Archive for January 2020


RIP David Olney (1948-2020)
A songwriter’s legacy, covered in folk

January 22nd, 2020 — 9:46pm



It’s hard not to write about David Olney without name-dropping. When the 71 year old touring folk musician and “founding father of Nashville Americana” died quietly on stage during a performance this weekend, the world lost a songwriter’s songwriter, known at least as well in the deeper branches of the folk and bluegrass worlds for his collaborative work with Steve Earle, Del McCoury, Tim O’Brien, and Emmylou Harris as for his ongoing work as a touring and recording artist in his own right, on the circuit since arriving in Nashville in the early seventies. The bluegrass and folkhouse labels on which others have released recordings of his songs mark a strong pedigree: Rounder, Sugar Hill, Compass, Philo, Red House. And the tributes pouring forth on social media in the last few days from those who worked with him, and had plans to work with him, are a veritable who’s who of the modern folk circuit: Mary Gauthier, Amy Rigby (who was onstage with him when he passed), Amy Speace, Alejandro Escovedo, Ellis Paul, Abbie Gardner, Tom Russell, Janis Ian, Cheryl Prasker, Tom Pradasa-Rao, and more.

What made Olney’s life’s work so special? Townes Van Zandt, famously – a contemporary, though it’s harder to remember when talking about artists who died young – once listed Olney as one of his top four songwriters, next to Mozart, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Dylan. Others describe the joy of working together, collaboratively, or being in the round with him on stage, learning from a humble master. Mary Gauthier, on her personal page, notes especially his masterful choice of perspective and point of view – reconsidering the story of Jesus from the perspective of the huckster ripping people off on the next hill over, looking at the effects of WW I on soldiers from the viewpoint of a French Prostitute in 1917 – even taking on the sinking of the Titanic from the point of the iceberg, which lends a chilling randomness to death and movements alike.

Whether performing his own songs, or handing them off in whole or part to others, David Olney’s ability to take on the vivid voice of the peripheral, the powerful, the frustrated and the villainous to reveal the gritty reality of the masses was unparalleled. Today, a short list of covers, performed by contemporaries and inheritors alike, in thanks for his graceful presence – in the music, and in the lives of those he touched.

If David Olney was a household name at all, it was at least in part due to his co-write on this famous track from Emmylou Harris’ turning point album Wrecking Ball, which marked a transition in her career from Country sweetheart to an artist at the forefront of the new, lush Americana. Though Olney had recorded it several years earlier, later covers of the song – Olney’s most covered, surely – generally took on Harris’ arrangement with Daniel Lanois, and attribute the song to Harris herself; of these, several stand out: The Wailin’ Jennys‘ high-energy live harmonies, for sheer energy and beauty; Gary Peters‘ false-start banjo droner, for its slow build to mysticism; Russian bouzouki player Vassily K.’s picker’s melodrama; the military drums and country slide New Zealand roots quartet Hobnail bring to the table before slamming the thing wide open…and the only Olney cover we’ve posted here before, a tense 2017 Year’s Best Single from new-age indie-folk siren sisters Beau & Luci.

Slaid Cleaves‘ out-of-print 2006 covers album Unsung is a corrective: a song-by-song tribute to artist “friends and colleagues” in the scene whose names are not household names, but should be. Cleave’s dark, dusty take on Millionaire offers a perfect exemplar of Olney’s ability to inhabit and expose the fundamental evils of power without transforming the powerful into antiheroes; the smug braggadocio in this litany of exploitation and excess comes through loud and clear in Cleaves’ gruff, slightly queasy style – a counterpoint to the deceptively mellow, lighthearted cheer Laurie Lewis and Tom Rozum brought to the same song almost a decade earlier.

Originally covered by a world-weary Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris on their sweet, stripped-down 1999 duo album Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions, nestled comfortably alongside equally tender takes on songs by Springsteen, Patty Griffin, Sinead O’Connor, Leonard Cohen, and Jackson Brown. Seattle singer-songwriter and Irish traditionalist Erin McNamee‘s Celtic-tinged version, from her delightful 2010 album Whores and Fishermen, recasts the song as even more whispery and wistful – tender, even, with nary an ounce of bitterness, a whore truly mourning the soldiers who have shared her bed.

