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(Re)Covered: The Omnibus Edition w/ Molly Tuttle, Red Molly, Nataly Dawn, Lucy Wainwright Roche & more!November 7th, 2015 — 09:10 am
We’re back in the saddle again after a long hiatus, and though the music archives are toast, the desktop is piled high with new covers from old favorites. And so we start anew with a feet-first installment of our perennial (Re)Covered series, which revisits previously featured artists through the lens of ongoing coverage: an omnibus of tasteful folk treatment of songs by Taylor Swift, Lorde, Bob Dylan, John Hartford, Radiohead, Led Zeppelin, Simon & Garfunkel, Cake and more that yaws wide from bluegrass to indiefolk, from tender to tempestuous, from the sharp and sassy to the sweet and sublime.
Bluegrass darling and recently crowned Flatpicker Magazine cover girl Molly Tuttle, who we first encountered on our way to the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival a few years ago, is still rising fast, as evidenced by both this sweet on-air video of the well-covered John Hartford classic Gentle On My Mind recorded for Music City Roots in mid-October, and public reception to her upcoming debut full-length, which has already topped 100% in its Pledgemusic campaign with over a hundred days left to go, and patronage gifts still available (We recommend the digital album and streaming concert combo package, a twenty dollar two-fer). She’s currently on tour down south with her band The Goodbye Girls, opening for The Milk Carton Kids; check ‘em out together now, because Tuttle won’t be an opening act for much longer.
Last featured via a pair of Gillian Welch covers in our fledgeling Double Dippers series in June of 2013, Americana/Roots folk trio Red Molly is technically on hiatus after a strong, gritty 2014 release, and subsequent tour, and a new baby born to member Molly Venter and her partner Eben Pariser of acoustic “steamboat soul” band Roosevelt Dime. But that didn’t stop them from dropping a new pay-as-you-will track just today, recorded live back in April: a beautiful, unusually rich harmony-drenched take on Caledonia, a song which we covered in a tribute to Dougie MacClean back in 2011. Our pro-artist bent here pushes us to link to, rather than post, the pay-as-you-will track, the better to support a living wage for the artists we love; here’s an overdue favorite from The Red Album in its easy stead.
Speaking of Bluegrass, and Joe Val: we’ve shared plenty from newgrass quintet the Infamous Stringdusters since discovering them in 2006, when they were asked to fill in for bluegrass supergroup The Grascals on the winter festival mainstage at the last minute, celebrating their well-chosen covers as they emerged, from Police classic Walking on the Moon to John Mayer’s 3×5. These days, though we’re still waiting for a studio version of their cover of Lorde’s pop hit Royals, we’re thrilled with their new EP Undercover, which – true to its title – offers a five-piece set of well-covered delights from Tom Petty, Pink Floyd, Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, each one warm in tone, each one rich in masterful bluegrass instrumentalism. Check out the studio recording process for Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright below.
This year’s Falcon Ridge Folk Fest came nigh in the midst of familial and technological chaos, leaving me unable to blog about it for the first time in ages. But the coverage lingers, thanks to hardy fans and the exquisite and cheerful board and recording skills of Scott Jones, who captures the performances at the pre-fest Lounge Stage – a fest within a fest hosted by the boys from Pesky J. Nixon, who incidentally have just wrapped up their own second covers album, fittingly titled Red Ducks 2.
Below, download frequent Falcon Ridge faves We’re About 9 taking on Radiohead under the big Lounge Stage tent, peep at Pesky J. Nixon’s mainstage take on Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door featuring Brother Sun and Susan Werner, and then stand back – way back – for the amazingly energetic Led Zeppelin coverset that closed the workshop stage this year, featuring rising star Matt Nakoa on vocals and psychedelic folk rockers The Grand Slambovians on everything else. We’ll have more coverage from the masterful Matt Nakoa later this week; for now, if you just can’t get enough, another great set of Pesky J. Nixon coverage and originals from their record release party last weekend is now available on the ‘tubes.
- We’re About 9: Fake Plastic Trees (orig. Radiohead)
A wistful, innocent cover of one of my all-time favorite Cake songs? Count me in, thanks to Nataly Dawn, aka the female half of viral vid sensation Pomplamoose, who performs here with Lauren O’Connell under the moniker My Terrible Friend, and plans to keep doing so, thank god: the week-old track is subtle and stripped down, retaining the tender intimacy we cited when Pomplamoose’s Tribute To Famous People covers album tickled our fancy way back in 2010. Add a sultry, soulful cover of Wild Horses released just this weekend, featuring a duet with Nataly’s mom – a tribute to the hours they spent together harmonizing on the song in her childhood – and if you weren’t a fan before, you will be now; Follow Nataly to check out equally sultry recent coverage of Waters of March (with Carlos Cabrera), Billy Joel, and more, and to pick up more as they hit the tubes.
We’re huge fans of Lucy Wainwright Roche here, ever since featuring her early work in our very first Folk Family Feature on the Wainwright/Roche clan way back in 2007, and again in a Rising Stars (Re)Covered feature in 2010. But we’re especially eager to hear more of Songs in the Dark, the impending duet album from Lucy and sister Martha Wainwright, whose musical paths intersect less often, in part because Martha’s inheritance is more ribald, while Lucy’s is more attuned towards the rich harmonies of her mother’s side.
In keeping with the Wainwright, Roche, and McGarrigle families’ deep sense of how songs come to define us, the songs here matter much: carefully chosen to reflect the canon of songs sung to them as children, the list includes several children’s lullabies, as well as tracks by their mothers Kate McGarrigle and Suzzy Roche, and their shared father Loudon Wainwright III. And the combination is unexpectedly potent, echoey indiefolk for the most part: in this Simon and Garfunkel cover – the first release from the album – Martha’s heartier alto stabilizes the sound, while Lucy’s whisperier, lighter voice floats above thick layers of guitar and droning reeds and bass: a sultry temptress of a song, leaving us wanting more, more, more.
Finally: with over a million hits per track on YouTube alone, we’re clearly late to the party on Ryan Adams‘ full-album homage to Taylor Swift’s seminal 1989 album, but we’d be truly remiss if we didn’t acknowledge just how much the record has stuck in our ears. Adams, an early featured artist on the blog whose covers and songbook we last revisited as part of our semi-annual Carolina Coverfolk series, has an unusual knack for transforming songs from far-off genres; here, he brings the angst and emotional turmoil lurking under Swift’s pop hits to the forefront, and the result is a cohesive, magical set well worth the pursuit.
Bonus points for a tongue-in-cheek metacommentary cover from Father John Misty aka J. Tillman, who claims to be covering “the classic Ryan Adams album 1989″ in the style of The Velvet Underground (and pulls it off perfectly) in his sardonic take below.
A repost of a repost as we slowly regain our footing here at Cover Lay Down after a year of stress and strain – including a comprehensive crash of all musical archives, continued family illnesses, floods, fleas, and mold issues in our home, and a growing workload that exemplifies the current cultural disaster that is the teaching profession under siege.
Yes, it’s been a ridiculously challenging time, and we’re not back for good just yet – but having just inherited both a wonderful UU coffeehouse series and a new computer to blog about it, I can’t help but offer an 11th hour celebration of Mary Lou Lord, an artist near and dear to our hearts, who plays TONIGHT at Unity House Concerts alongside her daughter Annabelle Lord-Patey, whose career appears to be starting with a slow and delicate burn sure to give her claim to fame in her own good time. Stay tuned for more, albeit slowly, as we rebuild our archives, and for more Unity House news as we present Matt Nakoa November 21 and Mike + Ruthy December 4…and enjoy the love below in the meantime.
When we last checked in on Mary Lou Lord, she seemed to be on permanent hiatus following a 2005 diagnosis with a rare vocal cord affliction, though an appearance at SXSW the following year suggested she was still open to possibility. But the pixie-faced singer-songwriter who rose from the subways of Boston to indiegrunge fame through a combination of raw talent and close relationships with both Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith has been on the move lately, co-founding Girls Rock Camp in Boston, embarking on a new kickstarter-driven album, hosting open mics, and playing alongside her talented teenaged daughter Annabelle in a recent live tribute to Elliott Smith alongside Rhett Miller, Chris Thile, Bob Dorough, and others that was featured in The New Yorker.
More generally, Lord’s Facebook feed is a daily dose of awesome, a delightful combination of raw human observation and the loving curation and celebration of a number of amazing musical legacies both past and present, from Joni Mitchell and Smith himself to mutual faves Elizabeth Mitchell, Haley Bonar, Teddy Thompson, and First Aid Kit. Though she is still recovering from a serious fall off a fire escape last month, that didn’t stop her from making major news in Stereogum after an “epic” Facebook response to Courtney Love’s terrible rendition of Big Star hit Thirteen wandered into a more general response to Love’s tendency to claim in public interviews that Lord snuck onto Kurt and Courtney’s porch to kill their cat – a thoughtful, emotional, coherent use of social media that only cemented our faith in the woman’s resilience, and made Courtney seem even more insane, as if such thing were possible.
