Category: Artists


(Re)Covered: New Covers from Familiar Folk
Sean Watkins, Sam Gleaves, and Anais Mitchell’s new supergroup!

February 2nd, 2020 — 8:21pm

Yes, folk fans and cover lovers, we’re back in earnest after a slow set of tributes to the past, eager to take on the new and the novel. And where better to begin than with the truly familiar and beloved: folks we’ve heard before, like Anais Mitchell, Sean Watkins, and Sam Gleaves, and cherished; whose voices, songs, collaborations and song choices have long brought us comfort and hope in the long winter.

Today, then, in an attempt to return to normalcy, we turn to our (Re)Covered feature, in which we track recent developments in coverfolk and configuration from artists we’ve celebrated here on these pages before. Read on for new and noteworthy covers of Paul Simon, Britney Spears, Bruce Springsteen, Warren Zevon, Kate Wolf, Tom T Hall, Ola Belle Reed, and the British and Appalachian traditions. Stay tuned, as the year continues its climb towards Spring, for more news and notes from the convergence point of covers and folk. And, as always, if you like what you hear, click through to purchase from and support the musicians we feature, the better to guarantee the continued production and evolution of soul-touching music in a world too-often in need of its transformative power.


Thirteen years after their first break-up, Sean Watkins is unarguably the least well known of the three Nickel Creek co-founders; it’s hard to compete with the recent trajectories of sister Sara Watkins (whose folk collaborative I’m With Her with Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Jarosz just won a Grammy for Best American Roots Song of the year) and MacArthur Genius and NPR host Chris Thile. But even if it took him a little longer to reveal, Sean’s got a genial warmth and style all his own, and he’s found it in This Is Who We Are, his first time partnering exclusively with a band to make an entire album, and – according to press release – “the first solo record [he’s] made that fully embraces the folk/bluegrass/new acoustic sound embedded in [his] musical DNA.” It’s about time, and worth it: check out his tender, well-rounded treatments of the three covers nestled here – by Paul Simon, Warren Zevon, and Jackson Browne – among earnest originals, from ballad to barnburner.

Bonus points for that aforementioned band, founded by fiddler Tashina and cellist Tristan Clarridge, one-time sibling string section of equally-darling post-grass second wave band Crooked Still. We’ve featured The Bee Eaters here before, too, transforming the Beatles in our Double Dippers feature and, earlier, in a farewell of sorts to Crooked Still that included a cover from their very first album in 2011; we’re glad to see they’re still playing up a storm, lending zest and a newgrass sound to Sean’s guitar-driven arrangements, sweet harmony to his warm vocals, and an especially precious ring of hammered dulcimer heartbreak to the Zevon obscurity, thanks to third Bee Eaters member Simon Chrisman.

As a double-bonus, of sorts, be sure to check out two other new and closely kindred tracks before moving on: a pop cover, featuring Sean’s harmony and guitar work and sister Sara on vox and fiddle, which appears as the folkiest of three on fellow LA resident and Largo collective member Sondre Lerche‘s odd little Britney Spears tribute EP, released January first…and Sara’s own take on a Springsteen song from Born To Uke, an all-uke 2019 also-ran tribute album which features Will Kimbrough, Kai Welch, Emily Saliers of Indigo Girls, and a Weepies cover which placed on our top 50 of the year.




Astute readers may have noticed little fanfare about Bonny Light Horseman, whose namesake song appeared in our Year’s Best Coverfolk singles mix; those who range broadly round the indie outlets and folkblogs have surely already heard more. But we’re quite excited about the newly-dropped self-titled album from the new self-styled “astralfolk” supergroup formed by Anaïs Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson of Fruit Bats and The Shins, and veteran multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman, who – as if they needed more pedigree – premiered live at Eaux Claires in 2018 at fest founder Bon Iver’s request. As the slow label-leak of pre-release tracks such as Jane, Jane and Deep In Love continued to demonstrate in the week leading up to last week’s release, something beautiful was coming our way; now that it has arrived, we can see that the entirety is stunning and sound, a potent, adept tribute to the traditional folk made new by those used to playing folk at the cutting edge.

Strategically, as Pitchfork aptly notes, the album is a revisitation, not a mere performance – as as such, authentically, inimitably folk, as only three such barrier-breakers could produce. Songs we’ve heard moving through the fairways of each folk revival break apart; versions merge, with new choruses added for the modern ear, and generally unsung lyrics and verses returned and traded out, making the overall effect a remix of tradition, confronting our sense of the ancient songbooks as stable and welcoming. Add in a rich musicality which yaws towards indiefolk strangeness – Deep In Love, especially, with its brush beats and hollow harmonics, is perfect for the crossover modalities of low-frequency indie-alternative college radio – and well-chosen methods of transformative performance, such as the decision to trade off verses between Mitchell and Johnson on Blackwaterside, which allows the maiden to speak for herself, and we’re sure this one will appear again at year’s end in our Best Tradfolk category.




We last featured Virginian tenor and clawhammer master Sam Gleaves in our New Artists series, way back in 2013; back then, at 19, the Blue Ridge wunderkind had two albums and several collaborations under his belt, and was already teaching and passing along fiddle tunes in pursuit of the old traditions. Now he’s back on our radar with Welcome as The Flowers In May, a duo album with Kentucky-born fiddler and long-time college-and-beyond collaborator Deborah Payne – and we’re thrilled to hear him, and both, in such fine and authentic form.