Olney’s recognition transcends borders, for sure. Though If My Eyes Were Blind was famously covered by both Steve Young and Mimi Farina in the eighties, I’m quite fond of these two takes, from prolific Netherlander singer-songwriter Ad Vanderveen and equally prolific amateur Finnish ukelele Youtuber Old Gardner Guy – the first lush and more tuneful, the second torn and ragged; both serve the longing achingly.

A cowrite with Sony staff songwriter and indie label founder Carol Elliott, whose 1995 recording of the song live from Kerrville seems to be the only official recording available, Mae Robertson‘s luxurious dreamland cover evokes the sweeter side of Olney, in partnership – one we hardly ever saw enough: the gentle, simple lullaby-crooner, sensitive to the language of love, with tender, assonant tonality, reminding us that it takes a true understanding of comfort to show it any any distance, even – perhaps especially – up close.

There’s nothing beautiful or lyrical about this pair. The original Love’s Been Linked To The Blues, off 1991 release Roses, is a pretty straightforward loose acoustic shuffle-blues, complete with trumpet solo, telling a familiar if unusually literate story of what love drives us all to, eventually, in “I saw it on the news” virus-tracking format; Garnet Rogers kicks it up a notch to electric barroom slide, a growlin’ and a moanin’. And fellow Nashville denizens Kieran Kane and Kevin Welch bring a hollow resonance to the core cautionary tale of Postcard From Mexico, a solid electrofolk groove about a dangerous woman and her aftermath officially released around the same time as Olney’s version.

A masterpiece of structure, borrowed from a Chinese poetic form in which the first and second couplets in each verse trade off disparate storylines, coming together with one story image as metaphor, resolution, or counter-image for the other in line five. The juxtaposition of wise and (deceptively) gentle women in the distance and the close-by folly of building bulwarks against the ages is as wise and poetic as Ozymandias – and the device of externalization sublime, in both Linda Ronstadt‘s contemporary folk-ballad retelling, and her brother and nephews‘ jazzed-up reconstruction.

Two years before Wrecking Ball broke the mold, Emmylou recorded another of Olney’s compositions as a decidedly more dustbowl country talksong, showing roots close to Townes’ – at least until the clarinet kicks in, that is. Bluegrass balladeer James King takes the tale of a desert huckster trying to figure out Jesus’ angle up to a drawling tenor, at the top of his range, and the strain fits the song perfectly. Mary Gauthier posted the lyrics to this one over the weekend in tribute to Olney’s passing. Great choice, Mary. We’ll miss you, David.




Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been digging deep at the ethnographic intersection of folkways and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU.

So do your part. Listen, deeply. Follow the threads. Purchase the music you love, and in doing so, support the arts and the artists in their struggle to thrive and survive.

And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the coverfolk flowing? Please, consider a contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all donors receive undying praise, and a special blogger-curated gift mixtape of well-loved but otherwise unshared covers from 2018.

Comment » | David Olney, Emmylou Harris, RIP

On the Trail of Social Justice, Redux
(More songs of place and protest)

January 18th, 2020 — 5:26pm



Three summers ago, we drove together up the country on the trail of social justice, from New Orleans to the great gentrified factories at the base of the Great Lakes. The Birmingham Jail, a historical marker in a small weedy quarter-lot alcove, up against, sure enough, a modern jail and police station, just under the highway. The Maya Lin memorial chalice, at the foot of the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama capitol building, all silent on a Sunday. The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, and the shuttered Goodwill storefront at its base. Homeless people in the park in Birmingham, begging for cigarettes and change among the stark statues of children facing police dogs and fire hoses. The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum, with its reconstructed scenes of the balcony where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, with its rolling view of Kentucky, and the river that separates the American South and North.

I’m especially proud of the long essay that captures our 2017 journey, which I posted upon our return alongside a short soundtrack of social justice songs of hope and freedom. It’s a trip that everyone should take, to bring a sense of scale to our national struggle towards justice for all.

But I am less proud, and sometimes ashamed, at the ways in which the long arc of the moral universe bends so slowly, so inconsistently towards justice. And although I work hard to do my part to keep the world getting better – even through Cover Lay Down itself, which by remaining ad-free and always celebrating the artists we find and want to share, aims to walk the walk of fair compensation and cultural continuity – I am bothered, far too often and well, at how overwhelming the work can seem, when seen from a distance.

