-sung songbook of a woman who at 26 has already won 10 Grammy awards, recognition from the Songwriter’s Hall Of Fame, a fierce independence in an industry more prone to destroy young talent, and the hearts of a nation.
Raw and wry like a live Barenaked Ladies-meets-banjo rarity, our first transformative cover comes from Portland, Oregon-based multimedia art, music, and fiction experimentalist The Man Who Fell In Buffalo, who turns upbeat pop into a sinister oldtimey collage, abuzz with fraying edges and the fraying urgency of the stalker’s mind. For contrast, turn to NYC underground artist Radiochaser, first introduced to us via fellow coverblog Cover Me; the layers here are wistful, mooth and airy, with an undercurrent of urgency too deep to touch – apt for an enigmatic Soundcloud cover artist who claims that his work represents an imaginative foray into what the souls of pop songs would sound like if pop songs could die.
Slower, quieter, and both more subtle and more haunting than the Tainted Love cover we shared from Lucy & La Mer back in March, this 2015 track only reinforces our appreciation of the LA-based indie/folk/pop goddess’ high, astute sensitivity to songcraft and setting.
The streaming services are stuffed full with wannabes who use coverage of Taylor’s radiopop hits to leverage a career. But Savannah Outen‘s cover stands out for vocal purity, a restrained, polished sense of tonal consistency and control, and a masterful, slippery, articulate way with lyrical articulation that makes every word meaningful. Similar prowess, if a little more percussive pop flourish, typifies covers of Everything Has Changed and Out Of The Woods recorded alongside YouTube boypop sensation Jake Coco.
A country duo lullaby with light twang, lighter guitars, and a echoing reverb that lingers, or a solo indiepop turn with innocent voice and rich synth overlays slowly drowned in that same echo? We couldn’t decide, so you get both, from ubiquitous YouTube success stories Julia Sheer and Tyler Ward (like Outen, she also does a decent cover of Ed Sheeran/Taylor Swift duet Everything Has Changed) and prolific self-professed nerd and culture vulture Strawburry17, who generally shares themed vlogs, not music, on her YouTube channel. Not bad for a song originally recorded by Swift as a bootkicking rocker.
Angsty acousticpop vocals, ringing guitar, and simple, soaring fiddle accompaniment typify this in-studio cover from Kiwi alternative soul singer-songwriter Jesse Will, recorded in 2014 for London-based YouTube channel Reload Sessions, a potent acoustic coversource in its own right. Meanwhile, Jenny Owen Youngs’ Folkadelphia session cover offers a hushed and fragile counterpoint, switching the determination of the original for an intimate, almost internal monologue infused with doubt.
No set of Taylor Swift songs would be complete without Love Story, a reframing of the Romeo and Juliet story which I have been know to utilize in the classroom when discussing the text. Here, Trenton, NJ indie rock duo Radiant Life Perspective – a pair whose covers are twee and grungy and delightful, as heard on Gray’s Anatomy and elsewhere – pull back to a hipster acoustic urgency, complete with hollow percussion and dreamy, layered vocals, that reveals a hazy sheen of wistful uncertainty on horizons back and forward.
First shared here last year in our come-back feature after a few months off the blog, prolific YouTube cover artist and rising star singer-songwriter Laura Zocca‘s stunning turn on Begin Again is the perfect way to feature both song and singer, a lovely turn on a wistful piece. Add her equally sweet-and-potent version of Safe and Sound, which Swift originally recorded with now-defunct duo The Civil Wars, to the mix – and note that it was recorded just 24 hours after the original release of the song.
Hollywood’s boy/girl duo Sumeau creates slowcore psychpop like you’ve never heard it before – in this case, a lazy, hazy heroin dream in which Bert Bacharach meets the summer of love. Framed around Fearless, the title track from Swift’s country-to-pop crossover sophomore album, it lends an unreal aura of mist and memory to the first date it depicts, trading innocence and hope for something deeper and more mystical.
We don’t usually post covers without lyrics here at Cover Lay Down – and by definition, a cowritten duet is an unusual choice for the voiceless version. But we already shared our favorite acoustic pop take on this track way back in 2013. And this delicate delight from fingerstylist James Bartholomew fits in perfectly in the folkstream, reminding us that if John Renbourne’s masterful acoustic instrumentals count as folk, then so do covers that echo them so exquisitely.