Though released in mid-December, Gleaves didn’t really start promoting his newest collaboration until early January, so it got lost a bit in the shuffle. It’s not a full covers album, either, with four sweet songs by Gleaves, and one by Payne, that fit in just fine among the tradition. No matter: the record rings true with mountain folk traditions, sweetly straddling the soft acoustic line between folk and its backcountry grassroots, rocking back and forth from fiddle instrumental to picked ballad with a rhythm and sway that is loose and laissez faire, intimate and gentle as a front porch in summer, thanks to stellar company from Michael Cleveland, Tim Lancaster, and Ruth McLain and gentle, no-frills arrangements straight out of the mountain foothills. Here’s two favorite tracks, alongside a bonus track or two from Sam’s last full-length, a 2017 collaboration with fellow Southwest Virginia native Tyler Hughes, and one from his mostly-originals 2015 solo album Ain’t We Brothers, which features collaborations with Tim O’Brien, Janis Ian, and Laurie Lewis, among others.




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 » | (Re)Covered, Anais Mitchell, Nickel Creek, Sam Gleaves, Tradfolk, Uncategorized

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

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

The Year’s Best Coverfolk Videos (2019)
Living room covers, live cuts, in-studio sessions & more!

December 30th, 2019 — 1:18pm


For a good portion of the last century, the audio recording held sway as the primary source of song for the masses. Radio helped, of course – but from a financial perspective, at least, if we wanted to control what we heard, we had to buy the record, tape, or CD, and settle in to listen, with nary but a sleeve or insert to help us picture the performance.

The birth and rise of MTV in our respective youth reshaped exposure through audio-visual means, of course. And as long as home instruments and music venues have remained a steadfast part of the landscape, live performance has always been there for us – though the re-establishment of the small hall and house concert as a viable means of connecting physically with artist and fans add a layer of intimacy and access which have helped sustain the journey of the small label performer, and the amateur. But like radio, these venues retain playlist control – there, the artist, and/or the DJ, determines what is worth playing. And behind it all, we knew, the rubrics of the popular and in-demand influenced the choice of song, and setlist, stifling the listener, prioritizing the produced and played over the player, leaving us nothing but the archival mixtape to control our own soundscape.

Which is to say: Once we listened in our bedrooms, on record players in bright colors of our choosing; once we listened in cars, accompanied by the visuality of the drive. Once we listened, period, in ways determined, for the most part, by the tastemakers, and their raw technology, and the industry of style. Finally, we watched, but vastly: our watching was voyeuristic, and still not ours to mod or mood.

But the post-millennial rise of YouTube shifts time and space. We become privy to the artist’s home, if they so choose; we can access the concert hall from states away; we can see and enjoy “live” sessions from the radio, which once would have been lost to the ages, in streaming real-time and – perhaps more importantly – in archival form. The visual playlist is ours to compile, giving us new access to performance – not just recording – as a means for our own expression. Versioning – in which an artist can demonstrate and display the demo-level cut, and show the evolution of a particular song in their mind and hands – becomes an artifact of the new tech: when it is that easy to spread each individual performance, the same song comes at us in ways that echo the many spaces and moods in which it is performed, making the beloved not just discoverable, but mutable, to match our own needs and desires.

How lucky we are to have lived in a decade where the performance of song can be shaped by the artist, and driven into our living room, to curate and shuffle as the listener wills it. How lucky to be able to choose which take, and which performance, we might prefer to loop into infinity. How lucky, indeed, to have the privilege of replay for the whole performance, eyes and ears together, at our fingertips – and in doing so, to rebuild, reframe, and retain the intimacy that once existed between and among singer, song, community, and listener.

Not all video performance is created alike, of course. Although all offer a glimpse into the world of their craft beyond the audible studio or rare live recording, we are most interested, in our year’s end reflection, with those videos that close the gap through the video portrayal, giving us not just insight, but relationship, with the artist as they play. As we’ve said for years: to strip these latter performances of their native multi-medium is to miss something essential about their incidence. And thus, correlatively, to celebrate them is to celebrate the space between us all.

Join us today, then, as we celebrate the very best native video performances, sets, sources and series from the wide and wonderful world of 2019, framed in a loose compilation of arbitrary categories designed only to best hold and hearken to the good stuff in a semblance of manage-ability. Let the performances herein offer insight, and a close companion, as the year comes to a close. And fear not, as we enter the new millennium: we’ll be back soon – give or take a day or two – with more coverfolk from the wide-open world, including our annual compilation of favorite cover albums and tributes from the year gone by.




Best Ongoing Live Video Series: Live From Here

Now in his third year at the helm of the now-rechristened radio series originally established by writer Garrison Keillor in the previous millennium, mandolin prodigy and all-around nice guy Chris Thile, rightly named one of just four artists of the decade over at a newly-revived No Depression magazine, has absolutely found his footing in Live From Here, a weekly set of songs, musical guests, stories, and loose comedic play which he celebrates with the same respect, awe, engagement and delight that made Keillor’s original hosting voice such a perfect medium for our own close connection. Not all of it is coverage, of course, but regular features keep ’em coming – including shortform covers and full-length tributes to great artists from all genres in his weekly survey of Musician Birthdays, and a penchant towards “everyone on stage” coverage a la previous Year’s Best Videos celebrant e-Town to end the show.