It’s hard to celebrate the triumphs of a culture when you work in a city whose white mayor just proclaimed, despite a unanimous vote to the contrary by a largely non-white city council, that our gates will remain closed to refugees seeking sanctuary. It’s hard when the national news of young immigrants caged at the border fades into the drumbeats of war and disillusionment, pushing us to forget that those cages are still full, and our fellow humans still not free. It’s hard when I see my students arrive each morning – if indeed they bother to show up at all – sullen, tired, and hungry, their yearning to be free inarticulate, buried under a well-worn, well-practiced patina of brash hostility and callousness, if indeed it exists in them at all.

I teach social justice, in my way: English teachers have to teach conviction, else their students’ language languishes, purposeless; in the urban environment, the pressure is higher, and the injustices more present, if less articulable by its struggling residents. But we do our part with readings and thematic focuses on loneliness, responsibility, injustice, and the inaccessibility of the American Dream. My ninth graders started the year with Baldwin and Esmeralda Santiago’s When I Was Puerto Rican, seeing their own hopeless streets in a ghettoized Harlem, their own otherness in Santiago’s struggles to redefine her identity after her native tongue became alien and strange in Brooklyn. In my Advanced Placement Language and Composition classes, we read Swift’s call to power, and King’s call to morality; we talk fairness and equity, ideals and ethics – you have to. For years, I taught media literacy, and drama, as ways out of the mass mindset.

Empowering people is what I do, vocationally. And when you work in the inner city, there’s urgency in everything.

But there’s also an awful lot of hopelessness out here.

It’s hard to feel like we live in a just world. But we have to believe: the arc of the universe still bends towards justice. As long as we do our part, that is. As with anything, our part starts with memory, and moves to action.

And thanks to its forefathers and their inheritors – among them Seeger and Guthrie; Dylan, Holly Near and Richard Farina; Richard Shindell and Emma’s Revolution and Jean Rohe – folk, perhaps more than any genre, has long provided a potent vehicle for our articulation of these values, and this mandate. And though there are some who ask where the good protest songs are, there are others, like us, who say: here they are. Sing them with us, loudly.

Today, then, in memory of Martin Luther King Jr.: a short mix of coverfolk that call us to memory and legacy and action, just the latest in a series of long, loving songlists and musings on social justice, immigration, and hope and change shared here previously. Songs whose lyrics and strong sentiment push us ever onwards, whose stubborn persistence echoes from the mountaintops, whose continued re-performance helps fertilize hope against the cold.

No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. It was true in 1963, as King’s words rang forth across the air and waters; it is true today. Yet may our voices still rise in solidarity and challenge, determination and daring, as we push back against the forces that would dam that stream. And may we know justice and equality in our lifetimes, and be proud of our labors, our protest, and our pride.


Previously on Cover Lay Down

Comment » | Mixtapes

The Year’s Best Coverfolk Singles (2019)
A-sides, b-sides, deep cuts, one-shots and more!

January 12th, 2020 — 11:31am


It was a long lonely year, and we missed plenty, we’re sure – a natural artifact of a life lived on the road more than ever, halfway between home and hospital, and work and worry, that kept us from these pages for too many months between the covers of the calendar.

Here in the boyhowdy house, the children – now teenagers, teetering on the cusp of fragile womanhood and a robust maturity – still struggle to manage their illnesses and pain; each school day is a triumph, even if they can only make it in for an hour or two; their strengths and curiosities are increasingly clear and under their control, even as their bodies and their futures remain uncertain. Two hours away, my father fails slowly but surely, his independence increasingly scaffolded by care companions and the plastic accoutrements of age as the strengths of body and brain fade into late-stage early-onset Parkinson’s.

The things we have let falter in the face of such unpredictables are those that once served our souls, and our communities. We pare down our avocations, our calendars overscheduled with check-ins and check-ups, and the forever prospect of upheaval.

January comes on cold, and its hungry fires demand our attention.

But here in the rooms where we listen and write, the new year comes on slow and hopeful nonetheless. The barred owl and kestrel that the elderchild has come to care for as she discovers her avocation remain caged, unreleasable for life, even as she struggles to fly free on her tether of pain and unpredictability. The crafts and designed artifacts the wee one – now tall of stature – brings to painstaking life in the small hours of her insomniac existence take on their own life, too, bold and beautiful, even as their maker still founders to manage the distraction of body and brain. We come to appreciate the small, perfect moments of grace and gravity in ways we could not before.