As Lord noted at her recent live performance, she doesn’t perform much anymore, and a small but growing set of Soundcloud covers, including takes on Jason Molina, Dylan, and Richard Thompson, reveal an artist still struggling to vocalize, though the resulting strain has a rare intimacy, and reveals charm of its own. But if this is a comeback, we’re all for it. Read our original feature, check out our newly-expanded list of covers – including a stunning Lucinda Williams take from her newest album – and follow Mary Lou Lord on Facebook to keep up with the resurrecting career of a well-deserving superstar.
As far as I can tell, the only major distinction between modern folk and a certain sort of indie music seems to be how the artists choose to produce and use instruments on their songs. And though you won’t find this sort of fuzzed-out guitar on the other folkblogs, the way the modern singer-songwriter mentality seems to find voice in both indierock and folk fascinates me.
But production isn’t what makes folk, and even if it were, the distinction is often fluid. The small but growing cadre of indie artists who perform in both folk and alt-rock modes owe no small debt to a select group of artists — Evan Dando, Lou Barlow, Tanya Donelly, Jeff Tweedy, Ben Gibbard and others — who have, over the years, moved easily across the bridge between the two forms. But these artists, in turn, owe the very existence of that bridge to other, lesser-known forerunners, like Elliott Smith and Daniel Johnston, who spent their entire careers building the bridge for them to cross.
As part of our ongoing exploration of this curious relationship, today we feature one underappreciated artist who is more often found among the indierock, but who has claimed folk credibility from the start: Mary Lou Lord, folksinger and cover artist.
I was a high school student in Boston during Mary Lou Lord’s busker days, and not an apt or diligent pupil; I often skipped class to head off down the T into Harvard Square with friends. Given our relative age, then, and her own preference for playing along the Red Line, I suppose I must have passed by Lord a couple of times. But back then, my ears were full of post-punk grunge, and she was just another streetcorner kid with an acoustic guitar, a ragged approach, and an innocent, little-girl voice. By the time she started recording alongside the best of the growing post-punk world, I had already moved on.
The heavy fuzz and feedback of much of her production puts the bulk of Mary Lou Lord’s recorded work squarely in line with early nineties alt-rock; if you’re looking for her in your local indie record store, you’ll find it alongside the pre-grunge of artists like The Lemonheads and Juliana Hatfield. But like Beck, Lord has always had a folk heart, and worn it proudly. Though she’s famous for her catfights with Courtney Love, she toured and recorded with Elliott Smith, and opened for Cover Lay Down fave Shawn Colvin. By identifying herself with those artists and others, Lord categorizes herself as an artist straddling the bridge between singer-songwriter folk and the indie world.
The songs that Lord has chosen to cover over her two-decade career speak volumes about which artists she considers her musical peers and forefathers, and here, too, we find a curious connection with the folkworld. In and among the Magnetic Fields and Big Star covers, we find covers of Smith and Colvin, indiefolkie Daniel Johnston, Lucinda Williams, Richard Thompson, and even oldschool pre-folkie Elizabeth Cotten. Clearly, this is a woman who listens to folk music on her own time, recognizes good songwriting regardless of original instrumentation, and takes them where she can find them.
Here’s a few of my favorite Mary Lou Lord coversongs which hit that spectrum, and then some. Most are solo acoustic, delicate and coy, but don’t be scared by the occasional guitarfuzz; this is, at heart, a form of folk. Heck, if feedback was all it took, Dylan wouldn’t be a folkie anymore, either.
- Mary Lou Lord: Jump (orig. Van Halen)
- Mary Lou Lord: Shake Sugaree (orig. Elizabeth Cotten)
- Mary Lou Lord: Speeding Motorcycle (orig. Daniel Johnston)
- Mary Lou Lord: Fearless (orig. Pink Floyd)
- Mary Lou Lord: Thirteen (orig. Big Star)
- Mary Lou Lord: Hard Road (orig. Lucinda Williams)
- Mary Lou Lord: I Don’t Want To Get Over You (orig. Magnetic Fields)
- Sara Radle w/ Mary Lou Lord: Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys (orig. Ed Bruce) 
- Mary Lou Lord Soundcloud Covers [2012-2013]
It’s hard to link to the collected works of Mary Lou Lord; her recorded output remains scattered across several indie labels, some of them short-lived. But some of her back catalog is still available, and it’s chock full of folk covers.
Folk fans are probably best served by starting with the cover-heavy Live City Sounds, a hard-to-come-by acoustic album with several Richard Thompson covers which sounds like the streets where I once passed Mary Lou Lord in her busking days. Alt-punk label Kill Rock Stars also still carries a split bill EP and a couple of compilations.
Though her newest album seems not to have been released yet – she leaked the new Lucinda Williams track last year herself after it started getting play on media outlets – those looking for a more recent treasure trove would be well served to bookmark Mary Lou’s Soundcloud page, which has a growing mix of living room coverage and old found studio sound, including some mid-nineties tracks of her goofing around with Elliott Smith.
Bonus tracks? Sure – here’s a couple more Big Star coversongs in the same grungefolk vein. Dando’s cover is one of my favorite coversongs ever, hands down. And doesn’t Mary Lou Lord sound like a female version of Elliott Smith?
The week winds down here in North Carolina. The family and friends begin to disperse. And so we, too, will pack the van and head North again, slowly driving away the sand and surf.
The sounds of the sound and the osprey’s call will fade, and so will the rest, as we stiffen into the wind of the life we left behind. But the music will linger, and hold within it the peace of place, and of our selves.
From old school to new, then, our final soundtrack of spring vacation, with covers of and from one more set of North Carolina’s native sons and daughters: John D. Loudermilk, Ola Belle Reed, The Red Clay Ramblers, Hiss Golden Messenger, Delta Rae, and Jim Lauderdale.
Formed during the early seventies at the epicenter of the Durham, North Carolina string band revival, Tony Award-winning band The Red Clay Ramblers have remained a staple of the scene for over four decades by bringing their pickin’ and grinnin’ to a multitude of media, from radio and records to film and musical theater. Originals abound in their canon, but so do old familiars – especially on Meeting In The Air, a full album of Carter Family tunes recorded and released on Flying Fish. Their roster has changed since their early years – Shawn Colvin was even a member for a short time in the late eighties – but their music continues to be a standard for the form. Hear why.
- Red Clay Ramblers: Will You Miss Me (orig. The Carter Family)
- Red Clay Ramblers: Schoolhouse On The Hill (orig. The Carter Family)
- Red Clay Ramblers: North Carolina Toast/Breakdown (orig. Martin/Kerr)
From the fringes of the alternative indiefolk world comes Hiss Golden Messenger, formed around core duo MC Taylor and Scott Hirsch, who previously performed together in both a hardcore punk band and an indie rock group named after a Joni Mitchell album before moving to North Carolina to begin their current project. As one might expect given their rich heritage and experience, their music is alt-country influenced yet entirely revelatory and rejuvenating.
- Hiss Golden Messenger: Bright Phoebus (orig. Lal & Mike Waterson)
- Hiss Golden Messenger: Fennario (orig. Michael Chapman)
John D. Loudermilk is generally considered one of the greats of the mid-century Nashville era, but he, too, was born in Durham, and graduated from college there in the early fifties before heading out to follow in the footsteps of his famous cousins Ira and Charlie Loudermilk, aka the Louvin Brothers. Predominantly known as a songwriter for others, including Paul Revere and The Raiders, The Everly Brothers, Glen Campbell, Chet Atkins, and Johnny Cash, his songs live on in one of the largest lists of notable compositions ever amassed on Wikipedia, as does he, at 81.
- Jim Henry: Windy & Warm (orig. John D. Loudermilk)
- Norah Jones: Turn Me On (orig. John D. Loudermilk)
- Tex Perkins & Megan Washington: This Little Bird (orig. John D. Loudermilk)
Equal parts tradition and presence, banjo player and Appalachian mainstay Ola Belle Reed was born in Lansing, NC, and went on to become a key influence in the early evolution of folk music before it split off into country, blues, and rock and roll. Her songbook is especially common in the blue- and newgrass realms; odds are you’ll recognize all of these tunes, though like most folks, you may think of them as unsourced standards – an indicator of just how deeply she impacted the modern canon.