A tense acoustic take from a BBC Radio Lounge session with London-based world-beat-jazzman-turned-singer-songwriter Nick Mulvey, set only with harp-strung latin guitar and longing vocals. Unsettling and unsettled, in Mulvey’s hands a song once overripe with determination and teen angst becomes tiny and dear, a baby bird struggling against the hand that holds.
Though we’ve hewed pretty closely to the amateur and underground in today’s set, we’d be remiss if we didn’t close today with something from Ryan Adams’ 1989, which garnered top honors in our Best of 2015 series. Since we shared Blank Space then, we’ll go for his cover of album deep cut How You Get The Girl now – a bit grandiose for folk, with a Springsteen-esque vibe and no small call to Adams’ early work with alt-country band Whiskeytown, but as anthemic chamberpop goes, a true tour de force, mostly overlooked by press and promotion alongside his covers of the more popular tracks from the album.
As a long-time coverblogger, it’s not hard to have mixed feelings about the death of rockstar Prince today at the age of 57. The eminently egotistical Artist Formerly Known As An Unpronounceable Symbol was notoriously negative about “industry” coverage, expressing frustration that the law makes it perfectly legal to cover other people’s songs as long as the piper has been paid, and raising concern time and time again in interviews that “covering the music means your version doesn’t exist anymore”. Prince’s legal team was infamous for issuing YouTube take-down notices, and tight-fisted about permissions, too. And there we were, pretty gun-shy after being booted off Blogger for a string of false take-down notices in our early days.
And so, with a very few notable exceptions, for 9 long years online, we’ve pretty much avoided even talking about the man, let alone sharing our favorite covers.
Until now. Because Prince Rogers Nelson’s sexy pop anthems populate our world like nobody’s business, and praise the lord. Glitchy and over-the-top anthemic as it may be, I actually prefer his version of Nothing Compares To U to Sinead O’Connor’s. And I can’t think of any version of Kiss that I like better than the original, though Richard Thompson’s tongue-in-cheek take has its own rough-hewn joy, too.
And maybe, just maybe, that – plus the sheer volume of tributes that will surely join this one in the ether in the hours and days to come – offers sufficient protection from the wrath that is Prince’s estate today, as we celebrate a man whose purply influence will surely shine on the world of music for decades to come.
To suggest that Prince’s position on coverage was extreme is not to suggest that it had some merit, of course; as someone who recently listed Tainted Love as a Soft Cell original, I’m in a particularly poor position to suggest that great covers cannot and do not sometimes obscure original recordings. We’ve touched on the definitive, transformative cover here before, too, most notably in our 2008 deep dive into the shift in sound and sensibility Jeff Buckley brought to Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, which proved to influence pretty much all subsequent coverage of the song.
But to prefer the Ryan Adams version of Wonderwall is one thing; to say that it somehow eradicated the original is quite another. When Noel Gallagher says in his 2008 Spin interview that he and brother Liam hate singing Wonderwall, and that he thinks Ryan Adams is the only person who ever got it right, it says more about the potential of the cover to save the song than it does about its potential to erase it. Liam may no longer want to sing Wonderwall the way it was written, but the record lives on – and as Gallagher notes in the same interview, fans still clamor for the original, too.
And so, today, in honor of Prince’s passing, we break our vow of silence on the subject to present our very favorite covers from the folkworld. It’s good crop, too, with The Blue Rubies mid-eighties cover of Prince’s When U Were Mine, which was one of my very first folk covers – a moment of early clarity in a world cluttered with postpunk, synthpop, and early grunge – The Be Good Tanyas take on When Doves Cry, which I featured in my very first music post, before Cover Lay Down was even born, and last year’s remake of Prince’s playful oddity Starfish and Coffee from kidfolk fave Renee and SNL alum Maya Rudolph.
Add in a bluesy take from an underground Norwegian tribute now otherwise lost to the great archive in the sky, James Taylor’s son on a pristine backporch kick, a soaring high-production take on a track originally posted online as Violet Rain to confound the legal team, the ragged, live and in-studio vocals of Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Richard Thompson, and Martin Sexton, and a few more joys from around the block, and you’ve got a tribute set worth waiting for.