And here, in the midst of it all, we take the weekend to ourselves. We sift through the tagged and the bookmarked, marking the songs that shouldn’t fade. And in the end, we come up for air with the ones that lasted: fifty tracks, coverfolk all; an afternoon’s worth of folk, roots, and acoustic performances that still shimmer, weeks and months after our discovery.


There’s something for everyone in this year’s three-hour mix, from alternative acoustic indiefolk to Scottish traditionals, from deep roots Americana to gypsy jazzfolk to new-wave alt- and post-folk, from classic-sounding folk radio cuts to the timeless, rare and rarified strains of what folk is at its most fragile and broken. Throw in the delicate, the wild, the beautiful and the strange, and we’ve once again found ourselves looking back at a year of powerful coverage, equally definitive and boundary-stretching in its celebration of the reimagined and the reconstructed, the torn apart and the tenderly treated.

Listen through in order, and feel the set ebb and flow – or just download the zip and shuffle to your heart’s content. Make the songs yours to savor, or keep them in the background, a soundtrack to a life lived courageous and well.

But listen, regardless. Find in each carefully-selected gem a symphony, and a cry to the world that there is still beauty and worth in the consideration of our inheritance of song, and of the world that contains it. And as always, if you like what you hear, follow the threads back to the source, to purchase and share your own favorites, the better to keep the music and the music-making going – for our children, and the generations to come.

The world is good, and its music our eternal sustenance. Let us listen, and be whole again.


The Year’s Best Coverfolk Singles:
A Cover Lay Down Mix (zip!)



Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been digging deep at the ethnographic intersection of folkways and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU.

So do your part. Listen, share, and above all, follow the threads. Purchase the music you love, and in doing so, support the arts and the artists in their struggle to thrive and survive.

And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the coverfolk flowing? Please, consider a year’s end contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all donors receive undying praise, and a special blogger-curated gift mixtape of well-loved but otherwise unshared covers from 2018.

1 comment » | Best of 2019, Mixtapes

The Year’s Best Coverfolk Albums (2019)
Tributes, Tradfolk, Covers Compilations & more!

January 5th, 2020 — 6:17pm


They say the turning of the year is symbolic, and to use it so: for reflection, a slate to be cleaned and set, restored, upon the walls of our living spaces.   In our time of need, there is solace, and a second chance built into our calendrical lives.  

And in the long, quiet hours to and from the adrenalin crises of our lives, music is our guide.   In the heartbreak rages and the long walks, it serves us.  In the peace of night, it sustains and soothes.  The discovery of it is joyful.  And the knowing of it, when it is at its best, and our need is greatest, is sublime.  

Such is our mandate, and our mission here: the comforting under the strange; the song of our hearts revealed or transformed.  Coverage.   The roots and branches of the music of the community, and the heart, in bloom, reborn.  

It’s hubris, perhaps, that brings us here – and no small bit of sheer stubbornness, to keep us coming back, for the past month and a bit, since our long, long hiatus through the majority of 2019.   We are humbled, practically imposters, after being away from the music for so long, and only so recently returned, in laying claim to anyone’s top ten, or five, or one…except our own. 

For although we were gone, the music still sustained us.   And here it is, at year’s end, the best still spinning on the tip of our tongues and ears.  

It’s good to be back with our 8th annual Year’s Best Coverfolk collection.  As always – and perhaps more than ever – it is neither definitive nor comprehensive, merely a celebration of the albums that have stuck, or stunned, or both, in a year where music was more important than ever. 

It is a list made with love and luck – at 35 songs, and almost two dozen albums, the soundtrack of our long hours of need and desire. 

Enjoy it.  Add its gems to your collections, the better to support the artists who serve our souls.  Come back, soon, for our celebration of the best coverfolk singles of 2019. 

And may your new year burn bright with possibility, too.  




