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Missed in 2015: Lost Songs and Late Arrivals
January 2nd, 2016 — 12:39 pm
featuring Jackie Oates, Meg Baird, Willie Watson, Hattie Webb & more!
One of the biggest challenges of late year recovery is that it inevitably fails the test of comprehensiveness. Albums released in January get short shrift in end of year lists; at the year’s other end, there’s always that late December release that doesn’t make it onto the radar screen.
And so, in a year when Cover Lay Down went on hiatus from May to November, it’s unsurprising that a few albums, sessions and songs fell through the cracks in the mad scramble to tackle the twelvemonth.
Today, as the new year embraces us, we look back one last time for a few 2015 songs and albums which slipped by us in the hustle of the season. Shelved and temporarily forgotten, or simply unearthed after our four-part Best Of The Year series hit the proverbial streets, their very existence serves as a promise of more to come from a thriving musical community.
2013 Best Kidfolk Album winner Jackie Oates returns to the older folk canon on her newest release The Spyglass & The Herringbone: the album is almost entirely comprised of “lesser known but life-affirming songs from the English tradition”, save for a couple of peer-penned originals and a single cover of 1989 The Sundays hit Can’t Be Sure that nestle in among the simple, ringing tradfolk perfectly smooth and etherial, as if they were always a part of the old ways. Spyglass was released in April, on the cusp of the difficulties which brought us to hiatus in the first place, but the record is a forgiving mistress, alive with enveloping sound from harps and droning fiddles, vibrant with a sweet layered tonality that evokes the best of Kate Rusby and The Unthanks (and no surprise; Oates was a founding member), well worth resurrection.
- Jackie Oates: Can’t Be Sure (orig. The Sundays)
- Jackie Oates: Doffing Mistress (trad.)
(from The Spyglass & The Herringbone, 2015)
Pulling at the threads from Jackie Oates reveals another missed collection that should by all rights have topped our list for Best Tribute Album Of The Year: Shirley Inspired, a 3 LP collection that serves as a veritable who’s who of performers who owe their style and substance, at least in part, to the revivalist work of Shirley Collins, who turned 80 in 2015. An artifact of the kickstarter appeal for ‘The Ballad of Shirley Collins’ – a film that is currently being made about the life of the “First Lady of Folk Music” – Inspired serves as both a survey of the mostly traditional songs which Collins lovingly preserved and presented, and as a record of just how broadly both the tunes and the tradition have integrated themselves into the modern spectrum; the performers here spread across both the British and Appalachian traditions, with newly recorded versions of old songs alongside a strong mix of new folk traditionalists from both sides of the pond, including Oates, Meg Baird, Olivia Chaney, Sally Timms, Josephine Foster, Graham Coxon, Sam Gleaves and Bonnie Prince Billy (performing Pretty Saro as a mournful dirge under the name Bitchin’ Bonnie Billy Bajas).
- Bitchin’ Bonnie Billy Bajas: Pretty Saro (trad.)
- Meg Baird: Locks and Bolts (trad.)
- Bonnie Dobson and The Lords Of Thyme: Hares On The Mountain (trad.)
(from Shirley Inspired, 2015)
Live 2014 double-disc concert recording Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis slipped by us twice over – first in January, when it was released, and again at the end of the year. That’s okay: the album was easy to miss, having already served as an artifact of its own, from a 2013 concert featured in a 2014 Showtime documentary which in turn was designed to promote a mass market movie which garnered little traction; unsurprisingly, although the concert and subsequent documentary were designed to renew interest in the original film, most of us had already moved way past its buzz long before 2015 began.
Too bad. Though records comprised from live tribute concerts by various artists have a tendency to go awry, with muddy board mixing and ragged house bands too often contributing to sameness and a lack of fidelity, that’s not at all the case here. Instead, Another Day, Another Time, lovingly produced by T-Bone Burnett, features strong performances from a generous and multi-generational roster of well-known names of the modern folkways, including Gillian Welch, Punch Brothers, Marcus Mumford, The Avett Brothers, Colin Meloy, Lake Street Dive, and many more, each of whom was asked to perform an original and a cover in salute to the songs of the sixties folk revival. In the end, the whole thing is surprisingly smooth from start to finish, demands reconsideration, and comes up roses.
- Marcus Mumford: I Was Young When I Left Home (orig. Bob Dylan)
- Willie Watson w/ Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings: The Midnight Special (trad.)
- Dave Rawlings w/ Gillian Welch and Willie Watson: I Hear Them All / This Land Is Your Land (orig. Old Crow Medicine Show / Woody Guthrie)
(from Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis, 2015)
Locals Covering Locals, a labor-of-love compilation project now in its second year and iteration, is right up our alley, conceptually-speaking: Boston-based singer-songwriters select songs that they feel “need to be heard”, and cover them, thereby facilitating the spread of the best of their own sonic environment. The songs are a well-mixed bag, with rough roots, folk, and blues music from still-struggling artists normative in the mix, but there’s plenty of rough gems for those willing to sift through it, too; paired appearances of artists covering each other are especially dear, Hayley Sabella sounds like a young Deb Talan, and it’s wonderful to hear The Lemonheads done so well. Bonus points: the album was funded by an Iguana Grant from Club Passim, making it a true community effort in every sense of the word; the grant was renewed this year for a third volume, so stay tuned.
- Sarah Borges: Ride With Me (orig. The Lemonheads)
- Hayley Sabella: Simple Alicia (orig. Jake Hill)
- The Whiskey Boys: This Town (orig. Brian Carroll)
(from Locals Covering Locals, Volume 2, 2015)
Finally: many of the singles we left out of our Best Of series this year – some too bold or raw for folk, some just a hair on the ragged side, others that offer a second look at some favorite sessions and artists – show up on our 2015 Bonus Coverfolk Singles mix, a 38-track mix of alternate delights available only to those who donate to Cover Lay Down. But a small handful of late discoveries and remembrances shine bright enough to deserve placement here. Our favorite of the lost set comes from harpist Hattie Webb of the Webb Sisters, whose stark reinvention of James Taylor lullaby Close Your Eyes, recorded to promote a Pledgemusic campaign for her upcoming debut solo outing, was released way too late to include in our regular end of year feature. For good measure, throw in grassy goodtime music-with-an-edge from Colorado-based Telluride Band Competition winners Trout Steak Revival, gentle country dreampop from Manitoba husband-and-wife duo Leaf Rapids, another nod to Aquarium Drunkard’s Lagniappe Sessions via Jim White vs. The Packway Handle Band, and another mention of teenage trio The Onlies, whose Jubilee, like the lightly upbeat indie-slash-tradfolk album it appears on, bears repeating after oblique mention in a February mixtape feature.
- Trout Steak Revival: Where Do My Bluebird Fly (orig. The Tallest Man On Earth)
(from Brighter Every Day, 2015)
- Jim White vs. The Packway Handle Band: The Israelites (orig. Desmond Decker)
(from The Lagniappe Sessions, 2015)
As always, if you like what you hear here, click through to lend your support to the artists we celebrate, the better to ensure the continued production of new music in 2016 and beyond.
And if you, too, have a little of the giving spirit left in you after the holidays, perhaps it’s time to consider a gift in support of our mission at Cover Lay Down. All donors receive our undying thanks, that warm fuzzy feeling that comes from patronizing the arts, and an exclusive 38-track mix of otherwise-unblogged coverfolk released in 2014 and 2015. Click here to give, and thanks.