May the covers ever live on alongside, not instead of, the originals which Prince himself brought to our ears. And may we never forget to gather together, dearly beloved, to get through this thing called life.
To be fair, the only thing I really knew about Justin Bieber until yesterday was that he was famous, and mostly still a kid. I could probably pick him out of a lineup, but I wasn’t really keyed in to the music. To be perfectly honest, I had to ask my students which songs of his were famous in order to complete today’s cover mix.
And yet. There’s a simple joy in the well crafted pop song, and a guilty pleasure in the adolescent bubblegum lens of confusion and longing hopped up on hormones that typifies the boy band and pop princess subgenre. And so we turn to the tabloids, and find, if not greatness, then certainly good.
Beiber’s work is carefully constructed, as befits a songbook written by committee and aimed carefully at the top of the preteen charts; sunny and light, it doesn’t go deep. But every genre has its high notes. Pulled from the popshelf, and translated into softer acoustic tones, the Canadian star’s songbook has an honesty of its own, grounded in zen metaphysics and a sensitivity to the concrete image as metaphor, that comes forward in coverage. And those hooks…well, it’s no wonder so many YouTube stars have taken on the north-of-the-border heartthrob with just a handful of albums under his belt.
Today’s selections are almost all amateur sourced. But their range is startling. Three takes on Love Yourself alone run the gamut, from Nataly Dawn‘s hollow, gritty bluesfolk to Dodie and Andie’s tender acoustic bedroom swing to rising star Jamie Oshima‘s newly-released mando-and-guitar cover, which switches in The Wedding Reel as a perfect instrumental break.
It’s only February, and it’s already been a great year for Tom Petty covers, with the newest addition – a playful take on Wildflowers from rising-star folk-circuit faves Caitlin Canty and Darlingside released just yesterday via Bandcamp – piling on alongside the wonderful American Girl cover featured last week from “acoustic steamboat soul” foursome Roosevelt Dime and Asheville-based songwriter Jane Kramer’s delightful Appalachian-influenced take on relatively obscure deep cut Down South, a trailblazer for Carnival of Hopes, a strong southern folk album due later this month, which popped up in the mailbag mid-January.
It’s no surprise to find the Tom Petty songbook riding high atop the list of common coverage sources, in the folkworld and beyond. When we first paid tribute to the native son on the last leg of a family trip to the Florida coast way back in April of 2010, we found a rich field, heavy on the singer-songwriter fare, with covers from Johnny Cash, Kasey Anderson, Kathleen Edwards, Dawn Landes, Mark Erelli with Jeffrey Foucault, and more artists whose folk comes tinged with twang and heart – overall, a set that provides ample evidence of Petty’s influence and relevance in the modern landscape. Add in a trio of upbeat covers from our Best of 2015 series – a triumphant post-cancer celebration of Learning To Fly from The Weepies and two grassy banjo-driven takes on American Girl from new discoveries Ballad Of Crows and old friends The Infamous Stringdusters – and more choice cuts collected in the last few years, and the trend becomes clear: Tom Petty’s influence is vast and varied; his songs live in the folkways, and they’re here to stay.
These warm, welcoming songs and their surprisingly tender, diverse treatment are especially apt today, in the light of this continued coverage, and on a night that promises to be one of the coldest ever recorded here in the heart of New England, leaving us dreaming of warmer climes and times. Today, then, as a kick-off to a week of school vacation leisure, we revisit and rework that earlier feature, celebrating an American icon with coverage from a set of old favorites and new discoveries that continue to forge ahead in their exploration of the American landscape.
Tom Petty is Florida’s most famous export, musically speaking. Born and raised in Gainesville – where he was inspired by a chance childhood meeting with Elvis and high school guitar lessons from Don Felder of The Eagles – the grinning, iconic frontman and singer-songwriter has sold millions of records, won three Grammys, earned a star on Hollywood Boulevard and a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and is often presented as the typical American Rock success story.