The video connection is strong here, too. Though produced first and foremost for the radio, Thile’s delightful Live From Here sessions are now all recorded and archived for the web in what has become a trademark blue-wash light; you can hear the glee on NPR, of course, but watching him grin that trademark grin through each act adds a whole new layer of love to performances from ongoing regulars Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan, Rachael Price of Lake Street Dive, a house band made from members of Punch Brothers and other wonderful newgrass compatriots, and other co-conspirators both rare and wonderful (including, recently, a Crooked Still reunion, and guest spots from John Prine, Paul Simon, They Might Be Giants, The Pixies, Dawes, The Tallest Man On Earth, and Sara Bareilles). Here’s a sampling to get you started: O’Donovan paying tribute to a Joni Mitchell classic, and Jarosz with just one of many, many sweet covers performed over the last year or two with her long-time mentor and friend Thile.








Best One-shot Video Series: Songs for Winter Walk 2019

Boston’s annual Winter Walk, a stroll-for-action which takes place in the cold of early February, is an anomaly even in the kind world of worthy causes: the event itself raises money and awareness of and for the Greater Boston homeless community not just through the distant celebration of those lucky enough to be able to help, but through companionship, as homeless folks and families march the two miles to Copley Square side by side with over a thousand supporters, ending with a shared meal and stories of the streets. Last year, as the date grew close, a playlist of contributing Boston-area musicians playing “original songs or versions of beloved songs of compassion, togetherness, community, and action” grew to help raise awareness of the walk and the community it supports; all are videos, most are covers, and the vast majority are filmed in intimate spaces – artist homes, snowy glades, and small dark studios – making for a set of performances just stunning in their solidarity, tenderness and pain.

Listen to a pair of favorites below from singer-songwriter Dan Mills and Naseem Khuri of Boston-based band Kingsley Flood, and then click through to the Songs for Winter Walk 2019 archives for more – including Lake Street Dive covering Carole King’s You’ve Got A Friend, both Lori McKenna and Mark Erelli and Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards covering REM’s Everybody Hurts, Parsonsfield covering a traditional hymn by the woods’ edge, Anais Mitchell singing Somewhere Over The Rainbow cold in the snow, originals from Josh Ritter and Session Americana, and a host of other arrangements and reinventions from some of our very favorite locals gone or going big enough to matter to the world.




Best Small Studio Video Covers Series: stories

A house “band” of acoustic six-stringers and a rotating set of both up-and-coming and more established YouTube stars such as Nataly Dawn and Çasey Abrams reinterpret popular songs and standards from Drake and Billie Eilish to John Denver, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Aerosmith and more in decidedly low-key folk ballad mode in stories, a new yet highly prolific series which sprung up in late October and has been filling our ears with regular delights ever since. It’s hard to find a flaw, here; though the settings remain the same, each artist is given the space to create their own mood and moment amidst the sepia tones that characterize the recording space, and we’ve enjoyed pulling the threads as we go, making of the series a who’s who survey of what’s new and noteworthy among the wonderful world of native online artistry. We’ve chosen a familiar voice and a pair of new ones, to represent the spectrum, but there’s dozens more where that came from, and the whole rabbit-hole is worth the hours.










Best Independent “Living Room” Cover Videos: Josh Turner/ Carson McKee / Reina del Cid

A Cantor friend turned us on to both Josh Turner (the guitarist, not the country singer) and Minneapolis-based independent artist-and-band Reina del Cid early this year, and we’re glad he did – and equally glad that from there, we followed the tracks to Turner collaborator Carson McKee, who sealed the deal with a growing number of songs recorded under his own name and channel, both with and without the aforementioned. Though of the three YouTube cross-posters, Turner & McKee are more typically on the same screen, if only due to geographical proximity and their work together as “The Other Favorites”, it’s no shame to celebrate the three artists all together, both for their ongoing association and collaborations and for their solo work, and claim their path to glory as central to our mandate: together, they represent a movement, and (as with our previous-year’s celebrations of Boyce Avenue, Nataly Dawn, Kina Grannis, Megan Davies, and Walk Off The Earth) the best of yet another crop of newly-hot, not-so-fast-to-fame singer-songwriters plying their work as interpreters and songwriters on the back of the streaming service via coverage – in many ways the core reason why we began posting year’s end covers to begin with.

Here’s a triplet of full trio collaborations from the year, each nominally fronted by a different artist, plus a duo set, a rare solo cut from del Cid’s long-running “Sunday Morning” covers series, and a late-entry solo track from McKee just released last week to whet the proverbial whistle for much, much more; listen, and then 1) dig deep into the archives for many more covers from all three and each, and 2) join the crowd by subscribing to their prospective YouTube pages so you’ll never miss a cover.
