- Ollabelle: High On A Mountain (orig Ola Belle Reed)
- The Lonesome Sisters: Go Home Little Girl (orig. Ola Belle Reed)
- Uncle Earl: My Epitaph (orig. Ola Belle Reed)
- Cathy Fink: Where The Wild, Wild Flowers Grow (orig. Ola Belle Reed)
Born to a minister and a church music director in the tiny town of Troutman, a distant suburb of sprawling Charlotte, and a graduate of the North Carolina School of the Arts, Jim Lauderdale is better known in the Nashville-based industry as a session player, songwriter, and co-conspirator than a solo artist, thanks to a 2002 Grammy for a collaboration with Ralph Stanley, composer credits on songs made famous by Patty Loveless, George Strait, the Dixie Chicks, and Elvis Costello, and long-time associations with Buddy Miller and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. His participation in any project is a promise of success in my household, but as evidenced below, his solo work is quite solid, too.
- Jim Lauderdale: Seven Cent Cotton and Forty Cent Meat (trad.)
- Jim Lauderdale: Easy Times (orig. Judy Collins)
Finally, we return to Durham with folk-rockers Delta Rae, who hit the scene running in 2010 with a self-titled EP that still takes its turn on our own turntable from time to time. The band on the rise tends to get more airplay on the country rock side of the dial up north, where folks don’t really know from country anyway, but after the release of their sophomore full-length After It All just a few weeks ago, they’re already crossing over into the alternative and folk charts, and we’re glad to hear it, even as they continue to turn towards a more electric, eclectic, radio-ready sound. Bonus points: it’s always a good sign to find a new band covered so well; here’s a pair of favorites from the ‘tube to complement their acoustic rock 2012 Fleetwood Mac cover.
Delta Rae: The Chain (orig. Fleetwood Mac)
- Naked Gypsies: Bottom Of The River (orig. Delta Rae)
- Dylan Byrnes, Abby Sevcik, et. al: Holding On To Good (orig. Delta Rae)
Previously on Cover Lay Down: Carolina Coverfolk, Volumes 1-7
- Volume 1: Songs of the South, As Place and Metaphor
(with covers of and from Red Molly, Mike Seeger, Ben Gibbard, Jimmie Rodgers, Merle Travis and more!)
- Volume 2: The Songs of Elizabeth Cotten
(with covers from Garcia & Grisman, Mary Lou Lord, Chris Smither, Davy Graham, Laura Viers and more!)
- Volume 3: Carolina Chocolate Drops (An African American String Band Recreates the Piedmont Blues)
(with covers of Mississippi Sheiks, Blu Cantrell, Bob Dylan and more!)
- Volume 4: The Traditional Songs (and Beyond) of Doc Watson
(with covers of The Louvin Brothers, The Everly Brothers, Elvis, Patsy Cline and more!)
- Volume 7: Native Sons and Daughters From Indiefolk To Bluegrass
(with covers of and from Ryan Adams, Tift Merritt, David Wilcox, Steep Canyon Rangers, Acoustic Syndicate, and Ben Folds)
Forever this will be the year we cut it almost too fine, working ourselves too close to exhaustion trying to juggle illness, worklife, the desperate hobbies of the well-intentioned. The week came and went in a blur, and suddenly there we were, just across the Chesapeake Bridge Tunnel, taking turns at the wheel despite shared exhaustion, both of us struggling to stay awake as the rain came and went in the dead miles of Virginia, past fields and factories we’ve passed a dozen times, but never seen in daylight.
We made it, of course: to the beach for sunrise, breakfast in the tiny village of Corolla, through the long tired hours before the rental property delivers the keys. Now we are in the house on the lagoon, the same one we have rented for almost a decade. The osprey wheels just yards from this porch, his spiral hypnotic and soothing; the turtles snooze in the sun; across the lagoon, something – a beaver? a fish? – splashes by the bank. The day slows. The soul lags, even as we ply the day with moments, ice cream, beach walks, the children struggle with the buzz that makes boredom of stillness. But the bright horizon brims with the peace we need, and the shared communion we crave.
Soon the others will come: my father, and his companion; my brother; two families of friends next door. Until then, the stress of the world lifts slowly, like the fog burning off the beach at dawn. Here’s a soundtrack to ease us into it: over a hundred songs in all, contained within our six previous collections of songbook coverage by, from and about The Carolinas and their rich history of artists and musicians.
Carolina Coverfolk, Volumes 1-6
Bonus track: North Carolina native Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield take on Miss Misery live on World Cafe in celebration of their new (and quite excellent) Elliott Smith tribute album.
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We’re fattening up my daughter, by which I mean that a year into her diagnosis of Crohn’s Disease she has trained herself to eat so little that she has grown dangerously thin and bony. The doctor has prescribed a 2500 calorie diet. And so the closet gets filled with sticky and salt, donuts and cookies in small packages, and we spend the day asking if she’s eaten, and can she eat again.
Two months ago, we had the opposite problem. The wee one wasn’t so wee after 6 months of steroids, and unlike her elder sister the stick figure, the nine year old cares about her looks; so much, in fact, that she’s asked me not to go into further detail here. Suffice it to say: so go the trials and tribulations of the immunodeficient, as we learn to balance the world on our shoulders, and live in the moment always.
Last year, before the wee one presented with her sister’s disease, I watched from the window as she tried in vain to apply her smaller form to the sledding hill, and trudged back, forlorn and angry, alone in the midst of a familial refocusing not yet hers to claim. But lifelong illnesses wax and wane, and today is a good day, brought on by too much snow and a rare day at home together. The roads are closed, and the sleds inflated; the girls huddle by their electric fireplace in the everything room, watching TV and preparing their bodies for a foray into the cold together. The weight lifts, and we are at peace with the world.
The Band is hard to collect through coverage; their chosen name is essentially un-googleable, confounding the collector’s usual search strategies. But the ragtag group of Canadian roots rockers that once formed the backbone of Dylan’s fuller sound is worth pursuit: their songbook still sings loud and clear through radioplay; their influence on the modern soundscape is clearly evident in the vast collection of coverage we have featured on these pages, all the way back to our very first post, where we celebrated Richard Shindell’s 2007 cover album with his version of Acadian Driftwood.
While often a delight, then, it’s no surprise to find The Band still covered. Their canon at its best is both electric with energy and highly narrative, its downtrodden everymen and eminently singable verse-chorus-verse structure ripe for interpretation. And although deep cuts covered bring a special and unique opportunity to reconsider their collection, there’s nothing so spiritually uplifting, in my mind, as The Weight.
Although spectacular on its own merits, and recognizably spread in short form in the film Easy Rider and concert footage from Woodstock, like many of our Single Song feature subjects, The Weight settled into the American Songbook after some particularly distinctive cross-genre coverage, including early versions by Aretha Franklin, Jackie DelShannon, and Diana Ross and The Supremes, which blanketed the genre spectrum with the song between 1968 and 1969. But the song, described by PBS as a masterpiece of Biblical allusions, enigmatic lines and iconic characters, is clearly one of The Band’s favorite songs to perform, as well. It appears on three separate live albums released in the seventies, and twice in The Band’s seminal concert film The Last Waltz – once in live performance, and once as a coda, in the studio with The Staple Singers.
Today, like greatest hits I Shall Be Released and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, The Weight remains a common enough cover in live performance, especially as a sing-along encore; several of our favorites, including a superstar-laden tribute from the 2014 benefit concert Love For Levon: A Benefit to Save the Barn, Gillian Welch and Old Crow Medicine Show in fine old-timey form, new weird American band The Hollows with hoot and holler, and a beautifully sung version from Dala with Oh Susanna and the Good Lovelies, sport a similar dynamic, with multi-artist cohorts taking the stage for a verse apiece, and joyful voices raised in harmony in the chorus, as they celebrate sets well played.
But in the studio, the song has seen more transformation. Rickie Lee Jones, on her recent deconstruction project The Devil You Know, takes the more extreme path, stripping the song down to a crooning, crying lament. Other sparse acoustic covers delight, as well: YouTubers Connor Pledger and Grace Albritton slide around the melody intimately, for example, while Robin Tesch sticks with solo guitar and a husky voice backed by light harmonies for a comforting, comfortable living room cover that pays apt homage.
The rest lie between, finding their own salvation and solace in the ultimately uplifting lines of first-person narration. Cassandra Wilson croons a soulful, lilting blues; German acoustic soulband Tok Tok Tok jazz it up with sax and a trio sound. Joan Osborne keeps the beat but adds full horn and organ production for funky minor key fare, while Ashes For Trees trend towards sweetness with mando and guitar, and singer-songwriter’s singer-songwriter Don Lange breaks the tune down to a troubadour’s walking blues; both Brian Fallon of The Gaslight Anthem and the touring trio of Tony Lucca, Jay Nash and Matt Duke drop the drums and bombast, too, keeping it wholly acoustic in radio performance. Little Feat and guitar wizard Jeff Healy keep it real as we’d expect them to. Bluegrass legend Marty Stuart even brings the Staple Singers back in, for a countrified yet faithful performance that shows just how well the song stretches out into other genres, finding its place in the various forms and fields that comprise the American roots landscape.
Enjoy the song, in every incarnation. And may your weight be lifted, too, wherever you may be.