Though he has gone deeper and a bit more experimental in his later years, Tom Petty’s most identifiable musical alliance is with Heartland Rock – a white working-class subgenre popular in the 70s and 80s, typified by “traditional” rock-band electric guitar and drums tinged with mandolin and harmonica, and accessible blue-collar lyrics that tell of the social, physical, and economic isolation experienced by those struggling to recapture the american dream in a post-industrial decline. And sure enough, like the subgenre’s other famous practitioners – Bob Seeger, John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen, and John Fogerty among them – though he has enjoyed renewed popularity among the younger set in recent years, Petty’s laconic drawl can most commonly be heard on bar-room jukeboxes and classic rock radio, alongside southern and country rock artists such as the Eagles and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Like anybody, I guess, I find Tom Petty’s vast catalog of hit songs familiar from the very first chord. And though my struggle to love what can only be called “distinctive” voices is well known to our regular readers, as a child of the eighties, a pop culture aficionado, and a fellow pursuant of the dream, though I don’t own a single Tom Petty album, I nonetheless find comfort in the constant presence of his direct and often softly cynical songbook.
I’m not alone in this. The blogs were awash with Tom Petty covers back in 2008, when his superbowl halftime show was the talk of the town – a sure indicator that both bloggers and modern singer-songwriters share my appreciation for Petty’s apt portrayal of both the American heartland and the American heart. Here, in celebration of the coincidence of American excess and Floridian paradise which I experienced in his home state, we gather in the best and folkiest, from the mellow to the madcap – many posted previously here and elsewhere; all well worth repeating, and easily downloadable as a single mix. Enjoy.
It’s been a long winter, but it’s easy to believe in spring, with the last few heaps of heavy snow finally turning to slush on the lawn and the crocus buds breaking through in the garden. Spiritually, too, the clouds are breaking: after a two-week hospital stay, the elderchild seems to have recalibrated, gaining weight on a diet of protein shakes and constant exercise; my students can see the fourth quarter end of the tunnel, and renew their vigor in discourse and deconstruction. It’s a good life, I know, but it’s been hard to see it for the fog; to know that it is lifting brings hope, slow and sure, with equal parts reluctance and relief.
Our mixed-metaphors of weather, water, and want belie the continued weight of life as it is: we’re not yet at rest, and we won’t be for at least another week, when we take our annual pilgrimage down south to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where the herons soar over the lagoon, and life slows down for a while every year. Until then, we’ll keep clearing the head, and the soul, readying ourselves to emerge into warmth.
Part of this, as always, is in the gathering of new songs and videos, albums and news from familiar sources – a strong and rising crop which have peppered our winter and gathered in our heart, where they threaten to burst upon us like the dam in spring snowmelt. And so we turn to the detritus of shoreline, the songs that spring upon us like buds in the snow, and cheer our hearts even as they moan and mourn for that which is lost, and those who are lonesome. A spin of the dice, and the world comes up with equal parts hope and heartache, roots and branches: the songs of John Hiatt, covered in folk.
Though still technically representative of the younger generation’s rich, reclaimed ground at the intersection of folk, Americana and bluegrass, Sara Watson, Aoife O’Donovan, and Sarah Jarosz are all beloved here at Cover Lay Down: each has been featured here before, both in collaboration and solo, for a combined respective breadth of work that has included plenty of sweet coverage along the way. Now the three artists have joined forces for a tour and a track, and the combination of the three is heavenly, with vocals sharp and soft pulling against each other, banjo and fiddle and guitar precise and sparingly, achingly melded. Their choice of song is inspired, too – a far cry from the hoarse cry of John Hiatt’s original, but with just as much longing and hope intermingled.
This continent-crossing trio are not the first women to take on the John Hiatt songbook so sweetly. Too folk for rock, too rock for folk, Hiatt is the epitome of the songwriter’s songwriter; the words “critical success but commercial failure” pepper his resume. He has been nominated for several Grammy awards, but drifted from label to label throughout his career; though he has recorded over two dozen albums studio albums in four decades, he’s never really charted that high. As such, he owes much of his early career to borrowing, most notably the 1974 release of Three Dog Night’s Sure As I’m Sittin’ Here, which rose to number 16 on the Billboard charts, and a spate of covers from his 1987 breakthrough album Bring The Family, recorded with Nick Lowe and Ry Cooder, which brought such hits as Thing Called Love, Memphis In The Meantime, and Have A Little Faith In Me to other voices and other rooms.