Though we’re not above judging the overall conceptual cohesion of The Year’s Best Coverfolk Albums, when it comes to our annual Year’s Best Singles mix, we generally eschew the hierarchical. Folk is so broad and so deep a canon, with so much potential for successful realization and transformation, it’s enough, I think, to curate the list, presenting each track as worth celebrating, a possible thread to pursue towards patronage and fandom.
But we do watch the collection for trends. This year, we see several.
Most notably, there’s a slight bump in songs which have their origin outside of the commercial realm – more links to videos, for example, and to freely released tracks. It’s tempting to treat this data point as an indicator that the line between amateur and professional continues to grow ever thin, making us watchful about the future of music as a truly realized vocation even as we celebrate the breadth of music such trending brings us.
On the other hand, of course, the wide net we cast also finds us celebrating the newest of the new, by lifting up artists who are just starting their journeys. And, although there are just a few of them, the emergent set is represented well this year by Annika Bennett, Matt Minigell, and Jamie Oshima – all twenty or under, and already bringing it on.
Other trends include one noted earlier, in our albums feature: there’s been some great collaboration this year on the margins of folk, roots, and Americana. From the continued “supergroup” partnerships of I’m With Her and My Terrible Friend to continued duo work from Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, Lucy Kaplansky and Richard Shindell, Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman to one-off pairings between Rhiannon Giddens and Iron & Wine and The Milk Carton Kids and Shovels and Rope, the result is an emphasis on strong voices in harmony, with the pleasure of performing with friends and loved ones shining through each track.
Other than that, we’ll let the songs speak for themselves, as set and singles: after all, we’re here for the music, and so are you. And so we present our 50 favorite coverfolk singles, b-sides, live tracks and deep album cuts of 2015: from madcap to maudlin; from respectful to irreverent; from indie to traditional, and all the contemporary singer-songwriter, alt-country, ands acoustic poprock genres in between; sure to warm your heart and capture your soul.
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.
Cherish them. Let them warm your heart and capture your soul. And may you, too, experience joy and peace, lightness and love in full measure in the new year.
The Year’s Best Singles: A 2015 Coverfolk Mix [zip!]
- I’m With Her: Crossing Muddy Waters (orig. John Hiatt) [via]
- My Terrible Friend: Mexico (orig. Cake) [via]
- Jason Isbell: Play A Train Song (orig Todd Snider) [via]
- The Milk Carton Kids: Wish You Were Here (orig. Pink Floyd) [via]
- Eaves: Animal Tracks (orig. Mountain Man) [via]
- Rhiannon Giddens & Iron & Wine: Forever Young (orig. Bob Dylan) [via]
- Tim O’Brien: Get Up Offa That Thing (orig. James Brown) [via]
- Fabian Holland: Nobody’s Fault But Mine (orig. Blind Willie Johnson) [via]
- Lucero: I’m In Love With A Girl (orig. Big Star) [via]
- The Pine Hill Project: Farewell To St. Dolores (orig. Dave Carter & Tracy Grammer) [via]
- Gill Sandell & Chris T-T: If I Should Fall Behind (orig. Bruce Springsteen) [via]
- Douglas Firs: Home Again (orig. Carole King) [via]
- Annika Bennett: I Want You Back (orig. Jackson 5) [via]
- Brandi Carlile: Murder In The City (orig. Avett Brothers) [via]
- My Bubba: You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go (orig. Bob Dylan) [via]
- Father John Misty: Heart Shaped Box (orig. Nirvana) [via]
- The Weepies: Learning To Fly (orig. Tom Petty) [via]
- John Statz: Motion Picture Soundtrack (orig. Radiohead) [via]
- Shovels & Rope with The Milk Carton Kids: Patience (orig. Guns & Roses) [via]
- Couer De Pirate: Take Shelter (orig. Years and Years) [via]
- William Fitzsimmons: Ice Cream (orig. Sarah McLachlan) [via]
- Anna Laube: Satisfied Mind (orig. Porter Wagoner) [via]
- Caitlin Canty: Unknown Legend (orig. Neil Young) [via]
- Joan Shelley: Here In California (orig. Kate Wolf) [via]
- Gretchen Peters: Nashville (orig. David Mead) [via]
- Ballad Of Crows: American Girl (orig. Tom Petty) [via]
- Jeremy Bass: Julia (orig. The Beatles) [via]
- Chris Cleverley: I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground (trad.) [via]
- Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman: Child Owlet (trad.) [via]
- Matt Minigell: Oh Yoko (orig. John Lennon) [via]
- Smoke Fairies: So Much Wine (orig. Handsome Family) [via]
- Little Wings: Eyes Without A Face (orig. Billy Idol) [via]
- Punch Brothers: Clementine (orig. Elliott Smith) [via]
- Philip Murray Warson: Wild Mountain Thyme (trad.) [via]
- Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem: I’m Satisfied With You (orig. Hank Williams) [via]
- Boxcar Lilies: Freight Train (orig. Fred Eaglesmith) [via]
- Tin Bird Choir: Sway (orig. Rolling Stones) [via]
- Boondock Radio: Stay With Me (orig. Sam Smith) [via]
- Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires: I Follow Rivers (orig. Lykke Li) [via]
- Della Mae: To Ohio (orig. Low Anthem) [via]
- Gregory Alan Isakov: Trapeze Swinger (orig. Iron & Wine) [via]
- The Morning Tree: Tá Na Báid (trad.) [via]
- Olivia Chaney: There’s Not A Swain (trad.) [via]
- Jamie Oshima: Tenerife Sea (orig. Ed Sheeran) [via]
- The Unthanks: Magpie (orig. David Dodds) [via]
- Shawn Colvin: Tougher Than The Rest (orig. Bruce Springsteen) [via]
- Bon Iver: Inside Out (orig. Spoon) [via]
- Gurrumul ft. Paul Kelly: Amazing Grace (trad.) [via]
- Jayme Stone ft. Margaret Glaspy: Lazy John (trad.) [via]
- Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck: The Final Countdown (orig. Europe) [via]
Cover Lay Down thrives throughout the year thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, share, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive and kicking.
Got goodwill to spare? 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 alternate favorites and rare covers otherwise unblogged. Click here to give – and thanks.
Most of the other online folk and indieblogs out there have already shared their Best Of 2015 features by now, and that’s the way we like it. As our mandate reminds us, sharing and discovery are essential to the folkways; just as we depend on artists and producers to make the music, we depend on elseblogs, radio outlets and virtual magazines from Kithfolk to Paste, from Folk Alley to WXPN, and from I Am Fuel, You Are Friends to Timber & Steel, to curate it for us.
Our niche is unique, of course. No other blog focuses exclusively on the intersection between folk and coverage, though the threads are strong on both of the intersecting lineages that define us, and though several blogs, like Cover Me, include roots and Americana among the coversongs they share. But our dependence on those other sources was especially deep this year.
Which is to say: it was a pretty good year for coverfolk, in the end, and we’re glad. But for a while there, it looked like we wouldn’t be here to celebrate it.
As we’ve noted in previous posts, letting Cover Lay Down go dark from May to November was part of a larger withdrawal in face of a series of disasters that left us too drained to do more than just hang on. I won’t go into too much detail here, but suffice it to say: it’s hard to blog when you’re living in a camper on the lawn because the house is still recovering from fleas and flood, and harder, still, when the entire covers collection gets lost to a busted laptop and an archival hard drive failure.