Best Produced Cover Video: Jacob Collier ft. dodie, Here Comes The Sun

We could have easily included an audio-only version of this Beatles cover in our year’s end compilation of single-shot coverage, instead of here; after all, there’s nothing “live” about the delightfully rich performance of Here Comes The Sun, a one-shot collab from rising star wunderkinds dodie and Jacob Collier which was officially released as the second track from Collier’s stunning Djesse Vol. 2, which also features Sam Amidon, Herbie Hancock, members of Take 6, and an incredible micro-tonal a capella cover of Moon River which is in the running for a Grammy this year. But two videographic aspects say otherwise: the jumpy outdoor garden-play of the singers themselves, which so aptly mirrors the song and its arrangement, and the split-screen portrayal of vocal layering, which doesn’t just measure up to the complex vocality of the performance, but portrays it, making real our potent introduction to Collier’s nuanced and new genre-smashing sound…and serving as a perfect companion to the delicate quietude of dodie’s own near-perfect 2019 bedroom Beatles cover, which we’ve included for comparison.








Honorable Mention: The Year’s Best Single-shot Live Coverfolk Videos

All in all, it was a wonderful year for the videographic acoustic-and-roots coverlover: far too much for us to manage here, though surely, as always, a few more video-origin tracks may well find their way onto compilations and mixtapes as the years progress. We’ll leave you today, then, with an unranked clearinghouse of 12 favorites from the vast panoply of sound that rings with delight in our ears at year’s end, all grounded firmly in the audiovisual creative process, which come to us from new and familiar artists, channels, and collaboratives whose ongoing coverage brings joy to our feed throughout the year. Enjoy – and, as always, if you like what you hear, follow through to hear more from and pay tribute to each and every one of these artists and production houses, in thanks and praise for a job well done.


























Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been exploring the ethnographic intersection of folk and coversong since 2007 thanks to the ongoing support of artists, promoters, and readers like YOU. So if you like what you hear, do your part: listen deeply, like us on Facebook, come back often to keep abreast of new features, including our ongoing New Artists, Old Songs series, and our upcoming end-of-year feature covering The Year’s Best Coverfolk… and above all, share and purchase the music as you find it, the better to keep the arts alive.

Comment » | Aoife O'Donovan, Best of 2019, Kina Grannis, New Artists Old Songs, YouTube

A Very Merry Coverfolk, Vol. 3 (2019): Welcome Yule
with Allysen Callery, Ryan McMullan, Winter Union, The Petersens & more!

December 23rd, 2019 — 8:42pm




A smorgasbord today, as Solstice passes and our official Christmas celebration of a year’s worth of holiday coverage comes to a close. Find tender and mild, and hearty joy alongside: at tree, hearth, and table, the lights and the streets filled with twinkling snow.

We’ll be back between Christmas and New Years, as always, with our annual round up of The Year’s Best Coverfolk albums, tributes, series, and singles. Until then, may you, too, feel the singing of the season, and be served by it. And may all your Christmases be bright with sound and solace, and the aching feeling of hope in the chest as the season rises to greet you well.



Recorded in a church in Leeds, Christmas in Hevelwood starts off fingerpicked and discordant with a mournful and tense In The Bleak Midwinter, and never lets up: a pulsing loop-like Angels We Have Heard On High, a loose, singer-songwriter’s talksong O Come O Come Emmanuel, and a singular Joy To The World later, and we’re convinced: there is more in depth and breadth to be found in the carols of old, and when unearthed, its utter beauty kills. Hevelwood is (his Bandcamp bio tells us) the solo project of acoustic tale-spinner Tim Woodson of Yorkshire, but other than that, this EP and its artist stand alone and untethered, singletons shrouded in mystery. How appropriate.






Alternative NYC-based sibling group BAILEN is hard to categorize: their two-fer Holiday release sports both a funky classic rock take on Christmas Is All Around and a touching I’ll Be Home for Christmas patterned after the version in Love, Actually, but with added harmonies and a hint of homespun whimsy. It’s hard to tell which is the b-side, too – and we love that. Look for the brand new band again in a week or so, too, when more of their 2019 coverage, including their cover of The Sugarcubes’ Hit, hits our end of year list – a stunning reinvention, and decidedly folk, in a Fleet Foxes meets Crosby Stills and Nash mind meld. Or is it Fleetwood Mac meets First Aid Kit? Regardless: good stuff, all around.






Acoustic surf rock and the dusty soundtrack of the spaghetti folk western meet in Lonely Exile Here, a first seasonal foursome from drawling Arizona duo Bones In The Walls – who don’t have to say, but do anyway, that their sound comes straight out of the mountains and deserts of the American west.






It’s a little contrived, and a little repetitive. But there’s something so darling and delightful about this slide-and-gravel-driven single from Scottish country-punk-slash-alt-bluesman Dave Arcari, we just can’t resist including it. Palate-cleansing, at least – and worth it.






Traditional folk fans rejoice: the gentle, rich mix of voices that comprise A Winter Union rings loud with the joy of the English Christmas canon, thanks to a supergroup including Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage, whose duo work we’ve featured on these pages before, both at Christmas and in our 2017 year’s end roundup. Formed for a beautiful Christmas charity release in 2017, and reunited for a live show last year, the five-piece band toured around the UK this season and released this album “due to popular demand” after their last just this week. Last year’s concert becomes this year’s Live In Concert album? Yes, please. Come for the classics, but stay until the end, for a strong encore take on The Band.