But his songs speak plainly of universal themes; his rock and roll is edged and catchy; his chords and melodies are eminently playable. And so, like most folk fans, I suspect, my own experience with Hiatt comes from stirring echoes on late night Americana radio, plus long play of his turn-of-the-century, predominantly acoustic record Crossing Muddy Waters, coupled with popular covers in celebration of his work from Raitt, Linda Rondstadt, Roseanne Cash, Willie Nelson, and a broad swath of other folk, blues and Americana artists – and with two generally solid late-century tribute albums in the canon (2000 Telarc compilation Rollin’ Into Memphis and Vanguard’s 2003 release It’ll Come To You) there’s plenty to choose from, here.
Either way, Hiatt is worth both the coverage and the comparison to each original. His best songs delve deep into divorce, addiction, and other dire extremities; that gritty voice and guitar are inimitable, and play out his motifs and themes with pain and prescience. Indeed, with a few notable exceptions – Raitt’s take on Thing Called Love comes to mind, as does Suzxy Bogguss’ Drive South and Cliff Eberhardt’s Back Of My Mind – coverage of Hiatt’s work tends to fall into decidedly gendered camps, with his heartbreaking balladry trending towards the female side, and his gruffer, angrier or more celebratory tracks more often than not delivered in the hands of raspy bluesmen.
A split set, then, from sweet to sour, sugar to spice – seven and seven, with women on the A side, and men on the flipside – as we celebrate John Hiatt’s work, and his legacy, through coverage. Enjoy.
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I’ve been away, and I’ll be gone again; it’s busy season, after all, for those who live by the school year. But the soundtrack of our lives is everpresent, and today, I’m thinking about Fall: the way the leaves turn first on the trees with sickness; how the papers pile up, drowning the better self I became in summer.
And then, out of the ether, the bittersweet autumnal comes through in a delicate new minor-key Creedence cover from fave nufolk duo Arborea, channelling my frustrations into focus. I renew my gratefulness for the sun, and turn towards it. I remember what music is for. And here we are.
We have a special affection for bands that rise to fame through coverage here at Cover Lay Down. And Creedence Clearwater Revival, whose first top 40 single was their 1968 recording of rockabilly singer Dale Hawkins’ Susie Q, and whose later covers of Motown hit I Heard It Through The Grapevine and traditional gospel song The Midnight Special charted as well, certainly fits the bill.
But to mistake CCR as a cover band is to miss the forest for the trees. Although CCR continued to cover and reinterpret blues, soul, and rock and roll standards throughout their career, the band truly made its name with their original songs, many of which hit the number 2 spot on the charts in the late sixties and early seventies, though none made it to number 1. These, in turn, came through the pen of composer and lyricist John Fogerty, whose knack for expressing the challenges and chagrins of his time through the band’s signature “swamp rock” musical style and a vivid politically-charged working-class narrative would ultimately fuel a solo career greatly dependent upon these older protest songs.
That CCR is remembered so well reveals a surprisingly strong legacy for such a short-lived band: after all, the young foursome, who had first begun playing together in junior high school, ultimately released and recorded just 7 studio albums in a high-density career before breaking up in 1972, just four years after the release of their self-titled debut.
But there’s no denying that their subsequent hits run rampant through modern culture, serving as staples of classic rock radio and as cinematic touchstones for the heady emotions of the Vietnam era. And so it has come to pass that both Creedence and its songbook represent a time and place in US culture that is ripe for both repetition and interpretation as long as war, poverty, and other issues of social justice remain at the forefront of our national conversation.
Interpretation is broad: stripped of its signature sound, the Creedence canon is flexible, indeed. Our favorite covers of the Creedence Clearwater Revival songbook range from weary to wanton, from torchsong to tirade, from delicate to divine. Join us in the listening room today as we explore the myriad ways artists in the folk, roots, bluegrass, altcountry and indie world have made these songs their own.
Creedence Clearwater Revival: A Covered In Folk Mixtape [zip!]