The Band’s The Weight, Covered In Folk [zip!]
- Dala ft. Oh Susannah and The Good Lovelies: The Weight 
- Rickie Lee Jones: The Weight 
- Cassandra Wilson: The Weight
- The Gaslight Anthem: The Weight 
- Joan Osborne: The Weight 
- Don Lange: The Weight 
- Marty Stuart w/ The Staple Singers: The Weight 
- Robin Tesch: The Weight 
- Gillian Welch and Old Crow Medicine Show: The Weight 
- Deana Carter: The Weight 
- Tony Lucca, Jay Nash, Matt Duke: The Weight 
- Jeff Healy: The Weight 
- Tok Tok Tok: The Weight 
- Ashes for Trees: The Weight 
- Little Feat ft. Bela Fleck: The Weight 
- The Hollows: The Weight 
- Connor Pledger & Grace Albritton: The Weight 
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There’s something fun finding a song that people don’t take to be that serious …
is actually kind of heartbreaking and sweet and poignant. (William Fitzsimmons, 2009)
Pittsburg-bred artist William Fitzsimmons became an easy posterchild of the sensitive indiefolk movement in 2005 with a home-recorded debut that brought him MySpace popularity, early blog recognition from the hushfolk crowd, and tours with fellow social media-driven folkstars Cary Brothers and Ingrid Michaelson. But in many ways, his music was made for the loneliness and disconnectedness of the kitchen-table digital age: his performances are heartbreak incarnate, and a history of coveted soundtrack spots on indiefolk touchstones such as One Tree Hill and Gray’s Anatomy speak to the essence of quiet honesty in his work.
And Fitzsimmons – a gentle giant with a majestic hipster beard and a comfortably self-effacing demeanor on stage – comes by his heartbreak honestly. A multi-instrumentalist born to blind parents whose marriage fell apart in his adolescence, his 2006 sophomore effort explored their divorce, and his 2008 release The Sparrow and the Crow, which was lauded by critics, is an intensely personal exploration of his own.
Fitzsimmons knows emotion by trade, too, having left a budding career as a mental health specialist to pursue his music; if anything, his songs are an extension of the therapeutic urge, healing as they expose the pain. Add in his distinctive husky voice and pulsing, shimmery style, and the result is a constant comfort, reverent and hushed, as he caresses each song, offering little adornment and great reserve.
We’ve shared most of Fitzsimmons’ covers here in one mix or another; most recently, his take on Cat Stevens, recorded for last year’s tribute to the films of Wes Anderson, topped our Best Coverfolk of 2014 list. His take on James Taylor’s lullaby You Can Close Your Eyes is an oft-resurrected addition to our kidfolk compilations. And we highly recommend his original work, most especially 2014 release Lions, and The Sparrow and The Crow, both of which delve deep into introspection, and unsettles the soul.
But while the short arrangements Fitzsimmons prefers in performance makes each song a fleeting moment of quietude and respect, gathering his coverage in together allows for a steeping perfect for the first real snow outside, and the hush of winter. Click through for an EP-length compilation of our favorite studio covers, and then stick around for a trio of live-in-concert video covers, including a sublime take on Wonderwall, and a Tom Petty cover that will have you checking his tour schedule for more.
- William Fitzsimmons: Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want (orig. The Smiths) 
William Fitzsimmons: Wonderwall (orig. Oasis)
William Fitzsimmons ft. Gungor: Wildflowers (orig. Tom Petty)
William Fitzsimmons, David Bazan, Abby & Noah Gundersen, Chris Carraba: I Shall Be Released (orig. Bob Dylan)
Proudly ad-free and artist-centric since 2007, Cover Lay Down shares artist features, and coverfolk collections regularly here and on our Facebook page. Donate now to help support our continuing mission, and receive an exclusive mix of over thirty otherwise-unblogged folk, roots, and acoustic covers from our 2014 archives as our gift to you!
The Year’s Best Coverfolk, vol. 2: The Singles (2014)
January 1st, 2015 — 01:21 pm
(b-sides, deep cuts, & more one-shot coverage)
So much of what we have to offer went unblogged this year, though it lived in our hearts. And although those precious songs that remain when the detritus of the year is sifted through are an honest bunch, so are they a needful one, tainted by proximity to the pain of life that drove us to them, and back to them again.
And so there’s blues here, and frivolity, too, for when we needed the escape. Crooners, for holding; achers, for the empathy. Joy, to remind us what to cherish, in our darkest hours, and our brightest.
The songs that lasted, and stayed. The songs that sang in our hearts.
To sift through them again is to live the year over again in music. Words fail us. Better, as always, to let the music speak for itself.
And so we come to this, Cover Lay Down’s annual end-of-year coverfolk mix: not the best of an objective universe, but the songs that mattered, greatly, in our greatest need.
From madcap to maudlin, then. From respectful to irreverent, in their treatment of the songs of the air. From indie to traditional, and all the contemporary singer-songwriter, alt-country, and acoustic poprock genres in between.
This we offer with undying thanks to the labels, the artists, the fans, and you, for holding us up, and in, and close, when the world keeps spinning right round, like a record.
May the music go on forever. May the best of 2014 ring in our ears, and our hearts. May the new year bring comfort, and joy evermore.
The Year’s Best Singles: A 2014 Coverfolk Mix [zip!]
- The Henry Girls: Reason To Believe (orig. Bruce Springsteen) [via]
- Lewis & Leigh: Say You Miss Me (orig. Wilco) [via]
- Mary Lambert: Jessie’s Girl (orig. Rick Springfield) [via]
- Kerri Powers: To Love Somebody (orig. Bee Gees) [via]
- Scott Warren: Blackbird (orig. The Beatles) [via]
- Missy Higgins: The Biggest Disappointment (orig. Slim Dusty) [via]
- Heather Maloney + Darlingside: Woodstock (orig. Joni Mitchell) [via]
- Fiona Apple: I’m In The Middle Of A Riddle (orig. Anton Karas) [via]
- Cahalen Morrison & Eli West: Green Pastures (trad.) [via]
- Lucinda Williams: The Pretender (orig. Jackson Browne) [via]
- The Fretless w/ Ruth Moody: Airbag (orig. Radiohead) [via]
- First Aid Kit: America (orig. Simon & Garfunkel) [via]
- The Duhks: Beyond The Blue (orig. Beth Neilsen Chapman) [via]
- Tumbling Bones: A Voice Heard From On High (orig. Bill Monroe) [via]
- Megan Bonnell: It’s Not Dark Yet (orig. Bob Dylan) [via]
- Tinnarose: A Heart Needs A Home (orig. Richard & Linda Thompson) [via]
- Red Molly: Homeward Bound (orig. Simon & Garfunkel) [via]
- Sasha Vovk: Here Today (orig. Paul McCartney) [via]
- Arborea: Bad Moon Rising (orig. Creedence Clearwater Revival) [via]
- Kyle Carey: Across The Great Divide (orig. Kate Wolf) [via]
- American Nomad: Big Boned Woman (orig. Ray LaMontagne) [via]
- Emma Swift: Total Control (orig. The Motels) [via]
- Denison Witmer: Dust Bowl Blues (orig. Woody Guthrie) [via]
- Daniella Andrade and Gia Margaret: Nobody Knows Me At All (orig. The Weepies) [via]
- Nikki Bluhm and the Gramblers: I Can Get Off On You (orig. Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings) [via]
- Amy Black: Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness (orig. John Prine) [via]
- Youngest Son: We Rest On Thee (trad.) [via]
- Forster Anderson: Chandelier (orig. Sia) [via]
- Maiden Radio: Darling We Are Growing Old (orig. The Carter Family) [via]
- S. Carey: Shiny Shoes (orig. The Pines) [via]
- Soft News: Dancing With Myself (orig. Billy Idol) [via]
- Janet Devlin: Friday I’m In Love (orig. The Cure) [via]
- Nickel Creek: Hayloft (live) (orig. Mother Mother) [via]
- Josh Harty and John Statz: Paradise (orig. John Prine) [via]
- Caroline Herring: Donna, Donna (orig. Shalom Secunde) [via]
- Allysen Callery: The End (orig. Sybille Baier) [via]
- Night Beds: The Way The Whole Thing Ends (orig. Gillian Welch) [via]
- Laura Stevenson: No Children (orig. Mountain Goats) [via]
- Nazca: Survivor (orig. Destiny’s Child) [via]
- Axel Flovent: Swim Good (orig. Frank Ocean) [via]
- Sam Griffiths: Heart Of Glass (orig. Blondie) [via]
- The Willows: Roseville Fair (orig. Bill Staines) [via]
Cover Lay Down thrives throughout the year thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, spread the word, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive and kicking.
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 will go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all giftees will receive undying praise, and an exclusive download code for a special gift set of alternate favorites and rare covers otherwise unblogged. Click here to give – and thanks.