Coming back, though, has been a revelation.
We’re not usually at a loss for words here at Cover Lay Down. But the outpouring of support during and after those dark months, in the end, proved its priority in a world still heavy with stress and the unknown, putting this blog at the top of our to-do list. Thanks, to all who donate and comment, who help spread the word, and who – in doing so – bring light to this kitchen table endeavor. It’s good to be back, and to be singing again.
Our eight-month musical hiatus makes looking back an especially apt mechanism for recovery this year. To account for this, in response to both marketplace factors and an attempt to broaden our gaze in the name of recovery, our Best Of series doubled in size, with video coverage getting a pair of features of its own; if you’ve not yet seen ‘em, check out The Year’s Best Coverfolk Video Singles and The Year’s Best Coverfolk Video Sessions, Sets, and Series once you’ve finished here today.
But our annual two-fer still serves as the main course. So join us as we count down the final hours of 2015 with our favorite coverfolk recordings of the year – with our annual omnibus album feature today, and our typically unranked, purely subjective celebration of the year’s best singles, deep cuts, and B-sides to follow sometime just before New Year’s Eve. Oh, and fair warning: there’s 59 songs on this year’s list; you might want to download them all first, and read along as you listen.
The Year’s Best Covers Album (single artist)
+ Iron & Wine and Ben Bridwell, Sing Into My Mouth
+ Watkins Family Hour, The Watkins Family Hour
+ Rhiannon Giddens, Tomorrow Is My Turn
+ Robert Earl Keen, The Bluegrass Sessions
+ Grey Season, Undercover
Cover albums comprise a highly competitive category this year. Even the also-rans were strong, from Shawn Colvin’s unsurprisingly poppy but eminently listenable Uncovered to the twee, unrelentingly cheerful sounds of NYC-based 80′s cover band The Delorean Sisters on their self-titled debut. Martha and Lucy Wainwright’s sister album Songs In The Dark, which we touted last month, was ultimately a little unfocused; Shovels and Rope pushed past the boundaries of folk into alternative rock on Busted Jukebox Vol.1, and much of Tomorrow You’re Going, a kickstarter-funded collaborative effort from lifetime favorites Richard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky, was a little too honky-tonk for our tastes. All are highly recommended nonetheless, and contain great cuts worth pursuit; look for their choicest tracks in our upcoming Year’s Best Coverfolk Singles mix.
But the big news this year was the collaborative album. And sure enough, like Busted Jukebox, Songs In The Dark, and Kaplansky and Shindell’s Pine Hill Project, four of the five picks in the single artists covers album category share the same conceit: though released under a single name, each, in their own way, depends on musical partnership for its success.
Our highest honors goes to Sing Into My Mouth, the musical one-off collaboration of Iron & Wine and Ben Bridwell of Band of Horses. There’s a huge diversity of source material here, from the titular Talking Heads track to songs by Sade, JJ Cale, and Pete Seeger, but nary a skip-cut or mediocre cover on the album: the performances here are stunning, with the songs not so much transformed as translated into an atmospheric echo with an alt-country twang, and flourishes of pitch-perfect Pink Floyd psychedelics and CSNY harmonies.
Second place is shared by The Watkins Family Hour and Rhiannon Giddens project Tomorrow Is My Turn – two albums which diversify through deep collaboration of their own. In the first, Sean and Sara Watkins, plus Fiona Apple and a 4-piece house band familiar to those who have seen their frequent live shows at LA’s famed venue The Largo, took over a house for three days to record a record designed specifically to evoke their live shows; the result is broad and diverse, playful and wonderfully intimate, and well worth steeping in entirely.
Meanwhile, Giddens – a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops who has recently gone solo – weaves her beatboxing and multi-instrumentalist Chocolate Drops compatriots throughout her debut solo disc, plus members of the Punch Brothers and several strong session players, to reimagine a number of traditional and country and pop standards in her inimitable style, a process which she discusses at length on her website. The result is quite diverse, as you might expect, in influence and in sound, but the record holds beautifully, thanks to that stunning voice and potent production from T-Bone Burnett, as does “session leftovers” EP Factory Girl.
Grey Season’s Undercover, a free download featured recently as part of our Berklee College of Music showcase, is the sole “band only” covers album in our top five, but it hardly needs the help; as noted back in November, the album is funky and fine, perfect for fans of that fertile soil where grungy Americana and roots music, grassy country, and folk rock meet. And we’d be remiss without special mention of Robert Earn Keen’s Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions, a departure from the usual fare from this Texan singer-songwriter, in which Keen’s plaintive rasp pairs beautifully with a well-tuned, full-bore bluegrass session band for a delightful album that runs from gentle rambles to rambunctious jams. A good year, indeed.
- Iron & Wine and Ben Bridwell: This Must Be The Place (orig. Talking Heads)
- Iron & Wine and Ben Bridwell: Bullet Proof Soul (orig. Sade)
(from Sing Into My Mouth, 2015)
- The Watkins Family: Brokedown Palace (orig. Grateful Dead)
- The Watkins Family: Steal Your Heart Away (orig. Fleetwood Mac)
(from The Watkins Family Hour, 2015)
- Rhiannon Giddens: Last Kind Words (orig. Geeshie Wiley)
- Rhiannon Giddens: Shake Sugaree (orig. Elizabeth Cotten)
(from Tomorrow Is My Turn, 2015)
- Robert Earl Keen: Long Black Veil (orig. Lefty Frizzell)
(from Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions, 2015)
- Grey Season: Maggie May (orig. Rod Stewart)
- Grey Season: Up On Cripple Creek (orig. The Band)
(from Undercover, 2015)
The Year’s Best Covers Album (multiple artist)
+ Various Artists, Yellow Bird Project: Good People Rock
+ Various Artists, From Cover To Cover: 30 Years At Nettwerk (tie)
The multiple artist covers album is generally the wheelhouse of labels big and small; last year’s category winners included a Bloodshot Records’ 20th anniversary covers album, and sure enough, our runner-up this year celebrates 30 years of the Canadian label that made household names of Sarah McLachlan, Coldplay, The Be Good Tanyas, and Barenaked Ladies.
In 2015, however, our favorite “various artists” collection comes straight from the heart of the artisanal hipster branch of the folkmarket to match one of my absolute favorite records of the year. Yep: a tie. We couldn’t be happier with the result.
For a decade, Montreal-based Yellow Bird Project has created and distributed band t-shirts for artist-selected charities in partnership with indie folk and alternative musicians like Bon Iver, CHVRCHES, Devendra Banhart, The Decemberists and The Shins, though they’ve recently branched out into tote bags, coloring books, and the occasional vinyl pressing. Producing and curating Good People Rock, a project in which YBP artists who have been featured on their shirts cover other YBP artists who have been featured on their shirts, is just as quirky a concept, and with artists like Andrew Bird, Hayden, and Elvis Perkins on the roster, we’re not surprised it works.
As noted above, Nettwerk Music Group’s January 2015 covers sampler, released in celebration of their 30th anniversary, gets an easy and triumphant share of first place honors in an unusually small category. The overall setlist here is a mixed-bag; with electro-pop and sadcore in the mix, this is hardly a folk album through and through. But several stunning covers stand out, including amazing, delicate Coldplay and Sarah McLachlan covers (we shared William Fitzsimmons’ cover of McLachlan’s Ice Cream back in January), a dreamy indie folk take on Barenaked Ladies favorite deepcut Jane, Hey Ocean! frontman Dave Beckingham’s transformation of a Be Good Tanya rambler into an atmospheric, icy folkpop gem complete with horns and organ, and Joshua Hyslop’s delightful Weepies interpretation, a track which – in many ways – sets the standard for the year in coverage.