I would I could remember how I found Jacquie Lawson‘s White Christmas, but it doesn’t matter, really: what matters is that we found it, and just in time. Simple, careful, sweet and oh so sad, the track simply shimmers, a dream in white.






Ghost-folk songstress Allysen Callery returns to Cover Lay Down with this year’s Covers of Christmas, a home-recorded, mixed-bag set released a day at a time in the final days leading up to Christmas itself. Many of the choices here are simple gifts, learned quickly and sourced broad – see, for example, her delicate, hollow take on Neil Young’s Birds – but several are true-blue Christmas songs, including soft and slippery deconstructions of holiday songs from Elvis, John Denver, In The Bleak Midwinter and Greensleeves. Act now to hear it: like her music, these annual advent sets are as fleeting and fragile as they are hauntingly beautiful, and are as likely as not to disappear before the passing of the year.






We’ve been listening to family bluegrass band The Petersens a lot this year, both because we’re suckers for close girl-group harmonies and true-blue Appalachian gospel arrangements, and because their covers swing and stomp, sticking in the ears and brain. Their choices of coverage belie their genre roots, too: Glen Campbell, Dolly Parton, and more, making for a smashing year with a great promise of more to come.






Your favorite holiday Pogues song is generally covered as it comes: raucous, ragged, drunk and delightful. But stripped of all urgency and anger, Fairytale of New York turns out tender, like a slowly setting sun, or the waning of the year into naught. Don’t take our word for it. Twenty-something Irish pop darling Ryan McMullan proves it in the softest, most gentle version of the song we’ve heard, an incredible turn with guitar low and droning like a banjo, and every word and note poignant and hollow, echoing in the Belfast church where it was recorded softly, leaving us fans for life.





Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been exploring the ethnographic intersection of folk and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and readers like YOU. So do your part: listen, love, like, and above all, follow links to purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

Comment » | Allysen Callery, Holiday Coverfolk

Christmas, (Re)Covered: Covers of and from Anais Mitchell
plus links to over 100 Holiday and Winter Coverfolk delights!

December 8th, 2019 — 10:26am

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There’s something very folk about Christmas culture. Just one week into December, and the air is permeated with sounds of peace and love, comfort and joy that everybody knows, and can sing along to: on the radio; by the woodstove when the children are slowly preparing the living room for the tree; even at the mall, where no amount of commercialistic candor can muffle the startling thrill of a decent take on a piped in classic once again.

It’s gladdening to ring out old and new. And sure enough, plow through the archives, and you’ll find we’ve shared hundreds of Holiday coverfolk tracks and albums here at Cover Lay Down since our very first Christmas, ranging wide inside the festive folk tent, with sources from the secular to the scared, and the traditional to the modern. Today, we kick off the 2019 advent calendar with a long list of those previous features for your tree-side playlist pleasure…plus a pair of new Christmas covers of and from folkdarling Anais Mitchell to kick off the 2019 holiday season. Enjoy!


We featured the work of Vermont-bred, Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell in 2017, on the cusp of acclaim and a Tony award for the Broadway folk opera bombshell Hadestown, and touched on the infrequent but always welcome works of Popcorn Behavior cofounder and Sam Amidon collaborator Thomas “Doveman” Bartlett much earlier, in our old blogspot home; here, in a track nominally released via an amazon.com exclusive years ago but not officially available outside of the commercial behemoth until this year, their collaboration soars, as two darlings of the post-traditional folk world take what well may be my favorite carol and drown it in the deep journey of sorrow and hope it deserves: joyful, joyful, with pulsing, ringing bells and a spectered wall of sound that rises and falls like the heartrushes of the season. It’s a tiny single gem: no small coda to Hadestown, or to Doveman’s 2008 tribute to the Footloose soundtrack, but a reminder that great artists make great art in doses small and grand alike, and celebrate it apace.


The oft-retro but always sweet harmonies of “Juno award winning pop-folk band” Good Lovelies remind my father of The Roches, especially in how they tend to pull in and out of their homophonic alignment; I find their voices more melodic, as my own tastes run, and might more readily compare them to the Haden Triplets or even The Staves. But although the album’s arrangements trend more towards the Andrews Sisters of old, Evergreen, the brand new miostly-covers Christmas collection from the trio – who we’ve also seen at the Holidays here before, thanks to a take on Gordon Lightfoot winter classic On A Winter’s Night which appeared on their 2015 holiday tour EP Winter’s Calling – runs a wide and delightful gamut, from a smooth, softly boogie-woogie Little Saint Nick to a truly swinging girl-group Jingle Bells straight out of a USO tour, alongside plenty of soft-to-upbeat drum-and-brass classics with jazz, rock, and country influence, and a quiet fireside version of several – including a song penned by Anais herself, originally released in 2007 on the very same album that presaged Hadestown with the track Hades and Persephone.

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Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been exploring the ethnographic intersection of folk and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and readers like YOU. So do your part: listen, love, like, and above all, follow links to purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

Comment » | Anais Mitchell, Holiday Coverfolk

Covered In Folk: Dire Straits
(The Mark Knopfler songbook, transformed)

October 27th, 2019 — 9:51pm

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As I noted recently in a pending radio interview for Wisconsin Public Radio program BETA, as a child of the eighties, I take a special joy in coverage of the early MTV canon. For here meets my genesis as a listener: the flashy screen, the radio cut, the pop, rock, and circumstance; the artist as entertainer, and music as a multimedia, all-encompassing agency, more than just something for the eyes and ears, but for the whole body, mind, and soul.