It’s been a hell of a year here in the Howdyhouse. Our family’s ongoing struggle with chronic illness crowded deeply into our time to listen and create. Even as other, more typical factors, from overwork to mere maintenance, stole our time, the constant threat of hospitalization imbued every moment with a foundational jitter of instability, leaving us largely exhausted, our poetics and prose abandoned, our thoughts too jumbled for paper or screen.
And so if our presence here on the blog has been sparse and sporadic, it’s because too often, in these rare moments of peace, writing lost out to the need for discourse and deep adjustment as our family tried to rebalance.
And if the new, uncertain normal has changed the pace and persistence of our writing, so has it changed our listening, too.
In an uncertain world, humans tend towards comfort; those of us who use music for its cathartic ability to focus and frame our emotion know well the power of the tried-and-true in times of stress and tribulation. And when the familiar solace of the well-played and well-worn is held stalwart against the threat of sinking into the quicksand of the new, with its high potential to run us aground again through its undiscovered poetry and pain, the new and the noteworthy can too easily pass us by.
To come to the table claiming even the most apologetic ownership of any sort of “best of” collection is hubris, indeed, under such circumstances. But all music is a risk, in the end. And we are shielded, too, in a way, by our practice of listening with the critic’s ear. To identify the potential in music is not to play it into the soul just yet; the critic’s task is not so much jaded as it is Heisenbergian, where the observation of music cushions a little distance from the raw core, just enough to decide whether to let it in.
And so, judiciously, carefully, we have listened, in our grief and gratitude. We have have heard the angels singing, and the devils, as they cross our door. We close the year having heard with our hearts, laid bare against the risk that we might fall into something new and sublime, even as we have missed more than we may have found, and chosen to put aside so many.
And if we have fallen, and risen again, it is because there is joyous music being made, and empathy, and pain. And if there is music anew, then it must be revisited, and celebrated, too.
As we wrote last year,
…the larger context makes [our year's end] sets more needful than ever. For as long as music serves as salve and salvation, then we must also accept that the ongoing search for new artists, new collections, and new transformations is part of the human pilgrimage – and that each new discovery serves the soul both spiritually and medicinally.
In this sense, the annual archival sift that prepares us for our end-of-year pursuit is an inherent part of the journey – a recentering, that helps us revisit and recover tribute albums and cover compilations otherwise too easily lost among the detritus of a life lived in chaos. The mere act of listening closely again, and struggling to identify that which transforms the various parameters each song, album, and collection sets for itself to become something new, and wonderful, is worthy, indeed.
We are humbled by the year of solitude and unsteadiness. We are grateful for the songs that came – in the mail, in the air, and by wire – to comfort us in our year of grief and grasping. We are all the better for it, as always and forever, amen.
Our selections are tinged by our lives, of course – as they should be, ever, if we are to be honest with the world, and ourselves. And so, even the final product stands as another testament to the albums and EPs which stayed with us through thick and thin, made all the more glorious for the rocky path we took to get here,
…because it is borne of personal stress and sorrow, the collection that follows comprises not so much of the albums that stuck through us with the year, but a strange combination of the ones we wish we had time to listen to more often, and the ones which we played incessantly, for weeks upon end, when we most needed comfort in the midst of chaos. More than ever, it is incomplete, subjective, and in some ways, accidental; indeed, for the first time, a significant portion of the albums mentioned below went unblogged in the first place – a testament to our corrupted ability to track the release calendars, and attend to the constant mailbag stream.
And so, once again, we begin our yearly two-part series with our annual album and EP-length end-of-year A-side collection, featuring kudos and links to a very subjective set of the very best cover collections and tributes released in 2014 – a pile of strong contenders for future favorites, each one weighed for its ability to outlast the year and to evoke that which we need of our hearts and our minds.
The usual caveats apply: our categories fit the year, as always, and cover the gamut from kidfolk to traditional, with plenty of indiefolk, singer-songwriter fare, and multi-artist tribute albums in the mix. The line between digital release and CD release has faded to invisibility, driving us away from format-specific consideration; the result is a leaner foray into the wilderness, though a glut of tribute albums and a tendency towards genre blur in the mechanism of collection has us dividing several categories in a hopeless attempt to organize our favorites by type. In acknowledgement of our relative radio silence as we shuttled from store to hospital to workplace in the days and weeks since Thanksgiving, and a reluctant nod to the modern trend to treat holiday music as a discrete genre, we’ve even included a favorite Christmas EP on the list, the better to ensure that we remember them dearly next year.
Overall, though, we’re as proud as ever to present Cover Lay Down’s annual compilation of the Year’s Best Coverfolk Collections: over thirty favorite albums and EPs, arranged into categories much like those which we would use were we in the habit of ranking and rating. Enjoy, click links to purchase and pursue, and be sure to come back in the next few days for our B-side collection of the best one-shot singles and deep cut coverage of the year.
COVER LAY DOWN PRESENTS:
THE YEAR’S BEST TRIBUTES AND COVER COLLECTIONS, 2014
The Year’s Best Tribute Album (multiple artists, folk/roots):
Dead Man’s Town: a Tribute to Born In The U.S.A.
It was a prolific year for multi-artist tribute albums – a welcome sigh of relief after last year’s relatively light field, and a strong counterweight to the modern tendency towards coverage in singleton and videographic form. In response, we’ve split our usual bread-and-butter category, giving separate consideration to albums targeted towards the folkworld on one hand, and tributes which run a larger gamut, but include ample folk offerings among the mix, on the other.
This divergence serves our purpose; as we’ll see both below and in tomorrow’s list of the best single covers of 2014, some of the best folkiest cuts from tribute albums this year made their presence known alongside grungecovers, alt-rockers, and pop crooners. But with a field this broad, it was also inevitable that we’d encounter a few missteps, and any number of halflings, trying as always to straddle the Adult Contemporary line with a clean mix of folkforms, light pop, and gentle rock, but in the end, leaving us spent and empty.
Sadly, both cases apply to Looking Into You, a long-awaited tribute to Jackson Browne which got a full documentary feature on NPR upon its release early in the year. A sprawling double-disc encompassing a veritable who’s who of artists familiar to the folk-and-more tribute album circuit (among them Marc Cohn, Lyle Lovett, Joan Osborne, and Keb’ Mo’) raised our expectations for this record – and it’s certainly listenable enough, if you like their style. But therein lies our complaint: too many artists on Looking Into You barely check in with a set of easygoing, unhurried coverage that doesn’t so much reinterpret Browne’s potent songbook as merely translate it into the native sounds of these famous artists on a quick and noncommittal dip into the studio. A few exceptions, including a strong country showing from siblings Sean and Sara Watkins and a powerful Great Pretender from Lucinda Williams, keep the record on the shelf – but as is so often the case, we are left waiting for the definitive tribute to a songwriter long overdue for such recognition.
Similar disappointment accompanied the arrival of Look Again To The Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited, a Joe Henry produced album which features a set of artists rotating through a shared studio as they revisit Cash’s potent album-length narrative of the Native American people and their plight. The Gillian Welch-led tracks are good, if typical of her slow, syrupy work; the remainder, from Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle, and the Milk Carton Kids, are a drag; though others, including Cover Me, have included the album high on their own end of year lists, it says what it needs to, I guess, that I haven’t picked up the album again since its initial release.
But there were triumphs closer to the heart of the folkworld, too. Our dark horse pick of the litter is Dead Man’s Town, a Tribute to Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA; the album made the blogrounds early, thanks to a stunner of a title track from Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, but the deeper cuts are strong, too, with an alt-countryfolk lineup of Blitzen Trapper, Joe Pug, Low, Justin Townes Earle, Nicole Atkins and more putting their hearts on the line. The songs are transformed and deconstructed, as they should be, and more haunting than not, all without losing the everyman despair of the originals; the resulting set is quite diverse, yet consistent and clean, raw and real, driving and driven, and highly recommended for the alt and no depression folkfan.
Although its origin as a kickstarter reward for a film celebrating the life of early folk revivalist and folklorist Shirley Collins gave it a relatively soft release, Collins tribute Shirley Inspired is absolutely worth the pounds, with generally unknown-to-us tradfolk revivalists turning in spare, almost proto-folk covers of the traditional songbook Shirley carried and reshaped into modernity, revealing along the way a thriving new cachet of artists previously under our radar. Recently featured Chris Smither tribute Link Of Chain comes in high on our list after repeated listening, too, thanks to “a masterful treatment with few low points and little sameness” from Mark Erelli, Jeffrey Foucault, Tim O’Brien, Aoife O’Donovan, Loudon Wainwright III, Mary Gauthier, and other names on the circuit.