- Joshua Hyslop: World Spins Madly On (orig. The Weepies)
- Dave Beckingham: In Spite Of All The Damage (orig. Be Good Tanyas)
- Caroline Pennell: Yellow (orig. Coldplay)
(from From Cover To Cover: 30 Years At Nettwerk, 2015)
The Year’s Best Covers EP (single artist)
+ Sean Rowe, Her Songs
+ William Tyler, The Lagniappe Sessions
+ Marissa Haacke, Acoustic Covers, Vol. 1
+ Infamous Stringdusters, Undercover
What could have been a lighthearted conceit by basso profundo Sean Rowe, who was recommended to me by Chuck and Mira of The Sea The Sea when they kicked off our new house concert series this Fall, offers instead a deep dive into bare-bones gender-bent coverage: tender and low, round and resonant, drowned in that booming, syrup-thick voice. The six single-take tracks and accompanying videos represent a perfect 45-to-33 who’s who of female alternative singer-songwriter fare, too, with songs from Feist, Cat Power, Neko Case, Regina Spektor, and – yes, again – Sade, who seems to be popular this year. A Troy, NY-based singer-songwriter who also offers foraging and wilderness skills classes on his website, Rowe is reportedly just as powerful in person; he also wins for best accolade of 2015: upon hearing his rendition of her “Soldiers Song,” Lucinda Williams apparently proclaimed “This is the best cover of any of my songs that anyone has ever done. I am completely moved.”
From somewhere between country rock balladry and John Fahey primitivism comes our second place set, a mostly instrumental foursome of songs originally by Ry Cooder, Blaze Foley, and Blue Oyster Cult from true-blue Nashville boy William Tyler, commissioned, recorded and released via Aquarium Drunkard as part of their Lagniappe Sessions way back in January. Tyler, who has produced a precious handful of records of his own, is best known as a member of indie blog darlings Lambchop and the Silver Jews, but as these sessions prove, he’s got chops and roots in equal measure; he’s also played with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Charlie Louvin, and Candi Staton.
Perennial favorites The Infamous Stringdusters turn in relatively faithful but entirely gleeful one-take jamgrass takes on well-known songs from Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Pink Floyd in Undercover, a fun diversion recorded while in the studio for their next big album, due in February. And finally, as its name implies, Acoustic Covers Vol. 1 is simply put: an iTunes release from September which features exceptionally young singer-songwriter Marissa Haacke solo and without airs. There’s a deceptively simple sameness to these songs, too, in part due to their sheer simplicity, and a pristine recording quality. But despite her girlish voice, as heard in her wistful, innocent take on Footloose soundtrack song Holding Out For A Hero, Haacke has depth, and shows promise enough to mention; here’s hoping that this girl from the Rocky Mountains will keep singing, and gladly.
- Sean Rohe: Let It Die (orig. Feist)
- Sean Rohe: Soldier’s Song (orig. Lucinda Williams)
(from Her Songs, 2015)
- William Tyler: She’s As Beautiful As a Foot (orig. Blue Oyster Cult)
(from The Lagniappe Sessions, 2015)
The Year’s Best Covers EP (multiple artist)
+ Various Artists, Polaris Sessions No. 1
+ Various Artists, Decoration Day, Volume 4
Three songs recorded live in studio in 2014 but released as a 10″ in 2015 make for an unusually sparse but utterly delightful program, kicking off a new cover series from the folks who bring us the Polaris Music Prize, and in the process bringing us our favorite multiple artist covers EP of the year. The A-side is a grungy, electric roots cover of New Pornographers from Whitehorse; I’ve come back to the B-side, featuring Great Lake Swimmers covering Sarah Harmer and Sarah Harmer covering Caribou, over a dozen times since discovering it last month.
Meanwhile, on the experimental front, comes Decoration Day, Volume 4, featuring songs about home from perennial favorites Mason Jar Music, who produces a new thematically-grounded covers EP every year for Decoration Day, and hits the ball out of the park every time. As in volumes 1-3, the set yaws wider than folk allows, but a number of delights come in especially dear: Cory Chisel and Adriel Denae pull old Sam Cooke favorite Bring It On Home To Me way back into hollow living room folk, and you’ve never heard Bjork the way banjo player Taylor Ashton interprets her.
- Taylor Ashton: Hyperballad (orig. Bjork)
- Flearoy: Over The Hill (orig. John Martyn)
(from Decoration Day Volume 4, 2015)
The Year’s Best Tribute Album (single artist)
+ Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield, …Sing Elliott Smith
+ Plainsong, Reinventing Richard: The Songs of Richard Farina
+ The Hillbenders, Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry
+ Girls Guns & Glory, A Tribute To Hank Williams – Live!
+ Asleep At The Wheel, Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys
Yes, yes; Ryan Adams’ full-album tribute to Taylor Swift is nothing short of a miracle. But it isn’t folk, truly; we’ve a separate category for mixed-genre tributes for a reason, and we’ll let Adams share top honors there.
Luckily, it was an unusually diverse year for single artist tributes in the folk, roots, and Americana realms. Honors in our single artist tribute category go to five very different projects from five sets of artists, each of whom represents a distinct branch of the folkworld.
At the top of our list, pulling back from the string-fed sounds of his work with The Avett Brothers, we find Seth Avett alongside Jessica Lea Mayfield, just bass and guitar and the hollowness of the songbook. Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith was panned by Pitchfork for its reverence, and a suspicion that these explorations do little to plumb the true depths of the songs, but we disagree – Smith’s songbook is raw enough; to imagine it plainly and gently, letting the songs speak, is an admirable approach in our book, and Avett and Mayfield’s voices mix beautifully, both on the album and in later live covers added to the set in performance, like this exquisite take on Miss Misery.
Second honors go to Plainsong, whose tribute to Richard Farina Reinventing Richard is a true homage to a seminal figure lost too soon, and a great showcase for the work of a three-piece British folk rock band whose founding members came from Fairport Convention and “poetry band” The Liverpool Scene, and still maintain strong strains of the tradition in their arrangements and harmonies. Meanwhile, Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry, The Hillbenders full-album cover of The Who’s rock opera, is actually much better than it should have been; though this one could have easily yawed into the realm of self-parody or, worse, the mellow sameness of pseudo-anonymous “Pickin’ On” series, we are treated to a fun-loving session from a well-tempered band that clearly loves to hoot and holler.
Asleep At The Wheel’s playful, guest-heavy celebration of the music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys plays it straight as a true-blue Texas swing album, with uptempo hillbilly arrangements that bring the talents of Carrie Rodriguez, The Avett Brothers, Lyle Lovett, Amos Lee, Willie Nelson and more into a full-bore ensemble setting; it’s hard to hide the distinctive voices of Lee, Lovett, and Nelson, but who would want to? And the country and western blues Girls Guns and Glory and friends bring to the songs of Hank Williams is simply divine.
- Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield: Between The Bars (orig. Elliott Smith)
- Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield: Pitseleh (orig. Elliott Smith)
(from Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith, 2015)
- Plainsong: Another Country (orig. Richard Farina)
(from Reinventing Richard: The Songs of Richard Farina, 2015)
- Girls Guns and Glory ft. Miss Tess: Your Cheating Heart (orig. Hank Williams)
(from A Tribute To Hank Williams – Live!, 2015)
- Asleep At The Wheel ft. Carrie Rodriguez: A Good Man Is Hard To Find (orig. Bob Wills)
- Asleep At The Wheel ft. The Devil Makes Three: Bubbles In My Beer (orig. Bob Wills)
(from Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, 2015)
The Year’s Best Tribute Album (multiple artists)
+ Various Artists, The Joy Of Living: a Tribute to Ewan MacColl
+ Various Artists, Cold And Bitter Tears: The Songs of Ted Hawkins
+ Various Artists, The Brighter Side: a 25th Anniversary Tribute to Uncle Tupelo’s No Depression
+ Various Artists, Physical Graffiti Redrawn
It was a strong year for tribute albums, too, with a smashing if genre-busting Mojo Magazine tribute to Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, and no more than three Beatles tributes topping the mass market list. Our deeper dig reveals our own favorites, underdogs which shine next to these good but ultimately uneven releases (though we can’t help but give a nod to Hiss Golden Messenger’s Led Zeppelin cover, and in doing so, celebrate with an honorable mention a mixed Mojo freebie better than most, with cuts by Sun Kil Moon, Michael Kiwanuka, Laura Marling and others on the good-stuff radar).
As for our favorite? Two-disc tribute albums are often a risk; too broad, too long, and too heavy with deep cuts. But Ewan MacColl tribute The Joy Of Living, which mixes UK folk contemporaries Norma Waterson, Dick Gaughan, Kathryn Williams, Karine Polwart, Martin Simpson, Eliza Carthy, and others with a host of more distant musical cousins, from Bombay Bicycle Club to Steve Earle, who can claim a lineage influenced by the inimitable MacColl, is a glorious exception: it works, in spades, thanks to a seemingly endless songbook, and tender, authentic treatment given with love.
Our second place tie goes to two albums that celebrate the roots and margins of folk simultaneously. Cold and Bitter Tears, a suitably swampy, bluesy, bar-room two-step of a tribute to the legendary Venice Beach street performer Ted Hawkins, is chock full of deep-south covers from Mary Gauthier, Gurf Morlix, James McMurtry, Danny Barnes, Kasey Chambers and more. And well-tuned cover curation-house Reimagine Music’s 2015 offering, an alt-country and indie rock reinvention of seminal 1990 Uncle Tupelo debut album No Depression, is breathtaking: taking on such a genre-defining album is daring, but this set comes in swinging and doesn’t stop, proving the viability and variance of the alt-country set on today’s musical map, from the cloudlike shimmer of Mikaela Davis’ harp and voice to the mellow chill of Wooden Sky to more rugged, amped-up alt-Americana from Crow Moses, The Last Bison, and other bands you should know.
- Steve James: Whole Lotta Women (orig. Ted Hawkins)
- Gurf Morlix: I Gave Up All I Had (orig Ted Hawkins)
(from Cold And Bitter Tears: The Songs of Ted Hawkins, 2015)
- Bombay Bicycle Club: The Young Birds (orig. Ewan MacColl)
- Steve Earle: Dirty Old Town (orig. Ewan MacColl)
(from The Joy Of Living: A Tribute to Ewan MacColl, 2015)
- Mikaela Davis: So Called Friend (orig. Uncle Tupelo)
- Beta Radio: John Hardy (orig. Uncle Tupelo)
(from The Brighter Side: A 25th Anniversary Tribute to Uncle Tupelo’s No Depression, 2015)
- Hiss Golden Messenger: Black Country Woman (orig. Led Zeppelin)
(from Physical Graffiti Redrawn, 2015)
The Year’s Best Tribute EP
+ Wharfer, Broken Land: Songs of the Flatlanders
+ Glen Hansard, It Was Triumph We Once Proposed…Songs of Jason Molina
+ Various Artists, Unsung: Songs: Ohia Covers Compilation
For a while this year, two EP-length tributes to the works of Songs:Ohia founder Jason Molina this year – one from Glen Hansard, the other a live tribute radio show hosted by Philly wheelhouse Folkadelphia – looked like they were competing for top honors in the Tribute EP category, which often attracts the indie set. And both are worth the listen, in the end: Hansard’s awkwardly titled It Was Triumph We Once Proposed… Songs of Jason Molina thanks to a slow, respectful softness; Folkadelphia’s Unsung if you like grungy, metal-tinged rock, though a few exceptionally strong, haunting cuts, like the Laura Baird cover below, save the day.
But we’re not above championing the unknown. And in this case, it’s an easy decision handing the crown to Broken Land: Songs of the Flatlanders, a dark horse slowcoustic freebie released via Soundcloud by Wharfer, aka Brooklynite by way of Scranton Kyle Wall. Hissy, creaky, and yet perfect in its deconstruction of the Flatlanders songbook, it’s a diamond in the darkness, evoking the hours before sunrise from prairie to fire escape with tuneless whistles, a tender croak of a broken voice, and an urgent hand on a gentle guitar.
- Wharfer: Jole Blon (orig. The Flatlanders)
- Wharfer: Tonight I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown (orig. The Flatlanders)
(from Broken Land: Songs of the Flatlanders, 2015)
- Laura Baird: Blue Chicago Moon (orig. Songs: Ohia)
(from Unsung: Songs:Ohia Covers Compilation, 2015)
- Glen Hansard: Farewell Transmission (orig. Songs: Ohia)
(from It Was Triumph We Once Proposed… Songs of Jason Molina, 2015)
The Year’s Best Tradfolk Album
+ Sam Lee and Friends, The Fade In Time
+ Spuyten Duyvil, The Social Music Hour, Vol. 1
+ Anna & Elizabeth, Anna & Elizabeth
+ Gigspanner, Layers of Ages
+ Forest Mountain Hymnal, Dear Balladeer
+ Lindsay Straw, My Mind From Love Being Free
Some serious competition this year, in a category often dominated by the sparse and Appalachian – not that there’s anything wrong with that. But our top pick, Mercury Prize nominee Sam Lee and Friends’ The Fade In Time, isn’t an album so much as it is a complete experience, a journey through the gypsy traditions of rural England filtered through exotic folk strands as far-flung as Japan and Tajikistan. Singer and song-collector Lee is a master arranger, and the collage effect is potent; ultimately, the album both honors the more traditional ethnomusical exploration that informed his 2002 debut Ground Of Its Own, and plies it, gathering from the world as it travels through.
Close seconds go to Brooklyn roots revivalists Spuyten Duyvil, whose cheerful faces and rugged, ragged high energy sets are well known to denizens of the Falcon Ridge Folk crowd, and who bring the blues and then some on The Social Music Hour, Vol. 1; they’re followed closely by a tearingly sparse, gorgeous Appalachian self-titled sophomore outing from historians and song-finders Anna & Elizabeth. And runners-up honors keep our list going long, with Forest Mountain Hymnal’s ongoing project Dear Balladeer, which, although still unfinished, has delivered a deep and rejuvenating delve into the collected ballads of John Jacob Niles, a gentle debut from honey-voiced Boston-based bouzouki and guitar picker Lindsay Straw, and British psychedelic folk rocker Peter Knight and his band Gigspanner, whose album Layer Of Ages – heavy, earthy, haunting and hollow with drones and drum – isn’t beautiful, and isn’t meant to be. A rich field for the traditional set, indeed.