And there, in the thick of it, came Brothers In Arms – the first album in history to sell a million copies in CD format, and as such, an eerie fulfillment of the prophetic voice of challenge and change which typifies the work of Dire Straits, and its frontman and songwriter Mark Knopfler’s writing, on and beyond this stellar album. So Far Away and the title track, the album’s bookends, are exquisite songs of the aching worker’s heart; other, deeper cuts move fluidly from wry celebration (Walk of Life) to caustic second-person bitterness (Your Latest Trick). But from a popular perspective, at least, the album’s cornerstone is and always will be the Grammy-winning cut Money For Nothing, whose rough cut cartoon music video and working class barstool lens twinned and reduplicated the message together, offering a form of meta-analysis of the ways in which MTV both magnifies and flattens the work of the musical artist, leaving them ironically spread far and wide to be found and cherished, yet ever-more far removed from the blue-collar listener who is arguably the target audience of folk in its original sense.

Not bad for an eighties rock album. And we shouldn’t neglect the foursome overall, who worked together to create and sustain the bass, drum, and rhythm which sound so seminally like themselves, and sold over 120 million records worldwide together. But there’s something deeply personal about this music, too – and unsurprisingly so. Image search for “Dire Straits”, and you’ll mostly find solo shots of Knopfler, and in many ways, though the world he portrays is imaginative, it is also folk-and-roll literal, with well-deserved comparisons to Dylan’s rasp, his literate use of rhyme and image, diction and persona, and his focus on the stories of the street-bound heart. Though he would later yaw towards a more rootsy sound, with or without the Claptonesque guitars and JJ Cale beat, his straightforward storycraft is often politicized, and eminently blue-collar in its plainspoken approach to the universal themes of modern class-conscious culture.

Dire Strait’s willingness to write and play for the radio can make it harder to see the folkready depths; 1991’s The Bug – lighthearted and shallow, and ultimately covered by Mary Chapin Carpenter and hardly anyone else – came out the year I graduated from college, and though I still have my vinyl copy of Brothers in Arms, I suppose I relegated the band in my mind to Classic Rock afterwards for a while. It wasn’t until the end of the first post-millennial decade, upon release of his duo work with an equally aging Emmylou Harris, that I came to deeper understanding of Knopfler’s work as a producer, creator, and performer of song, started to notice his solo collaborations – with James Taylor, Gillian Welch, Dylan, Chet Atkins, and others – as evidence of a songwriter’s songwriter status well-deserved, began to see his politics, grounded as they are in place and character, as aligned with the folk rock school of fellow countrymen John Wesley Harding and Billy Bragg, and finally, began to seek out, and relish, the ways in which new hands and voices have brought the sentimentality to the forefront.

For as great coverage so often does, reinvented and revived, the Dire Straits songbook reveals the everyman’s complaint, hidden in the proletarian language of the popcharts: the heartache anyone can feel; the language rich in poetic dissonance; the politics of place and people; the celebration of thirst and thunder that represents his best. We’ll start with their Brothers In Arms tracks – five in all, and each one worth covering – and move from there to the wider canon of an artist eminently worthy of our triumphant return.

  • Bhi Bhiman: Walk of Life
  • Diamond Family Archive: Walk Of Life

    Among the most recent of our covers here, and a delightful way to start; stripped of all urgency, Bhi Bhiman‘s version of a song that Rolling Stone once called “a bouncy Fifties rock & roll song about cool Fifties rock & roll songs” starts gently wistful and then holds us there in the garden of memory, a charming celebration of life and its motion. The Diamond Family Archive‘s muddy, muddled lo-fi reconstruction, meanwhile, leaves us riddled with anguish and despair, offering palpable contrast, and showing just how versatile the deep offerings of Knopfler’s deceptive simplicity truly can be.
  • Aeneas Jones: So Far Away
  • Shannon Whitworth: So Far Away

    The original tonality of So Far Away is majestic, in its way. Here, southern Americana singer-songwriter Shannon Whitworth‘s primordial soup of a reversal replaces the tension of that original arrangement with a new one, equally tense and beautiful, that struggles to stay alive in the distance of drowning echoes and sustained note guitars. Preface it with an acoustic bedroom cover from versatile New Zealand artist Aeneas Jones, and again, we see the range of possibility in Knopfler’s universal lyrics and melody.
  • Low Lily: Brothers In Arms

    Vermont-based tradfolk trio Low Lily played a slightly more stripped down version of this song when we hoisted them a few years ago in our own Unity House Concerts series in Springfield, MA; the more highly produced version comes from their album 10,000 Days Like These, which we’ve celebrated here before. Those looking for further evidence of the song’s standing power as an anthem for working class solidarity should also check out last week’s encore performance from Jason Isbell’s set.
  • Dr. Bluegrass and the Illbilly 8: Money For Nothing