And although we struggled with it the first few times we listened to it, The Empress Of The Blues, an all-female Bessie Smith tribute from tribute-driven label Reimagine Music that pairs a broad set of indiefolk voices with a songbook that has stood the test of time, comes in close, with kudos for an unsettling ride through an often unsettling canon. Though a few tracks are jarring (skip Haley Bonar’s screeching hard rock foray into Send Me to The ‘Lectric Chair, and Tim & Adam’s Depeche Mode-era Jelly Roll), the vast majority of the songs here are gorgeous and beautifully broken, fragmented and frequently bare, each one bobbing to the surface as the album winds through its sequence; in the hands of Tift Merritt, Dawn Landes, Jesca Hoop, and other folk favorites, the blues have never been so sharp, so strange, or so humbling.
- Jason Isbell & Amanda Shires: Born In The U.S.A. (orig. Bruce Springsteen)
- Blitzen Trapper: Working On The Highway (orig. Bruce Springsteen)
(from Dead Man’s Town: A Tribute to Born In The U.S.A., 2014)
- Mary Gauthier: I Feel The Same (orig. Chris Smither)
(from Link Of Chain: A Songwriter’s Tribute to Chris Smither, 2014)
- Plinth: One Night As I Lay On My Bed (trad.)
- Elle Osborne and Alex Bondonno: Alain Bain (trad.)
(from Shirley Inspired, 2014)
- Abigail Washburn: Backwater Blues (orig. Bessie Smith)
(from Empress of the Blues: A Tribute to Bessie Smith, 2014)
The Year’s Best Mixed Genre Tribute Album (multiple artists):
I Saved Latin! A Tribute to Wes Anderson
Though disappointment accompanied the arrival of the inevitable few – see above, and don’t get me started on this year’s crop of Dylan tributes – happily, a set of other, stronger halfling also-rans lent compensatory coverage to our lives, each one too alternative, grunge, or elsewise to be counted truly folk, each one nonetheless strong across the genres, and inclusive of a number of songs acoustic, broken down, or otherwise folk by our broad definition.
I Saved Latin!, a tribute to the seminal soundtracks of Wes Anderson films, tops our new mixed-genre category this year, adding a solid chapter to a label founded on using coverage and tribute to tout a familiar, predominantly female stable of artists along the spectrum from punk to folk. Covering a curator rather than a musician is unusual, though it’s not the first time American Laundromat Records has dug into the realm of soundtracks for their tribute fodder, but although Anderson’s film soundtracks (The Royal Tennenbaums, Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom) pull from a vast set of classic rock and pop, they have a common tonality, and as we’ve seen on previous tributes to Neil Young and The Smiths, the label’s curation and solicitation are among the best in the business. In the end, it works: potent cuts from label stalwarts Juliana Hatfield, Sara Lov, William Fitzsimmons, Matt Pond and Kristin Hersh delve into aural atmospheres that, like Anderson’s trademark cinematography, wrap the world in gauze before poking it into your rib cage.
The two-disc Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell collection is strong and subtle, digging deep into the works of a lesser known avant-garde composer, electronic musician, and cellist as it yaws from uptempo indie music to true-blue indiefolk; the artists come from a similarly experimental and iconoclastic slice of the modern music world, and though most take an appropriately mixed-media approach to his catalog, cuts from Jose Gonzalez, Sam Amidon, Sufjan Stevens, Phosphorescent, Glen Hansard and Devendra Banhart reveal just why Russell is worth revisiting from the folkier side. Posthumous Jason Molina tribute Farewell Transmission comes in right on the line, sprawling and heavy with indie and altcountry submissions, and an inner core of rough-cut players paying due and diligent respect to a lost soul. And though a few lesser-known bands on the collection seem less than confident about their choices, This Is The Town: A Tribute to Nilsson, Vol. 1 pays mostly apt and playful homage to the versatility of the songwriter’s songwriter, kicking off with a barrelhouse from Langhorne Slim and a sweet latin lilt from Dawn Landes, moving on to hybrid coverage from Tracy Bonham, Willy Mason, and more.
- William Fitzsimmons: The Wind (orig. Cat Stevens)
(from I Saved Latin! A Tribute to Wes Anderson, 2014)
- Phosphorescent: You Can Make Me Feel Bad (orig. Arthur Russell)
(from Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell, 2014)
- Fathom Lane: I’ve Been Riding With The Ghost (orig. Jason Molina)
(from Farewell Transmission: A Tribute to Jason Molina, 2014)
- Dawn Landes: You’re Breaking My Heart (orig. Harry Nilsson)
(from This Is The Town: A Tribute To Nilsson, Vol. 1, 2014)
The Year’s Best Tribute Album (single artist):
Mark Erelli, Milltowns and Joseph Arthur, Lou (tie)
Choosing favorites in the realm of single-artist tribute albums is a far easier task than culling the herd of producer-curated album and artist tributes; the narrowminded pursuit and focus it takes for a single artist to dedicate an entire album to a single peer or predecessor keeps the field lean.
But if the sheer investment required to record a tribute album on one’s own keeps the pool shallow, the same dedication almost always springs from strong emotion, priming the pump for potency. Milltowns, Mark Erelli’s 2014 kickstarter-driven tribute to Bill Morrissey, proves the rule, and why it matters: originally recorded in-home, and adorned and produced later with his friends in the Boston folk scene, the well-chosen collection pays powerful homage to a beloved hard-living Fast Folk-era staple of the singer-songwriter circuit, evoking both the mentorship that Erelli received from Morrissey himself, and the prescience and intimacy that lives on in his songs.
Lou, Joseph Arthur’s posthumous tribute to Lou Reed, is a friend-to-friend affirmation as understated as its name, with slow upright piano and hoarse vocals evoking Reed’s loss and redemptive vision gorgeously. Similar fire, though with a harder edge that befits the former members of The Blasters, fuels Common Ground, a roots rock tribute to early folkblues master Big Bill Broonzy from siblings Dave and Phil Alvin, which got due recognition from critics upon release but seems to have been forgotten in many end-of-year lists. And way on the other end of the folk tradition, on Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of…, prolific neo-traditionalist and self-proclaimed “professional whistler” Andrew Bird seems more curious about plumbing and making palatable the weird power of the songbook of husband and wife Americana duo The Handsome Family than anything – and he does so quite adeptly and tenderly, though it’s hard to deny the songs he has chosen for the album have power of their own. Taken together, the quartet of albums comprise a survey in influence that proffers better explanation of the folk process and why it matters than we could ever put into words.
- Joseph Arthur: Pale Blue Eyes (orig. Lou Reed)
(from Lou, 2014)
- Dave and Phil Alvin: All By Myself (orig. Big Bill Broonzy)
(from Common Ground: Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Play And Sing The Songs of Big Bill Broonzy, 2014)
- Andrew Bird: Tin Foiled (orig. The Handsome Family)
(from Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of…, 2014)
The Year’s Best Covers Album (multiple artists):
Decoration Day, Vol. 3
Label-driven cover sets abound in our survey of multi-artist covers albums, as always, with each clustered around a premise that justifies its existence – for what better way to celebrate the world of coverage than by bringing thematic focus to a single set of coverage from a finite set of well-respected craftspersons. But surprisingly, once we skim out those albums which primarily pay tribute to the tradition (see The Year’s Best Traditional Album below), and put aside the multi-genre Wes Anderson tribute mentioned above, the strongest contenders in this category come with a similar genre drift past folk into bordering territory on the genre map – reminding us, if nothing else, that folk is increasingly seen an attitude and style in the marketplace, not some isolated genre to be held close by discrete folk labels or producers.
Kudos and recommendations for the roots set belong to this year’s 20th anniversary stable-covers-stable 2-disc roundup from barroom punk-slash-roots label Bloodshot Records, with Shakey Graves, Samantha Crain, The Handsome Family, Superchunk, and Hiss Golden Messenger covering their favorite songs from the Bloodshot archives; hipsters might prefer Sweetheart 2014, this year’s especially strong Valentine’s Day sampler from Starbucks, which includes a quirky collection of gems from Blake Mills, Fiona Apple, and Beck, plus a Phosphorescent cover previously blogged. Decoration Day, Vol. 3, just a hair too big at 8 tracks to count as an EP, earns our respect and top honors by a nose with tracks that range from honest folk to all-out rootsy soul from Mason Jar Music, the NYC-based label that brought us 2012′s amazing collection of watershed covers in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. And although some of its artists are a bit too twee for our taste, the vast majority of the tracks on The Cover Up, a collection of acoustic pop transformations of recent Top 40 radio covers from a selection of rising stars and amateurs, make the collection worth savoring into 2015 and beyond.