The Year’s Best Covers EP

+ Emily Mure, Sad Songs and Waltzes
+ Rachel Sumner, The Things You Forgot
+ Margaret and Gregory, Songs for Loving and Dying
+ Moonlamb Project, Derivative Blues

The five tracks on The Things You Forgot, our tied-for-first Covers EP of the Year from Boston-based roots singer-songwriter Rachel Sumner, enjoyed a slow release throughout the year, giving us time to steep in each song as it came, from the light cowgirl bluegrass of Josh Ritter’s Temptation of Adam in April to a surprisingly faithful layered-vox-and-strum Elliott Smith cover in October; by the time the full set came together with a stunningly sweet Simple Twist of Fate four weeks ago, we were already deeply in love.  The songs on The Things You Forgot are as unforgettable in version as they are in the originals; as a full disc, their compositional potency comes into focus thanks to clear-as-a-bell production and performance, each precious note sung and strummed a single, deliberate stroke.  The end result is a simple masterpiece, still lingering long after we first featured it in November’s New Artists, Old Songs mailbag review.  Though Sumner has roots in both the bluegrass and classical worlds, this is true-blue singer-songwriter folk through and through, too: achingly clear, and wide open to the world, with twang and tenderness enough to carry us through the fire of an unusually difficult year on its own.  

Twinned honors go to Emily Mure, another solo artist we’ve touted here before for her delightful covers of Cake’s Mexico and Bowie’s As The World Falls Down.  But Sad Songs and Waltzes catapults her to the top of any list: from the first warm chord to the rich wistful harmonies floating in air, the EP – named after a Willie Nelson classic that melts like butter in this songstress’ supple hands and voice – offers an enveloping journey through the transformed songbook of modern radio, sweet and subtle and oh so cool.  It’s the tender covers album Kate Wolf would have made, if she had been born a half century later, and raised on Radiohead, Wilco, and The Cranberries, all of whom are covered softly and well; even Coldplay’s Yellow, which has been so over-covered in the last decade, takes on new shape and meaning here, once captured in Mure’s capable, enrapturing gaze.  Listen deeply, and be comforted anew.  

Honorable mention this year goes to Margaret and Gregory, whose small, homespun, oddly diverse lo-fi folk-and-indie-rock Songs for Loving and Dying takes on Dylan, Gillian Welch, John Prine, AP Carter, and a Mr. Rogers classic: a short ride, yet wide ranging, both full of death and life-affirming; the imperfections are delightful, too, making for a delicate yet definitive celebration of the bedroom antifolk subgenre.  And although it, too, is amateur at heart, Belgian’s Moonlamb Project – a duo – has a great concept in Derivative Blues, a five-track released on Bandcamp back in May.  There’s nothing polished here: raw grit, growling accented vocals, and a grungy barroom guitar-and-harmonica blues mood lend sparse verisimilitude to tracks originally by Depeche Mode, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Robert Plant, and gone-before-his-time Delta Bluesman Napoleon Washington, leaving us a potent reminder that the good stuff observes no boundaries.  




The Year’s Best Covers Album

+ Ben Lee, Quarter Century Classix
+ S.T. Manville, Somebody Else’s Songs
+ Unwoman, Uncovered Volumes 4 & 5
+ Corb Lund, Cover Your Tracks
+ Greg Laswell, Covers II
+ Angel Black-Orchid, Classic Beauty
+ Becky and Cloud, Decade

Relatively few full-length mass-market covers albums hit the radar this year; as such, our Year’s Best Covers Albums this year come sourced primarily from deep dives into Bandcamp and Soundcloud, where the primacy of home recording, musicians-as-producers, and indie sensibility hold sway.   But our by-a-nose favorite is one of the the exceptions: like us, Aussie indie pop rocker Ben Lee came to maturity amidst the alternative indie punk rock scene of the early nineties, even touring with Sebadoh in his late teens as part of his first band, and Quarter Century Classix, his dreamy snowed-in post-pop celebration of the soundtrack of our respective youths – Fugazi, Dinosaur Jr., Guided By Voices, Pavement, and Sonic Youth among them – offers a surprisingly tender, eminently professional retelling of songs obscure yet seminal to those who share our origin story.   Session play from William Tyler and a guest spot from Petra Hayden only serve to cement Lee’s collection’s place in the great pantheon of honest, poignant tributes to a generation’s lost youth and deep influence.  And anyone unsure about whether this is folk need only check out his Daniel Johnston cover, which hits the essential sound of Dylan and the Byrds square on.

Lee’s tribute stands strong against two other 2019 collections heavy with similar trends towards the interpretation of the loud and the electric in our category this year.   The softer of these, ex-punk-rocker S. T. Manville‘s Somebody Else’s Songs, drops a dozen more modern pop punk tunes into hushed tones and a sparse, lower fidelity modality for a hazy acoustic ride through classics from Green Day, Jimmy Eats World, The Offspring and others; as we noted in November, it’s “pretty and pensive in performance”, and delightfully delicate from cover to cover, thanks to an understated approach: “quiet vocal and slow picking drone, with occasional light accents from accordion, banjo, and violin” still fill our ears, and serve us well.   