    An appropriately frenetic take on the song that slammed MTV way back in its formative years – one of the only co-writes in the Knopfler canon, and the sole non-solo composition on Brothers in Arms (co-written with and originally performed with back-up vocals from Sting, himself an early beneficiary and adopter of the MTV mindset). Money For Nothing is increasingly a jamgrass standard, oddly enough; though it’s tempting to see such genre reinvention as bitter, given how little TV-play jam- and bluegrass get, UK-based low-tech bluegrass hillbillies Dr. Bluegrass and the Illbilly 8 give the song a good run for its money.
  • Jennifer Warnes: Why Worry

    Highly contemporary, stylistically-speaking, with the rich, almost too-syrupy production favored by Jennifer Warnes, who made her name covering Leonard Cohen, and last found her way to Cover Lay Down on the recent release of all-covers album Another Time, Another Place, from whence this track comes. But the sense and sensibility match the lyrics well, here – this is, after all, another of Knopfler’s most sentimental songs, and the AAA format fits like a soft, warm kid glove.
  • Passenger: Romeo & Juliet

    An earlier cut from Dire Straits, off 1980 album Making Movies, brought into the folkworld by a strong Indigo Girls cover, and based loosely on both the original Shakespearean text and the reframing of West Side Story. We’ve shared a few strong covers of this in the past here on Cover Lay Down, but Passenger‘s hoarse tenderness channels the longing and loss so exquisitely, we could steep in it forever.
  • Overdriver Duo: Sultans of Swing

    By far the oldest song on our playlist today; Sultans of Swing (and personal favorite Water of Love which is, sadly, more seldom covered) was originally released in 1978, on Dire Straits’ self-titled debut, and appears on the five-track demo they originally sent in to BBC radio dj Charlie Gillett, who played the track on the radio until it brought in the label. Thanks to a self-effacing lyric about the bitter day job struggles of the members of a pub band, this song has been covered aplenty, albeit mostly in bars; here, we get a bopping two-uke version from Brazil’s Overdriver Duo, whose origins are apparent by accent, and whose fine work on the smaller strings belies a penchant towards bombastic pop beats in their original work.
  • DrvoTruo: Calling Elvis

    DrvoTruo is a Serbian gypsy folk band, believe it or not – complete with sawing fiddle and cacophonous jangling guitars, which retread and revive a deeper cut from the same aforementioned last-gasp post-revival 1991 album from whence came The Bug. Still not my favorite era for Knopfler, but you’ve gotta love the sheer, fantastic joy here.
  • BONUS TRACK: Sunjay: Sailing to Philadelphia (orig. Mark Knopfler)
  • BONUS TRACK: Sweet Baby James: Sailing to Philadelphia (orig. Mark Knopfler)

    A title track, originally performed with James Taylor, from Knopfler’s second post-Dire Straits break-up album, which cemented the man’s prowess as a solo artist once again, even as it failed to chart as high as the band in their heyday. Like Romeo & Juliet, the song is based in literature – in this case, in Thomas Pynchon’s retelling of the story of Mason and Dixon. Two versions lay the sentiment bare: a sweet solo track from Sunjay, and a rich wash from James Taylor cover band Sweet Baby James, both out of Knopfler’s own England.

Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been exploring the ethnographic intersection of folk and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and readers like YOU. So do your part: listen, love, like, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

4 comments » | Covered In Folk, Mark Knopfler

(Re)Covered In Folk: Neil Young
(45 redefining tracks from a decade in tribute)

March 13th, 2018 — 2:45pm

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It’s been ten years exactly since we last drilled down deep into the Neil Young songbook here on Cover Lay Down, in a short feature introducing the transformative all-female American Laundromat double-disc for-charity tribute Cinnamon Girl, accompanied by several exclusive label-approved tracks from that record and a delicious set of similar delights from The Wailin’ Jennys, The Indigo Girls, Emmylou Harris, Carrie Rodriguez, Elizabeth Mitchell, and more great folkwomen teetering on the well-traveled intersection of rock, pop, and folk.

A decade later, Cinnamon Girl remains a go-to exemplar in the world of coverage: a powerhouse indie collection, “a great and well-balanced listen from cover to cover”, and “the tribute album Neil Young has deserved for most of his long and prolific career.” Several of its covers, including Lori McKenna’s unadorned twangfolk The Needle And The Damage Done, The Watson Twins’ sweet Powderfinger, and Canadian duo Dala’s beautiful, wistful harmony takes on Ohio and A Man Needs A Maid, continue to stand out as true-blue favorites. And – since it is still available – we would be remiss in taking this opportunity to redirect you to it, that you, too, might revel in its femfolk-to-riot-grrl approach, and support Casting For Recovery, who aim to enhance the quality of life of women with breast cancer through a unique retreat program that combines breast cancer education and peer support with therapeutic fly fishing.

But just as the past must be celebrated, so, too, do our ears and hearts evolve. As listeners, our subjective evolution in that decade has brought us closer towards a subtle appreciation of the deconstructionist approach. As cultural explorers, we respect and recognize Young’s recent move to put his entire archive online for free – a move that will surely spark deep artistic exploration and new coverage going forward. As agents of discovery and spread, we celebrate the ongoing reclamation of the Canadian singer-songwriter’s prolific portfolio, even as we note its turn towards the trends and tropes of its next generation.