- Into It. Over It.: Deep Red Bells (orig. Neko Case)
(from While No One Was Looking: Toasting 20 Years of Bloodshot Records, 2014)
- Blake Mills: I Hope (orig. Bobby Charles)
- Phosphorescent: Tomorrow Is A Long Time (orig. Bob Dylan)
(from Sweetheart, 2014)
The Year’s Best Covers Album (single artist):
Couer de Pirate, Trauma
It was a light year here, too, surprisingly – with most favorites barely folk, though several came in folk enough for our year’s end roundup. And so if the gentle, layered folkpop piano and harmonies strains of Trauma, from Cœur de Pirate, the solo project of singer Béatrice Martin, win the day, it’s primarily because Echolalia, the psychedelic duo project from two members of local heroes Winterpills, is a bit too electric to truly top a folkblog’s list.
But Trauma is no also-ran: released way back in January, the fragile collection, recorded as a soundtrack for last season’s run of a Canadian TV show of the same name, is chilled and perfect for a snowy day inside, turning tracks from Bon Iver, Amy Winehouse, The McGarrigle Sisters, and more into something soft and divine. Runners up honors go to Durham singer-songwriter Jon Shain’s Reupholstered, whose diverse set of covers – a “quirky list” of pop tunes from the last 75 years chosen entirely by producer Jackson Hall – has a rugged beauty of its own: raw, frank, earnest and endearing.
- Couer De Pirate: Heartbeats Accelerating (orig. Kate & Anna McGarrigle)
- Couer De Pirate: You Know I’m No Good (orig. Amy Winehouse)
(from Trauma: Chansons de la serie tele, 2014)
The Year’s Best Covers EP:
Holy Moly & The Crackers, Lilly
Although true-blue tribute EPs were scarce as robins in winter this year, several artists continued the trend of releasing tiny EP-length covers collections. Here, again, the theme drives the game: UK-based hoedown-meets-psychedelic folk band Holy Moly and the Crackers mine the tradition in Lilly, a “re-imagining” of three traditional folk/blues songs that “evokes eras of whiskey and guns on modern punk folk steroids” even as they turn up a more brassy, world-beat Americana than most. And Emily Barker and Red Clay Halo, in a delightful coda recorded especially for Record Store Day in April, come through in spades with Songs Beneath The River, a short, sweet coverset paying quite gentle yet eminently loving tribute to four songs that influenced the creation of their most recent full-length.
- Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo: Day After Tomorrow (orig. Tom Waits)
(from Songs Beneath The River, 2014)
The Year’s Best Mostly Covers EP:
Last year, we had enough traditional EPs to watch a category rise and fall; this year, three separate artists released EP-length discs which featured originals and coverage alike, though covers came in as a bare majority, leaving us with a new category: the “mostly covers” set.
All three of the contenders are worthy of repeated listening. Topping our list is one of our favorite young bands of the last few years, local hoot-and-holler Americana quintet Parsonsfield (formerly Poor Old Shine), with Afterparty, a loose and often raucous exploration of a few traditional numbers, a doo-wop deconstruction on Huey Lewis hit The Power Of Love, and catchy sing-along original Anita Loving that captures the cheerful energy of their live shows.
Close runners-up honors go to Stray Birds, a mostly-covers EP from Halifax fave singer-songwriter and frequent Boston folk-scene cross-the-border sidewoman Rose Cousins, who turns to slow moods, slide guitars, and keyboards to great effect on songs from “heroes and friends” Mark Erelli, Lori McKenna, Gordon Lightfoot, Tina Turner, and a pair of her own. And we’re still enamored of the beautiful vocals and strings on the debut self-titled EP from young bluegrass duo Molly Tuttle and John Mailander, who we blogged about last winter after word of mouth drove us to their amazing side stage set at the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival.
- Molly Tuttle and John Mailander: I’m Over You (orig. Keith Whitley)
(from Molly Tuttle and John Mailander, 2014)
The Year’s Best Traditional Folk Album:
RUNA, Current Affairs
Sam Amdion is always a strong shower in this category; it goes without saying that this year’s release, Lily O, was well-received, and well worth the wait, not hardly because in both sound and songchoice it hews closer to the old than ever, eschewing his popwanderings of previous years to stick firmly to the long-form tradition, filtered through Amidon’s familiar stew of creaky shapenote and oldtimey forms.
But Amidon had plenty of competition in 2014, from all corners of the traditional world. Our favorites include two irish and celtic influenced folk supergroups, The Alt and RUNA, and of all of them, the self-titled album from The Alt is perhaps the most traditional, too, with an evocative songbook of irish fiddle tunes and ancient numbers played out masterfully by veteran virtuosos John Doyle, Eamon O’Leary, and Nuala Kennedy. Meanwhile, our preference for singer-songwriter fare tips our sails towards RUNA’s Current Affairs, which is heavy on traditional numbers (including several right out of the Child Ballads), but with a few songs pulled from a more modern tradition; their glee and respect are apparent in every track, and their transformation of Amos Lee’s Black River into a joyful irish lullaby is nothing short of a miracle.
On this side of the pond, as we predicted in July, Old Crow Medicine Show bandleader Willie Watson’s solo foray into the American folk tradition matches the field, with its “delicate, spare series of covers and traditional songs, stripped down to the raw and intimate essentials of one man, one instrument, and a voice that evokes a hundred years of source material from the blues and folk canons.” And finally, although they’re still an opening act in our favorite folk clubs, we’re quite proud to recommend uber-local tradfolk trio The Ephemeral Stringband, whose sidewalk shows in Amherst and Northampton had my kids enthralled, and whose new 2014 album Land of Rest with fiddler Tatiana Heargraves is a tight, restrained collection of true-blue old-time banjo, guitar, and mando-driven country music and shapenote gospel tunes so true, you can hear the front porch swing in the breeze.
- The Ephemeral Stringband: God’s Promise (trad.)
- The Ephemeral Stringband: The Cradle, The Coffin, The Cross on the Hill (orig. Dirk Powell)
(from Land Of Rest, 2014)
The Year’s Best Kidfolk Album:
Zee Avi, Nightlight
Now that our kids are nine and twelve, respectively, we see less of the kidfolk canon than ever. But two early releases in 2014 nonetheless stick in our memory, justifying the continuation of a longstanding Cover Lay Down tradition that honors the softer sets, recorded with the smaller listener in mind.
Of these, Nightlight, from Zee Avi, is jazzy and dear, a tiny nine-track gem driven by uke and sweet voice, with inspired song choices from Disney to Lou Reed bringing a smoky sound to the darkened room. And although its purity as a covers album narrowly justifies Nightlight’s top-tier status, let us not forget ‘Til The Morning: Lullabies and Songs of Comfort from singer-songwriter mothers Edie Carey and Sarah Sample: the album, which includes a short set of originals alongside soft, duly comforting takes on Wilco’s Guthrie, the Dixie Chicks, Townes Van Zandt, and Peggy Lee, plus a small handful of traditional lullabies, won our hearts, and the Gold Medal from this year’s Parent’s Choice Awards.
- Edie Carey & Sarah Sample: California Stars (orig. Wilco/Guthrie)
(from ‘Til The Morning: Lullabies and Songs of Comfort, 2014)
The Year’s Best Holiday EP:
Robinson & Rohe, The Longest Winter
Sure, the holidays are over; the new year impends; indeed, we come to you much later than usual this year, with but hours before the calendar turns. But our absence on these pages over the last month gave us little time to celebrate two amazing Christmas releases that may well linger long past the thaw – both of them harbingers of upcoming projects that we dare not forget.
And so we close our look back at the best of the year with a reminiscence of December, and two very special EP-length sets: a five-piece Wintery Songs In Eleventy Part Harmony EP from songwriter/singers and string players Jennifer Kimball, Laura Cortese, Rose Polenzani, Rose Cousins, Valerie Thompson, Jenna Moynihan, and more of our favorite Boston folkscenesters, put forth in a hand-crafted small batch to fund a holiday full-length to come in 2015, and The Longest Winter, a stunner of a set from new discoveries Robinson & Rohe, who we’re proud to announce will grace our own intimate Unity House Concerts stage in Springfield, MA on January 17.
There’s nothing to sample from the first of these, since the CD is truly a fundraiser ($25 nets you both the EP and a guarantee of the future full-length), and most folks won’t buy holiday music after the holiday; as such, I’ve left these off the download, since I know how weird it is to hit Christmas music in the middle of a mix. But with a week to go before the twelfth day of Christmas, and beauty in every carefully arranged note, there’s ample time for one more glass of nog.
(from The Longest Winter, 2014)
Cover Lay Down thrives throughout the year thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, spread the word, 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 will go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all donors will receive undying praise, and an exclusive download code for a special gift set of favorite 2014 covers otherwise unblogged.
When Paste Magazine named alt-folkster Phosphorescent‘s masterful-yet-intimate album Muchaho their 2013 Album of the Year, it was easy to dismiss the long-time pseudonymous solo project as just another inner-circle seat-holder in the bearded indiefolk crowd – and easier, still, when Paste declared the image of cover artist Matthew Hoack in Mexico, where the album was composed, as definitive as Bon Iver in his isolated Wisconsin cabin.