The other end of the spectrum runs raucous, and broader in its range.  Those who prefer their cover “folk” on the far edge of high stepping countrified barroom roots rock a la Wilco, Buddy Miller, or Steve Earle need look no farther than Canadian country roots artist Corb Lund, whose Cover Your Tracks – his first album in several years – is a bootkickin’ alt-country romp through some serious classics, most of which add twang and slide and otherwise hew relatively close to the energy of an unusually cohesive set of almost random originals –  from Dylan and Lee Hazelwood to ACDC and, most oddly, Billy Joel’s It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me.   

We could have put experimental acousto-electric cellist, producer, and composer Unwoman, aka San Franciscan steampunk singer-songwriter Erica Mulkey, in our EP category this year, simply on the strength of November 7-track release Just Go Away, with simply shines with glitchy drumtrack joy as it celebrates Blondie, Hole, Bowie, and more.  But that smaller set was just a coda to something much, much greater: double album Uncovered Volumes 4 & 5, which covers 30 amazing soundscapes originally released and recorded for (and in many cases, chosen by) the artist’s Patreon and Bandcamp supporters over the past several years.  It’s grand and at times even orchestral, but there’s little to skip through here: the set shows an artist with poise, balance, and a sense of the complex made real and personal, celebrating and worth celebrating at year’s end and beyond.  And although it’s a little overly dramatic for our daily tastes, we’d be remiss in skipping San Diego singer-songwriter Greg Laswell, last seen on these pages over a decade ago for his cross-gender Cyndi Lauper cover, who returns to the world of coverage this year with Covers II – a dark folkpop piece, with thudding piano, stimulating strings, and the strong addition of co-vocalist Molly Jenson throughout, to capture our own darker moments. 

Honorable mention even farther beyond the punk sourcebook goes to a pair of Bandcamp-only releases: Classic Beauty, an album of oft-covered, relatively faithful reproductions of 60s and 70s classics from self-admitted session singer and circus show collaborator Angel Black-Orchid that reminds us that authentic, brashy playback is its own form of apt tribute, and Decade, which offers well-articulated folk pop fare from French duo Becky and Cloud, celebrating their tenth anniversary with aptly titled covers album taking on a familiar indiefolk sourcebook head on: hits from Poison & Wine, Damien Rice, The Weepies and The Innocence Mission up against equally familiar songs from Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, and The Beatles.  Neither album is truly transformative, but both offer bright voices clearly articulated, bright song choices, and a brighter sound, thanks to production choices which trend towards faithful reproduction of songs generally framed in wider berth: it’s the buskers you’d miss your bus for, and that’s a good thing, too. 




The Year’s Best Tribute Album (multiple artists)

+ Various Artists, Come On Up To The House: Women Sing Waits
+ Mercury Rev ft. Various Artists, Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited

For a while there, it was looking like 2019 would be a bust for compilation tribute records, at least as far as our softer roots-and-folk focus would allow: Mojo magazine, usually a go-to source for genre-pushing compilations in tribute, stuck to originals; 2014 follow-up This Is the Town: A Tribute to Nilsson (Volume 2) turned up with Cheap Trick sounding like Cheap Trick, Martha Wainwright channeling the sixties, and even Mikaela Davis in hopping poprock flashiness; the recorded release of 2018’s live Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration concert came in far too slick; several micro-labels and collaboratives released underground tributes to outsider’s artist outsider artist Daniel Johnston after his death in early September, but they were all just as weird as the original.  

Psychedelic moodmakers Mercury Rev‘s tribute to Bobbie Gentry’s countryfolk classic The Delta Sweete gets a nod here, and not in our single artist tribute category, primarily because of how dependent the album is on a wonderfully-selected set of track-by-track guest female indiefolk vocalists, including turns from Norah Jones, Vashti Bunyan, Hope Sandoval, Lucinda Williams and others worth hearing. Still, Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited, however wonderful, is genre-pushing, tenuously folk at best, even in its lighter moments, most notably Laura Marling’s tense, chiming, crescendoing dream of Refractions, and the soaring wall-of-gospel Beth Orton piece that follows; the rest sounds more like a remix of U2’s Achtung Baby as filtered through the majesty of both the Moody Blues and Thompson Twins production engineers.  (Although that’s not bad, necessarily – the band pulls the whole thing off really, really well.)  