- Sam Lee and Friends: Blackbird (trad.)
- Sam Lee and Friends: Lord Gregory (trad.)
(from The Fade In Time, 2015)
- Spuyten Duyvil: Barbara Allen (trad.)
- Spuyten Duyvil: Make Me A Pallet (trad.)
(from The Social Music Hour, Vol. 1, 2015)
The Year’s Best Mixed Genre Tribute Album
+ Ryan Adams, 1989
+ Moa Holmsten, Bruised Arms And Broken Rhythm: Songs by Bruce Springsteen
+ John Vanderslice, Vanderslice Plays Diamond Dogs
+ Bill Wells & Friends, Nursery Rhymes
Ryan Adams is a no-brainer here; his track-by-track tear-down of Taylor Swift album 1989 is an accomplishment realized, with NPR feature status and over ten million hits on YouTube alone. More surprising is our second favorite: as Paste noted earlier this month in their own 10 Best Cover Songs of 2015, Moa Holmsten isn’t even a fan of Bruce Springsteen, making her fifth album, which covers his canon, an unusual choice. But the conceit works wonders: although the resulting dark, glitchy, beautiful pop album from this Swedish wunderkind has little connection to folk in its tracklist, this single sample is perfect for the contemporary folk set, with high production, shuffling drums and horns, and a mellow harmony vocal that aches with longing.
We can’t help but celebrate a last-minute contender in the form of late December release John Vanderslice Plays David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs, new from cover label Reimagine Music. The album resets David Bowie’s 1974 concept album in a variety of genres and settings, from quiet to disquieting; the result is no mere diversion: psychedelic folk, alternative pop, and country rock merge in an album that totally reinvents Bowie’s original, renaming, rewriting, and reworking the arrangements to create something new and precious. (Hint: Juvenile Success is really Rebel Rebel in disguise.)
Finally, though our kidfolk category disappears this year due to a dearth of material, our mixed-genre plate is the perfect setting to mention Bill Wells & Friends’ Nursery Rhymes, which features settings of well-worn classroom and playground classics. Wells isn’t folk, and a cast of familiar experimentalists from multiple genres, from Syd Straw to Yo La Tengo, doesn’t make it so; it’s more like a slippery, sparse contemporary jazz, tightly arranged: a bit complex for kids, but a wonderful digression of an evening with friends.
- Moa Holmsten: The River (orig. Bruce Springsteen)
(from Bruised Arms And Broken Rhythm: Songs by Bruce Springsteen, 2015)
- John Vanderslice: Juvenile Success (orig. David Bowie)
(from John Vanderslice Plays David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs, 2015)
The Year’s Best Mostly Covers Album
+ Eef Barzelay, EP 1 (I Don’t Even Want To Know)
+ Barnstar!, Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out!
Eef Barzelay just doesn’t quit. His fourth fan-chosen covers album was already a favorite; the December release of EP 1 (I don’t even want to know), with five more covers and two originals a coda to a great year, pushes him easily over the edge. Like all of Eef’s work, the songs here are raw and coarse and devotional; their tunelessness and discordance shudder in the ear, each one a live and nakedly intimately experience wired directly into the psyche; you’ve never heard a more exhausted, tender King of Carrot Flowers; when that troubled, primitive voice resolves into purity as the chorus kicks in on Don’t Dream It’s Over, the heart lifts, and the world is sunny again. Listening to one is a journey; listening to the whole EP at once risks adrenalin exhaustion, a long walk on the edge of music’s uncanny valley.
Meanwhile, Boston-based roots-and-bluegrass supergroup Barnstar! continues their trend towards half-covers albums, with perfectly summery, grassy romps on songs by Josh Ritter, The Hold Steady, Patty Griffin, Cat Stevens, and The Faces alongside sweet originals by band members Mark Erelli, Jake and Taylor Amerding, banjoist Charlie Rose, and bassist Zachariah Hickman. Just another more cover or two, and new albums from perennial cover artists Pharis and Jason Romero and Rani Arbo and daisy mayhem would have been mentioned here, too; keep an eye open for their work in our upcoming Best Singles mix.
- Eef Barzelay: Freight Train (orig. Elizabeth Cotten)
- Eef Barzelay: Don’t Dream It’s Over (orig. Crowded House)
(from EP 1 (I Don’t Even Want To Know), 2015)
- Barnstar!: Darling (orig. Josh Ritter)
- Barnstar!: Stay With Me (orig. The Faces)
(from Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out!, 2015)
The Year’s Best Covers TV Soundtrack
+ Various Artists, Grey’s Anatomy, Season 12
Our final category this year is a bit specious, I suppose; it’s increasingly rare for TV soundtracks to be released as full albums. But twenty-something television is a constant source for wonderful coverage, leading to constant moments where I turn a corner into a cover, and have to watch the credits to find out which artist I just heard. And through shows such as Scrubs, The OC, Parenthood, One Tree Hill, and more, the medium has served us well, as a potent showcase for indie artists looking for ways to get their songs heard.
And so, as in past years, the shiftings of the marketplace of ideas brings forth a new category for our consideration: the soundtrack collection. And no program has been so persistently great with delightful indiefolk coverage this year as Grey’s Anatomy, which my kids have begin watching religiously after their own struggles with illness lent them a new curiosity about the inner workings of hospitals. From the relentless, insistent pace of Freedom Fry’s Oops I Did It Again to the sterile, echoing piano of Scars on 45 and Sleeping At Last, it’s an indiefolk paradise of mood and meaning.
- Scars on 45: Wrecking Ball (orig. Miley Cyrus)
- Freedom Fry: Oops I Did It Again (orig. Britney Spears)
- Jenny O: Waterfalls (orig. TLC)
- Sleeping At Last: As Long As You Love Me (orig. Backstreet Boys)
(from Grey’s Anatomy, Season 12, 2015)
Cover Lay Down thrives throughout the year thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, like, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.
And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the music flowing? Please, consider a year’s end contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all donors receive undying praise, and a special gift mixtape of well-loved but otherwise unblogged covers from 2014-2015.
Today, in the second installment of our new Best Videos of the Year series, we turn to our favorite audiovisual cover collections, sets, and series, with over 20 genre-bending reinventions in three broad categories from our favorite living rooms, home studios, and production houses: a set that brings the intimacy of the live take into focus, far beyond the field recording and the bootleg documentation, framing both song and coverage as portable, personal, and eminently folk.
So feast your eyes and ears on video covers of Bon Jovi, Jason Isbell, Bobbie Gentry, Wilco, Sufjan Stevens, and more, from tradfolk to b-sides to the pop hits of yesteryear. Click back to watch and marvel at The Year’s Best Coverfolk Video Singles, featuring our favorite single-shot video covers of the year. Stay tuned in the weeks ahead for our annual look back at The Year’s Best Cover and Tribute Albums, and our always-unranked collection of The Year’s Best Coverfolk Singles. Remember, as always, to click through to pursue and support favorites where you find ‘em, the better to ensure the continued creation of music into the new year and beyond. And may your days, as you find them, be blessed with song: familiar, exquisite, and yours.
Best Video Series
+ Juliana, Thank You
+ Billy The Kid, 31 Cover Videos in 31 Days (tie)
The artist-driven cover series is an exercise as much as it is a packaging tool for fans, one that offers a focused path towards distribution and craft – much in the same way, I imagine, that the sonnet series that I wrote in March of my senior year in high school allowed me to think in iambic pentameter on demand. Artists who have done this several times often experience a huge jump in quality of performance from the beginning of one series to the end of the next; it seems the practice, over time, of producing the equivalent of an album via video proffers the same opportunity to delve deep.