It is unusual, to say the least, for us to come to a Covered In Folk feature to take on an artist whose total output officially includes but two full-length albums, a four-track EP, and a handful of appearances on tribute and compilation albums. But love him or hate him, there’s no denying the influence Bon Iver, aka Justin Vernon, has had on the independent music scene and its listeners since the revelation of his 2007 debut For Emma, Forever Ago – a reinvention and rebirth, as if a decade or more of previous artistic output as a bandmate, and as a solo artist under his own name, predated his very existence.
To be fair, no small modicum of Bon Iver’s claim to hipster fame is grounded in its perfectly twee backstory: a three month post-breakup solitude in a Wisconsin cabin, with mononucleosis and a small set of recording equipment, produces an itch to compose, from which the heavily layered album tracks emerged wholesale and complete like a ten commandments of the Indie age. Delicate as a demo, For Emma would ultimately be distributed in a small batch to blogs, who raved Bon Iver’s way to small label distribution, television placement, and best-of-the-decade listings in Stereogum, Metacritic, and other major tastemaker publications online and off. This, in turn, would lead to a second self-titled album in 2011, recorded with others as a band of the same moniker, that received Grammy wins for Best New Artist and Best Alternative Album, became Pitchfork’s #1 album of the year, and cemented the bearded artist’s place at the top of the hipster heart.
Intricate, authentic, deep and enveloping, the music Vernon has composed under the Bon Iver name is deserving of its critical reception. As a songwriter, Vernon favors the poetic, with longing and angst communicated through a litany of observations which come off as something between metaphor or vision; he’s been compared to Robert Creeley, which in this poet’s heart says something about a trend towards clear imagery and a particularly vivid use of figurative language. It is telling, indeed, that our set today includes coverage of almost every Bon Iver song ever recorded; something about these songs catches the heart, mind, and soul.
But although his lyrical authenticity is duly touted and taken on by his indiefolk peers, Vernon’s power as Bon Iver is more truly in the process, and the sound it creates: one that begins with wordless melody, which he listens to and then adds words to to match the syllabic nature of the music. This signature “music first” approach to arrangement and performance grounds his songs deeply in their rhythm and melody, elevating them past the limitations of live solo performance and demanding performance that generally includes a full band and sing-along audience choir.
The sound of Bon Iver – that shimmery overdubbed breathiness, evoking the haze of mono and isolation – dominates the canon, making for lyrics that are themselves part and parcel of the sonic atmosphere. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, to find that sound so often a primary driver of coverage, with that inimitable layered falsetto finding similarly soaring, echoing voice in versions from a score of artists growing up and finding their own success in the indiefolk scene. The merely unadorned solo isn’t rare, but it seems somehow startling, even as it finds and exposes a simpler beauty in the songs and melodies themselves.
Our favorite cases of each populate our 20-song tribute set today. Join us, as the loneliness and heartache of Bon Iver finds voice in the other, and then stick around for a bonus EP-length set of Bon Iver covering his own peers and influences.
Tinkling piano, sweet lead vocals and hushed harmonies, and an undertone of cello build to a wash of sound before stripping back again in this EP freebie from tourmates and occasional collaborators Luke Leighfield & Jose Vanders.
Quite lo-fi; retro-primitive, with a hint of grunge guitar bridge lending an edge like the Lemonheads at their lightest. Check out more of Dress Rehearsal‘s living room covers and originals at bandcamp.
Orla Garland‘s take is jangly and sharp, a stark contrast to the lush harmonies of the original; A clear, soaring piano ballad with heart from the teenage sensation Birdy lends a pop feel; Clara C hits the middle ground with sweet soul and a pulsing reverb.
Kina Grannis heads right for Justin Vernon’s original layered echoes; Duncan Stagg makes for an altrock ballad; Benjamin Baker’s cover, from his four-album Acoustified covers series, is darker, a campfire hush with harmonies.
A lush, shimmery mash-up that crosses jazz, trance, and dreampop lines – sparse for the genre, perfect for the close of today’s Bon Iver covers collection.
Looking for more Bon Iver? Though he is reportedly reluctant to perform his own songs without the richness of vocal harmony and band, Vernon does some pretty sweet covers himself. Today’s Bonus Tracks feature the Wisconsin artist taking on the folk canon both new and old, live and in-studio – a strong introduction to his original, inimitable style.