Happily, Cover Me was on the ball when they covered Warren Zanes-produced tribute Come On Up To The House: Women Sing Waits twice this year: first in a short teaser post in August, then in a track by track five star review after the album’s release that claimed “instant classic” status for the record.  They’re right, of course: it’s all good, and quite good at that, from end to end a solid, strong tribute to a well-deserved gravel-voiced crooner of the downtrodden, with some of our favorite moods and voices – Patty Griffin, Aimee Mann, Roseanne Cash, Iris Dement – familiar to this type of project on the roster, and truly a canon of coverage in homage overall.  We’re especially loving the selections from newer artists, too: the simple grandeur of sister act Joseph’s title cut, which comes on so much more static, and then turns up so much more tense, when held up against Sarah Jarosz’ seemingly seminal cover of the same; Courtney Marie Andrews’ driving, high-countrified Downtown Train; Phoebe Bridger’s slow, mournful Appalachian-Celtic gospel hymn reinvention of Georgia Lee.    




The Year’s Best Tribute Album (single artist)

+ Steve Earle, Guy
+ Sudhananda with Lucia Lilikoi, Golden Slumbers
+
Janileigh Cohen, Bird on a Wire

We figured Steve Earle‘s tribute to Guy Clark – a quickly-recorded and heartfelt tribute to one-time mentor and friend, and thus, in its way, a companion piece to his previous end-of-the-decade tribute, 2009’s Townes – was going to slam this category, as long as it didn’t go too hard for folk.   Sure enough, though it certainly teeters on the edge in its louder, more bombastic tracks, the simply-titled Guy comes in loving, generous, gritty, and heartstrong in the end – a solid choice for those already invested in the world of No Depression, a high point in the alt-country roots range, and a fine reminder that Earle is still atop his own game.  

Our runners-up lie not far behind, though vastly different in sound.   First up: Golden Slumbers, a collection of Beatles covers originally intended to be instrumental lullabies, until long-haired project visionary, multi-instrumentalist, and long-time children’s music producer Sudhananda met Spanish vocalist Lucia Lilikoi.   Slow and syrupy, recorded at 432 hertz for warmth, and driven throughout by classical-sounding layers of guitar, harp, and keys, Golden Slumbers comes across as a delicate contemporary folk album – not just for kids at all, but perfect for those looking to wind down at the end of day with something that aims to be perfect, and comes damn close, from a master mixer, engineer, producer, artist, and arranger who has previously worked with Maria Muldaur and Donovan.   

Second, although its title points to but one of its subjects, we celebrate Janileigh Cohen‘s album Bird On A Wire, a tribute to Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan – an odd pairing that works.  Simple, quiet guitar (or, sometimes, piano) and sweet, aching vocals go back and forth among a second string of less-and-better-covered tracks from both songbooks, revealing range and a depth of understanding that closes a gap we never knew hid in our brains, unveiling the common underpinnings of two poet-lyricist masters with delicacy and care.   It’s not complex, but it doesn’t have to be: If It Be Your Will has never felt more satisfied, or more brave; One Too Many Mornings has never sounded sadder.




The Year’s Best Tradfolk Collection

+ Tui, Pretty Little Mister
+ Thirty Pounds of Bone & Phillip Reeder, Still Everywhere They Went
+ Sam Amidon, Fatal Flower Garden

Appropriately sparse, almost atonal fiddle-and-banjo play hold sway on Pretty Little Mister, a raw collection from young old time duo Tui, whose transformation of the old sound and lyrics ring strong with timeless sorrow and Appalachian alliance.  It’s short, but so are the songs; it’s authentic, to be sure, but in a familiar, intimate neo-traditionalist mode, learned through scholarship and close collaboration with Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons of Carolina Chocolate Drops fame, just right for the modern tradfolk crowd that surrounds the likes of Anna & Elizabeth, Andrew Bird, and Sam Amdion, albeit with a few more instrumentals in the mix than we generally share and celebrate.  No matter: those looking for their tradfolk to sound traditional, yet looking for something new and wonderful in the stark combination of voices and instruments, could easily stop and linger here for days.  