There’s more polish than ever before, out there; the tubes are filled, after all, with young folks who have honed their craft, and we’ll see precision enough in our Best Ongoing Video Coverage category below. But we’ve been in a pensive mood as we regain our footing in the folkworld, and looking back to the raw and unrefined has been our wont as we collect our thoughts as the year comes to a close. The result, this this category, at least: a split bill tie, with living room coverage crisp and clear from YouTubers Juliana and Billy The Kid, plus an honorable mention to a series that has just begun.
Thank You, Juliana’s YouTube cover series, was prompted by a summer Kickstarter campaign; donors at a particular level chose songs, and Juliana covered ‘em. The result is a fan-driven set of ballads and soft transformations that ranges wide, from Lori Lieberman, Bonnie Raitt and Jim Croce to Stone Ponies, Daft Punk, and the most crushingly simple, smashingly beautiful Bon Jovi cover ever; that her donors have such a good instinct towards matching that versatile, sweet and intimate voice with just the right songs suggests a growing fan base that falls fully in love, as we did. Bonus tracks from outside of the series just lend credence to the impression of mature talent in this young singer-songwriter formerly known as Juliana Richer Daily: a two year old Lorde cover with overdubbed harmony every bit as gorgeous as her current work, a sweet duet on Dylan’s Boots of Spanish Leather, an essential Starry Starry Night, and an achingly delicate new Adele cover, promise more to come, and we’re thrilled.
Juliana: Killing Me Softly (orig. Lori Lieberman)
- Juliana: Blood Money (orig. Bon Jovi)
- Juliana: Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands (orig. Bob Dylan)
- Juliana: When We Were Young (orig. Adele)
Heavily tattooed Vancouver-based indie-grrl Billy The Kid, who recently released an album with anti-folk artist Frank Turner, holes up each January for a daily series of raw, unadorned solo recordings that dig deep into the soul; favorites from this year’s 31 Covers In 31 Days playlist include a devastating cover of Jason Isbell’s Elephant, subtly and suitably wistful takes on songs by Taylor Swift and Kathleen Edwards, a restrained, echoey version of Gin Blossoms hit Found Out About You, and a hushed Ryan Adams cover to die for. Bonus points: last year, she covered 31 Ryan Adams songs in 31 days.
- Billy The Kid: Elephant (orig. Jason Isbell)
- Billy The Kid: Found Out About You (orig. Gin Blossoms)
- Billy The Kid: Wrecking Ball (orig. Ryan Adams)
- Billy The Kid: Malibu (orig. Hole)
If all we can offer The End of America in our Best Video Cover Series of 2015 is an honorable mention, it’s only because The Decade Sessions is a monthly series as yet unfinished. Just three songs in, though, and it’s already clear that the three-piece act is about to cross into the New Year strong and steady, with high-energy folk harmonies and a knack for raucous transformation that transcends the mere audio.
- The End Of America: Act Appalled (orig. Circa Survive)
Call it a lifetime achievement award: year’s past honorees which would fit in this category still work hard to bring us the best in coverage; we’re especially enamored of this year’s advent calendar from ortoPilot, whose annual December cover series topped the Best Video category in 2011. Watch the series for more goodies as it continues towards Christmas.
- ortoPilot: Trouble (Ray Lamontaigne)
- ortoPilot: No Diggity (orig. Blackstreet)
Best Ongoing Video Coverage
+ Daniela Andrade
Not all YouTube cover artists release their work as part of a discrete set; much more commonly, young musicians come back to coverage throughout the year, either as a primary vehicle of fan-base building or merely as an offshoot of a determined trajectory towards the world of The Voice. Much of the work in this category is more acoustic pop or rock than folk – a bit too precious, and a bit too twee – and although high-production YouTube artists like Boyce Avenue, Future Sunsets, Tyler Ward, Madilyn Bailey and others may still find their occasional way into our themed sets, with or without drums and bass, it’s hard to argue that these popular voices are performing in the folk tradition.
But when it comes to true-blue contemporary folkpop coverage in instrumentation and voice, no one does it better than Daniela Andrade, a regular here on Cover Lay Down; her YouTube work has appeared in several thematic features over the past few years, and topped our lone video category in our 2013 Albums of the Year collection. The Canadian singer-songwriter has diversified her approach this year, partnering with beatboxer KRNFX and popstar Shakira, and creating layered versions of herself; this, a growing maturity in production, a refined aptitude in a broad array of instruments, and stellar takes from fragile to forceful on songs from Gorillaz, Regina Spector, and more place her easily atop our list of favorites for ongoing coverage in 2015.
- Daniela Andrade: Back Home (orig. Caribou)
- Daniela Andrade: Us (orig. Regina Spector)
- Daniela Andrade: Feel Good Inc. (orig. Gorillaz)
Second place in our ongoing coverage category goes to Leeds-based song interpreter and singer-songwriter Jemma Johnson, an emerging artist who we recently featured in our Holiday Coverfolk series. Unlike Andrade, Johnson has only been posting covers on the web for a couple of years, and she’s released just six original songs, four of them via Enough, an EP which hit Bandcamp this summer. But both these dear originals and this year’s cover delights – including takes on Elvis, Radiohead, Sia, Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, Oasis, Sam Smith, and other well-covered pop artists beloved in the YouTube community – warrant further listening and subscribing.
- Jemma Johnson: Can’t Help Falling In Love (orig. Elvis Presley)
- Jemma Johnson: Your Song (orig. Elton John)
- Jemma Johnson: No Surprises (orig Radiohead)
- Jemma Johnson: Wonderwall (orig. Oasis)
Best Studio Video Coverage
+ Beehive Productions
The production house cover series premise is simple: gather artists for a song or three around a couple of microphones when they come through town, and include a cover in the mix. The result, taken as a single stream, serves as a crowdsourced version of the nearest modern equivalent to the Allan Lomax project, documenting the songs of the ages as they are found in the wild. And it works: there are dozens of these sources, from The AV Club to the BBC, and more every year – enough to justify an awards category all their own, focused around the curation and production process, and those who practice it.
Many of these sources bulge far past folk in their collective capturing; scouring for softer coverage in The AV Club annals, for example, can be an all-afternoon affair. But in a set this vast, it’s relatively easy to find a few that focus on the world of folk and roots. Our favorite this year: upstate New York production house Beehive Productions, who we first found via a black-and-white video cover of Richard Thompson’s 1952 Vincent Black Lightning shared last month as part of our feature on Mike + Ruthy, and whose precision and ethnographic notation bespeaks the crystal clarity of sessions with Charlie Parr, The Murphy Beds, The Bombadils, Anna and Elizabeth, Catlin Canty, Old Man Luedeke, The Steel Wheels and more.
- Charlie Parr: Delia (orig. Blind Willie McTell)
- Cricket Blue: Ode to Billy Joe (orig. Bobbie Gentry)
- Murphy Beds: Blackwater Slide (trad.)
Honorable Mention in this category goes to three favorite hosts and houses: Onder Invloed, Root Down In The Shadow’s Cover Club, and The Crypt Sessions. We’ve already featured The Crypt Sessions in our Best Video Singles category earlier this week; the North London studio that specializes in intimate, precisely captured lo-fi performances will show up again in our final 2015 Christmas-themed feature, suffice it to say, we’re big fans.