Hoack’s personal history is almost too perfect for the sensitive hipster mythos: born in Alabama, the autobiographical artist began his career in alternative hotbed town Athens, Georgia, and later moved to the Brooklyn Navy Yards; he primarily records for Austin-based label Dead Oceans, alongside a roster including Tallest Man On Earth, John Vanderslice, and Akron/Family. Wolves, which originally appeared on his 2007 opus Pride, has been covered at least twice this decade, in solid, broken versions from similarly bandified solo artists Message To Bears and Strand of Oaks; he’s played Sasquatch and Bonnaroo, toured with The National, and will appear at Lollapalooza, Glastonbury, and San Francisco’s Outside Lands festival. And certainly, his placement cred is sound: though his version of theme song Little Boxes was rejected for use on Weeds, his fragile, sad work has graced several indie film soundtracks, including 2011 Kevin Spacey/Jeremy Irons vehicle Margin Call and this summer’s blockbuster The Amazing Spiderman 2, plus two MOJO Magazine cover compilations.
But his credibility as part of the new wave of folk-tinged crossover artists worth attention from the wider world really is honestly come, whatever the backstory. Musically, Phosphorescent teeters on the imperfect indie edge, with rich atmospheres that drown the listener in layers of sound and creaky sentiment, imperfect and imperfectly performed narration, and introspective first-person lyrics that question and fog, bringing both comfort and the ache of desperation.
Yet where indie compatriot Bon Iver trends towards pop music heartbreakingly undone, Houcke’s cover choices out him as a folk musician first and foremost, almost in spite of the heavily layered, often-electrified production he increasingly favors in the studio. Over a career spanning seven records since 2003, Houck has recorded a set of covers that ground his work strongly in the folkstream, both by practice and by selection: on indie and nufolk compilations such as this year’s Sweethearts Valentine’s Day cover sampler, MOJO tributes to The Beatles and Neil Young, and, most notably, on 2009 album To Willie, an endearing yet straightforward Willie Nelson tribute, once named one of Rhapsody’s favorite cover albums, that pays homage to both the California Country movement and Nelson’s classic Lefty Frizzell tribute album From Willie To Lefty.
So listen, as our featured artist digs deep into his musical forebears, and comes up with a true 20-track survey befitting a true folksman, with versions of songs from Lucinda Williams, Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, Neil Young, John Prine, and the American cowboy canon, plus an utterly gorgeous Leonard Cohen cover that could have come from Springsteen’s darkest hour, a short set of in-studio video covers, and a few surprises along the way. We think you’ll find the argument for Phosphorescent persuasive, and the music as divine, as sad, as beautiful, as comforting, and as soft as any broken angel’s wings.
- Phosphorescent: Tomorrow Is A Long Time (orig. Bob Dylan) 
- Phosphorescent: Big Red Sun Blues (orig. Lucinda Williams) 
- Phosphorescent: Can I Sleep In Your Arms (orig. Willie Nelson)
- Phosphorescent: Ready To Quit (orig. Willie Nelson) 
- Phosphorescent: Little Boxes (orig. Malvina Reynolds) [2007}
- Phosphorescent: Ya Hey (orig. Vampire Weekend) 
- Phosphorescent: Right Now I Am A-Roamin’ (orig. Nick Cave) 
- Phosphorescent: Across The Universe (orig. The Beatles) 
- Phosphorescent: Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye (orig. Leonard Cohen) 
- Phosphorescent: Are You Ready For The Country? (orig. Neil Young) 
- Phosphorescent: If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will) (orig. George Jones) 
- Phosphorescent: Far From Me (orig. John Prine) 
- Phosphorescent: Days Of Heaven (orig. Randy Newman) 
- Phosphorescent: Storms Never Last (orig. Jessi Colter) 
- Phosphorescent: I Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down (orig. R.L. Burnside) 
- Phosphorescent: Any Old Miracle (orig. Vern Gosdin) 
Warning: loud advert before the track, but it’s worth it…
Looking for an easy way to listen? Download the whole Phosphorescent coverset and snag our two favorite versions of Phosphorescent’s Wolves as bonus tracks!
Last October, when I wrote about my struggle to recenter family and fatherhood as my older daughter encountered a newly diagnosed auto-immune disorder (Everybody Hurts: On discovering a child’s illness), many of you wrote in to lend support and solace, and I am grateful for the grace, ever thankful for the voices you bring to this kitchen-table community.
Fast forward one year, though, and the weight has not been lifted so easily. The elderchild still struggles with balance, losing sleep and schooldays to a complex web of pain real and projected. And it’s hard: hard to watch her struggle; hard not to become inured to the stress and strain the constant ache brings to our hearth and home; hard to like her, on the days when she lets the pain get to her better self.
And then there is her sister, who has captured her disease, and our attention.
At nine years old, the wee one is sensitive to others in ways her sister isn’t. And so, where the elderchild complains loudly of her stomach, her little sister is more likely to hide the pain from us so as not to call attention to herself. It took months to diagnose her; it may take years before she is truly comfortable leaving the classroom in pain or need.
Having two sick children is a million miles from having one sick child. Juggling needs is a new stressor, and it is starting to require both parents, keeping us from supporting each other by taking turns.
And two compounds one. They resent the other’s illness, and the attention it brings. Our home is rife and rotten with one-upmanship, jealousy and mistrust growing between the girls, born of pain, and the constant competition to be taken care of. Those last six days in the hospital were an amusement park of chaos, compounded by steroid rage, endless insurance company appeals, the exhaustion of shuttling between two bedsides, and the long agony of waiting for tests and trials.
Driving away from the hospital that evening without them was the hardest thing I have done in a year or more.
Normal isn’t normal anymore.
But there are moments where pride can still be found.
Three weeks ago, on the cusp of diagnosis, the wee one was scheduled for an MRI; I went to work; my wife was planning to take her into Boston after dropping the elderchild off at school. Just before noon, though, things changed, and I got the call: the elderchild was experiencing a sharp and unexplained pain that might be appendicitis; both children needed to go in, but in different directions; we would need both adults there, though both would prefer Mama and could be heard fighting about it in the background, and it would take a good half an hour to arrange sub coverage in my classroom.
The next several hours passed in a whirlwind: the interminably long ninety minute drive, the panicked search for the right room in an unfamiliar wing of a hospital constantly under construction. The pain-hobbled elderchild and I went off to meet with a frazzled specialist already trying to manage tests and find nurses for her sister; my wife stayed with the wee one, who had thrown up every time they tried to get her to drink the fluids for the MRI; one more try, and they were going to put in a feeding tube.
Doctors came in; doctors came out. Mostly, we waited, and wondered what was happening to her sister. And then suddenly, unexpectedly, on our way back from the bathroom, there she was, small and sad beside her mother and the doctor, emerging from a side room, a long yellow tube snaking out of her nose.
Something smashed to pieces in all of us. I could see it in my wife’s eyes, there at the other end of the hall; I could feel it in my heart. But only the elderchild acted, taking her hand out of mine, screaming her sister’s name across the medicine and pain, running to hug and comfort her, crying and broken.
And we pulled them away, because the doctor said “no crying, remember, we talked about this”. And I pulled the elderchild into the same room that they had just left, and her sister and her mother and the Doctor were gone.
And there I was in a tiny room with a broken heart and a child shaking with rage at the injustices of her sister’s treatment, an hour lost to calm words and stories and the slow dampening of the emotional furnace, the Boston skyline the only distraction, our voices our only distractor.
So often at home we see only the worst of them: the jostling for space, the frustration of pain. That Friday she was angry, but it was born of love, fierce and unexpected after a year of push and pull, of distance and shadows. Last week they were cellmates; now they are home, though with a calendar full of medical appointments, too-often shortened days at school, and with all other things tentative, ready to be dropped at a moment’s notice if the pain gets too great.
But last night we went out without them, and it felt safe to leave them home, playing with their new sewing kit quietly on the kitchen table. Today they are at the mall with their mother, chattering excitedly about their Halloween plans while they help each other try on thrift shop costumes. And every once in a while, for no reason at all, the elderchild hugs her sister tight, embarrassing her, and in their interplay I see the crushing love I feel for them as if my children had become a mirror for my most secret and unexplainable self.
How heartbreaking to see such stubborn, violent love emerge in the strangest of places. How powerful to see them learn the things we thought we needed to give.
How fiercely we protect each other. How it hurts to love you so.
Oh, my brave, proud children, may you, too, learn to channel your anger into love.
SONGS FOR OUR CHILDREN: A COVERFOLK MIX [zip!]
- Gilkyson, Gorka, Kaplansky, Lynn Miles, Guy Davis, The Wailin’ Jennys: Nothing But A Child (orig. Steve Earle) 
- kk: Sweet Child of Mine (orig. Guns & Roses) [2006; unknown source]