As the average promotional bio can attest, many singer-songwriters and folk artists find a spark in a small, select set of early influences; part of the process of learning to take on the mantle of your own artistry involves imitation of the formative experience. I imagine the process much like that of any fan with even a small modicum of skill on any instrument, wherein the urge to reproduce and channel prompts vocalization and handwork, first tentatively and, finally, with confidence, as we learn from the hidden masters on our stereo.
It’s not the only fount of coverage, of course. Mutual respect for an artist can just as easily prompt re-creation of the heard, so can discovery, rediscovery, or merely whim. Yet we assume that artists’ tribute clusters around a weighted crowd, with some small set of heavy hitters in the mix whose songs that artist knows by heart.
Recording those songs, however, is less often done. Towards the center of folk, formal recordings of covers trend towards the vast, not the narrow – I suppose because it risks too narrow an alliance between cover artist and originator to overcover – influence is one thing, but the curse of being “another Dylan” looms large next to its implied blessing.
And so, although we’ve seen some great single-artist tribute albums in the past few years, with the exception of a few major and prolific muso-cultural influencers – the songbook of AP Carter in the tradfolk crowd, for example, of Dylan and Guthrie in the straight-up folk camp, or of Bill Monroe, who arguably established and collated the sound that would become bluegrass, thus ensuring that his songs would be ever in the hands of those who would follow – it remains relatively rare for an artist to cover another in two different stages of their career. But it does happen, and when it does, the loss of the artistic variable of authorship makes such pairings a potent lens for exploring how an artist matures, evolves, or expands creatively.
Today, in the first of what we hope will be a multi-part exploration of such re-covered incidences and accidents, we take a deeper look at how and why through the lens of some favorite double dips.
Though the LA folkrock band who wrote this pair did not form until 2009, as he notes on his website, thanks to a well-considered and newly committed relationship with the band, Mark Erelli has already taken on the Dawes songbook in two very different incarnations: as a member of gleeful-sound folkgrass quintet Barnstar! and this month, in a slow, mournful otherwise-unreleased home-studio take on Moon On The Water which strips the band’s work down to guitar, faint marching drums, slow fiddle strokes, and that inimitable voice layered in chorus. Erelli is no stranger to double coverage, having released several live Randy Newman covers, and multiple tributes to friend and mentor Bill Morrissey, through his long-standing Mp3 of the Month series.
Many have covered Dylan multiple times, but Frazey Ford’s pair beats a full house: As a founding member of Vancouver-based femmefolk trio The Be Good Tanyas, Ford was featured on 2003 Chinatown cut In My Time Of Dying; seven years later, on her debut as a post-breakup solo act, her soulful influences shine through on One More Cup Of Coffee. The versions, both transformative, share much in the way of sound, with the ragged rhythms and urgency so typical of her work and theirs, and that incredible, fragile voice, but they’re couched so differently – one layered and lush Americana, one staggered and bouncy tradfolk – it’s hard to imagine them on the same album.
Richard Shindell’s modus operandi shifted a bit between the 2001 concert that spawned live release Courier and South of Delia, the 2007 covers album that sparked this very blog, deepening into something more rich and layered and tinged with both indie rock and pop elements that come through loud and clear in the studio. Springsteen benefits from this major lift in both cases: the relative rawness of Shindell’s live 2001 full-band Fourth of July contrasts strongly with his deconstructed Born in the USA, making of the first the perfect plaintive love song, the second a complex treatise, and the perfect politicized anti-anthem.
Like many prolific artists of various stripe, Lucy Kaplansky has covered the Beatles several times – and Steve Earle, Cliff Eberhardt, and Bill Morrissey more than once as well. But Kaplansky’s lead vocals on Eliza Gilkyson’s Sanctuary may well be my favorite cover song of the last few years – and a permanent fixture atop my personal hope-and-heartbreak mix, which reveals just why her power as a balladeer and portraiture painter is unparalleled in the eyes of father and son. Although only two years separate the release, the cover stands in strong contrast to her take on Gilkyson’s The Beauty Way, off new release Reunion, which shows the more contemporary folk sound that Kaplansky trends towards in her own solo work.
Though Amos Lee‘s beautifully controlled blues vocalisms stand at odds to the truly broken tone of John Prine, his debt to Prine is audible in their comparably evisceral delivery. The slow, powerful yearning of lyric and line-reading Lee inherits are especially evident in Christmas In Prison, recorded for an XPN-broadcast Aimee Mann Christmas special in 2008 – the live setting reveals more rawness – while the gentle, understated pain in the studio recording of Speed of the Sound of Loneliness, a b-side from 2005 single Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight is more consistent with the sparse intimacy that first made me fall in love with his soulful voice.
Old Crow Medicine Show is a crowd on the new tradfolk line, but they pay due tribute to their singer-songwriter influences. Their treatment of Guthrie is especially illuminating: the first, a fast, raw and raucous 2006 take on Union Maid that finds the band in full-bore political party mode; the second, a next-year take on Deportee which may well have been solicited for the Songs of America compilation on the strength of the former, but bares scant resemblance, as it meanders like a cowboy’s slow roadsong, pushing harmonies and concertina over the pick and strum.
Looking for further coverage from the folkworld? Join the Cover Lay Down facebook page for ongoing one-shot stream and video postings throughout the week, and keep an eye open for news of part 2 of our series in the next few, featuring Kasey Chambers covering Lucinda Williams, Josh Ritter covering John Prine, Red Molly covering Susan Werner, Shawn Colvin covering The Beatles, either Colvin or Ani DiFranco taking on the Greg Brown songbook (we still can’t decide!), and more double-dipping coverage histories. Also coming soon: our semi-annual fund drive, new coverage from the mailbag, a third house concert with local favorite Meg Hutchinson, and more!