The drowning sounds of creaking hull and deck, droning engine, surf, gulls, wind, and a passing Coast Guard helicopter on Still Everywhere They Went, a set of well-chosen traditional British fishing and maritime songs made modern and strange by performers and fellow university lecturers in ethnomusicology Johny Lamb (aka lo-fi recording artist Thirty Pounds of Bone) and Phillip Reeder, are as authentic as they come: originally recorded aboard a moving, working 1974 fishing boat out of Cornwall, the collection of eight songs – a “mini-album”, if anything, justifying a blur in this year’s category between long and short form releases – push the shanty form into its context, making for a unique yet wonderful journey not so much crossing past and present as collapsing them into deep, crowded, almost futuristic fathoms. 

And speaking of Sam Amidon: though it’s hard for a four-track to compete with something so sprawling, his short EP release Fatal Flower Garden (officially released on 7″ vinyl) offers a small collector’s gem for year’s end: four perfect tracks, each on their own and altogether precious and fragile, warm and weary as anything.   It’s been a few years since we last saw Sam, but this tiny teaser is a potent reminder that he is at the top of his game – and the top of the craft – as a vessel and interpreter: Amidon first arranged these songs for a concert in tribute to Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, and though they yaw wide, indeed, each is just perfect in its way, leaving us hopeful about the tradition and its continued survival through the respectful evolution of the masters among us.   Bonus points: with a single exception – EP-ending instrumental Train on the Island, which churns fiddle wonderfully throughout – these songs would fit just perfectly alongside aching favorites from Bon Iver, Ray LaMontagne, Iron and Wine, and the rest of the moody indiefolk crowd; indiebloggers and radio runners, take note and spread the word.    




The Year’s Best Mostly/Half-Covers Album

+ Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi, There Is No Other
+ BAILEN, Mixtape
+ Nicolette Macleod, Love and Gold

Every year, we toy with collapsing this category, and just letting individual tracks come through in our collection of Year’s Best Singles.  But the placement of covers up against original work is its own kind of tribute, and nowhere is this more evident than in our main honorees for this year’s half-covers albums – three artists, and/or artist collaborations, who approach the issue in entirely different ways.     

First up: There Is No Other, from Rhiannon Giddens with pianist and percussionist Francesco Turrisi – an expert in the often-unacknowledged influence of Arabic and Middle Eastern music on the European “sound” which together trace and recreate a common thread among a clean and fluid mix of songs, pulling from the Appalachian tradition and far beyond, to Nina Simone, opera, and more, plus two original songs that fit so perfectly among the old, you’d have to know them to identify them as other.  The diversity of sources is enough to make There Is No Other a non-contender as a full covers or a truly traditional album – where it would have easily tied for top honors, to be sure – but it remains, as reviewers have said since its Spring release, a handbook for both the evolution of popular music, and the universality of folk, with banjo, frame drum, and cello settings, coupled with Giddens’ huge talent for song resurrection, making for something well worth celebrating everywhere.   

Meanwhile, as promised in our previous celebration of their Holiday fare, BAILEN‘s Mixtape offers an aptly titled mix of album cuts, previously-unreleased originals, and four wonderful covers which together serve to map the influences of the NYC-based trio’s hard-to-categorize, vastly diverse sound: a wonderful and surprisingly faithful live Joni Mitchell cover, a stripped down song from Billie Eilish, a soft, dreamy, high-harmony-rich cover of The Sugarcubes’ Hit, and a June Taboresque take on Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, all of whom can be heard in the rich echoes of their folk-to-pop-and-back-again recordings and live shows.   And finally, from across the pond: though its covers and originals stand out as heavily vocally-driven, and in many cases a capella through and through, the soundscape created by Glaswegian “singer/songwriter, sound-designer, performer & live improvised sound maker” Nicolette Macleod on April’s Love and Gold is exquisite and fully-formed, weaving traditional British Isle folksongs with her own compositions to create a rich tapestry of song that soars and swoops like birds in a landscape otherwise ominous and still.  


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

And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the music flowing? Please, consider a New Year’s contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all donors receive undying praise, and a special blogger-curated gift mixtape of well-loved but otherwise unshared covers from 2018.

Comment » | Best of 2019, Emily Mure, Rhiannon Giddens, Sam Amidon, Tradfolk, Tributes and Cover Compilations

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