Onder Invloed, aka Under The Influence, is an ongoing covers project by Dutch journalist Matthijs van der Ven, who hosts artists in various joints and settings around his home in the Netherlands, and records them playing covers. The settings aren’t always perfect, acoustically speaking, but the diverse match between artist and performance space often produces beauty – as in these very divergent samples from the broken voiced Small Houses and folk harmony trio The Staves, whose live 2015 cover of I’m On Fire with Justin Vernon for The Take is a genuine contender for live cover of the year.
- Small Houses: I’m Always In Love (orig. Wilco)
- The Staves: Chicago (orig. Sufjan Stevens)
Philly-based Root Down In The Shadow goes for diverse settings, too; Small Houses plays a great cover in a stream. The focus is on the local, but it’s a rich scene, and broadly defined, with a stunner from Hezekiah Jones that almost made our Best Singles mix, and a mellow front porch Strand Of Oaks cover from Max Garcia Conover.
- Hezekiah Jones: Sailors (orig. Johnny Miles)
- Max García Conover: Leave Ruin (orig. Strand of Oaks)
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 a special gift mixtape of well-loved but otherwise unblogged covers from 2014-2015.
Last year we acknowledged our favorite video-sourced covers of the year as an afterthought, dropping ten of our favorites into our Facebook feed as New Year’s approached. This year, we’re bring it all home. For if the mp3 or streaming audio track represents a particular type of approach to folk, and the live performance another – in that both mediate between song, artist, fan in a fundamentally different way – so is it equally true that the video offers a third approach to the continuation of the folkways, well worth the singular focus we can provide here on Cover Lay Down.
There’s a distinction to be made here between the increasingly common studio recording video and the living room coversong, of course. The former, simply, offers a peek into the recording process; as such, some of the songs which we first featured here on the blog in video form, such as Sarah Jarosz, Sara Watkins, and Aoife O’Donovan’s amazing live version of John Hiatt’s Crossing Muddy Water, will still find their way to our Best of 2015 singles mix, instead of here, as a consequence of their intent.
(Also worth noting: we’re unapologetic strippers here at Cover Lay Down, which is to say that many of the singles we have posted in the past have a videographic origin, crunched down to mp3 for easier distribution on the blog. There are times when this makes sense, structurally; it would be jarring, for example, to have muddled the textual purpose of our recent Paris mix by crossing between studio tracks and videos, a distraction to be looking back and forth between subject and interpretation.)
But context matters more when we celebrate the performance of song for itself. Songs intended to be seen and heard the first time are designed and developed as multisensory experiences. In these cases, even as pulling a video from the eyes allows us to focus on its sonic interpretation, it does so by flattening the artist’s intent, a result that challenges and changes the relationship between listener and the music-maker.
And so, in our ongoing attempt to live our vision by serving and supporting artist and fans as directly and honestly as possible, this week we present our Best Video Coverfolk of the year: a two-parter, with an unranked set of our favorite 2015 video singles first, and our favorite ongoing, new, and studio-hosted 2015 YouTube series following. Enjoy – and remember to stay tuned in the weeks ahead for our Best Albums and Best Singles of 2015!
The Year’s Best Coverfolk Videos, Part 1: The Singles
Taylor Ashton: Never For Nothing (orig. Stray Birds)
Recorded live in the underground, with what appears to be a busking sax player; the echo is perfect for this cover from Taylor Ashton, lead vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter for BC fusion-folk band Fish & Bird, who also appears in the video for the original song.
Eaves: Girl From The North Country (orig. Bob Dylan)
Two covers from The Crypt Sessions with 23 year old British grungefolk newcomer Eaves offer a perfect case study in how video can help and hurt a song: here, the tortured artist in pale sepia wrings the soul, while the more formal setting of his duet cover of Mountain Man’s Animal Tracks makes it ideal for our forthcoming Best of 2015 singles mix. See also Eaves and Nick Mulvey covering Gillian Welch in a crowd – it’s priceless.
Ryan Hobler: Harvest Moon (orig. Neil Young)
Layered, transcendent, and yet oh so spare. If Neil Young was a high, wavery, dulcet-toned falsetto tenor who played guitar delicately and gently, he’d be Ryan Hobler, a 2014 NewSong finalist whose well-written popfolk debut album The Elusive Yes was released to great fanfare this Spring.
Dana Williams: Wave Of Mutilation (orig. Pixies)
Powerful-yet-sweet pipes often compared to Ella Fitzgerald, a slippery voice in full control of her sound, a simple, gently percussive style on the guitar, and a rooftop setting complete with the shush of traffic typify the early work of Dana Williams; other covers, from Meghan Trainor’s Close Your Eyes to an appropriately lo-fi Chris Bell classic You & Your Sister, show sweetness and light in equal measure.
Kathryn Joseph: Street Spirit (orig. Radiohead)
Chilling and broken cover transforms a tense, ticking original into a taut, tragic ballad. Another “stark, cinematic journey” from experimental UK singer-songwriter Kathryn Joseph, whose debut bones you have thrown me and blood I’ve spilled emerged in January after a successful Kickstarter campaign.
Charles Gosme: House of the Rising Sun (trad.)
Classically-trained multi-instrumental pan-European musician and lyricist Charles Gosme reaches back past Alan Lomax and The Animals and into the primordial soup for this gritty, atmospheric cello and voice cover.
Alice Boman: Reason To Believe (orig. Tim Hardin)
Piano and voice echo like Winter inside this empty Switzerland hall on a well-covered classic turned skeletal and thin. From Swedish songstress Alice Boman, whose precise accent is practically a third instrument; the fourth, a shuffling in the hall somewhere behind the camera, lends its own layer of presence magnificently.
Megan Davies ft. Jaclyn : See You Again / Love Me Like You Do / Sugar
(orig. Wiz Khalifa feat. Charlie Puth / Ellie Goulding / Maroon 5)
YouTube star Megan Davies, sister Jaclyn Davies, and friend Tasha combine for a supernova of an acoustic mashup already liked over twenty million times by YouTube popwatchers, but likely still a novelty for our folky crowd. Also recommended for true-blue acoustic pop fans: an Eminem/Avicci cover with Megan and “Jac” from 2014, and a recent duet with Luke Preston on Drake’s Hotline Bling.
Hidden Roots Collective: Dreams (Fleetwood Mac cover)
A literally off-the-floor cover of a Fleetwood Mac favorite from The Hidden Roots Collective, four Canadian indie singer-songwriters (Annie Sumi, Rose-Erin Stokes, Brigitte Lebel, Holly Cunningham) who have plans to record an album together next spring, thank goodness.
John Moreland: Thunder Road (orig. Bruce Springsteen)
Oklahoma-based John Moreland went big this year, and for good reason: the soulful singer-songwriter – who cites Steve Earle as his inspiration to switch from hardcore to folk – embodies the raw acoustic side of modern roots music, has opened for Jason Isbell, Dawes, and Patty Griffin, writes a hook like nobody’s business, and does Springsteen right.
Dawes & a random fan: Lay Lady Lay (orig. Bob Dylan)
…and this is why live YouTube coverage exists: Dawes holds a lip-sync contest in Paris, and come to the home of this random French fan to sing a cover with her when she wins. And she can sing!
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 and 2015 covers otherwise unblogged.
(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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