And so, today, we revisit the Neil Young songbook with a collection of covers recorded in the intervening decade that trend towards the broken and bent, and the mellow and melodic: an omnibus mix, coupling beloved recordings from folk, Americana, indie and roots artists with newfound delights from Bandcamp, YouTube, and other discovery spaces. May it stand as our solution for those who, like us, struggle to reconcile our distaste for the songwriter’s whine with our great respect and admiration for both the grit and elegance of his pen, and his vast catalog of poetic yet straightforward songs which continues to give voice “to the plight of the powerless and the disaffected in modern American culture.”

Neil Young, Covered In Folk (2008-2018)
* listen track-by-track, or download the whole mix here!

Always ad-free and artist-centered, Cover Lay Down has been exploring the ethnographic intersection of coverage and folk roots on the web since 2007 thanks to the kind support of readers like you. If you like what you hear, click through to purchase albums and support the artists we love, the better to keep the music going in an age of micro-transactions. And, as always, if you wish to help us in our ongoing mission, we hope you’ll consider a donation to Cover Lay Down.

2 comments » | (Re)Covered, Clem Snide, Covered In Folk, J. Tillman, Jeffrey Foucault, Marissa Nadler, Mark Erelli, Molly Tuttle, Neil Young, Reid Jamieson, Rickie Lee Jones, Sam Amidon, Tribute Albums

Single Song Sunday: John Henry
(16 takes on an American myth from bluesfolk to gospelgrass)

February 11th, 2018 — 8:18am

johnhenry

We’re generally cautious about celebrating Black History Month here at Cover Lay Down. Though the earliest roots of modern folk recording and song surely include both the African-American experience and, more murkily, the origin stories of several of the instruments (including the dulcimer and banjo) which form the core of its acoustic array, the world of folk performance itself skews heavily towards caucasian artists, making any address of these roots unfinished without exhaustive exploration of the ways in which these roots have been claimed and shaped by white folks – from Lomax and Seeger to Paul Simon’s infamous Graceland controversy, Jayme Stone’s recent exploration of Gullah and other Caribbean sounds, and beyond.

But there are other ways, too, to celebrate the influence of Black America in the folkways. Today, in our first Single Song Sunday since our 2015 deconstruction of popular live performance encore The Weight, we tug at the roots of a particular story found in a broad panoply of songs: that of John Henry, a larger-than-life African American whose pride and persistence in the face of power and progress have come to represent the American spirit both within and beyond our shores.

john-henry-stampEthnographic evidence compiled by Guy Johnson and Louis Chappel through interviews in the 1920s trace the particulars of well-known folksong hero John Henry to the 1870s, where workers in the West Virginia Mountains dug the biggest tunnel job attempted by man up to that date. And although more recent historians have proposed other digs as more plausible, all share a basic narrative: a single man, the best of many African-American convict laborers in a world still healing after the end of the Civil War, pits himself against the newly-introduced steam drill in a contest of strength and willpower…and wins in the end, though it takes his last breath.

But the story above is no more or less true when Lomax places the the Old John trickster slave narrative at the heart of the song’s perpetual motion, nor when he notes, correctly, the melodic and lyrical similarities to tradtune The Lass Of Roch Royal in many versions of the song performed during his time. And it is certainly no more true than the abstract purpose of the song: to show the triumph of the underdog, of body and spirit through perseverance, and in doing so, iterate and reclaim those values which stir at the core of our identity as Americans.

Our myth comes to us wrapped around truth, in other words. And in the end, what matters isn’t whether it’s real, but whether it’s true. Like Johnny Appleseed and Paul Bunyan, the legend of John Henry lives in our hearts and bones: grounded in the real history of real human beings just a hair larger in life than their peers, conflated to serve the cultural need for heroes symbolic of the particular sort of stubborn pride and determination that moves mountains in the rich panoply of American mythology. Man vs. nature, man vs. technology, man vs. self, and man vs. society collapse into a single story. An American myth, if ever there was one.

And this is how, today, the song serves: as cultural approbation and fatalist’s morality tale, in which we may lose to our machines both political and real, but the indomitable human spirit prevails.

And as long as we are still in struggle, so must the song be sung.

john-henry-51A plethora of songs recast the myth of John Henry. The Ballad of John Henry, for example – a standard in its own right – turns the morality of Henry’s death into a cautionary tale, pushing listeners to guard their life against the urge to spend it for foreman and fate; a “hammer song”, it is generally slow, but not always.

Not all recastings are covers, either. Modern troubadours from Songs:Ohia and Cuff The Duke to Drive-By Truckers and Driftwood Soldier have built from the ground up, applying the storyline to new tunes and lyrics, moving history into their own more immediate surroundings.

But do a simple search online of “John Henry”, and it’s clear that despite the mutability of over a dozen verses and perhaps ten times as many lyrical variants, one tune – paced and performed rhythmically, heavy on bravado and dialogue, that celebrates the man as myth for his determination even in death – remains dominant, even flush in the various byways of the folkworld. It drifts up to us from the earliest folk recordings, where it stands as a fieldhand blues number howled out in slackstring scratchy voices, filtered and reformed in a myriad of subgenres, from Leadbelly to Bill Monroe, through Doc Watson and The Stanley Brothers, John Renbourne and John Fahey, via John Jackson, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, Van Ronk and Guthrie and back again. (It is even familiar as an instrumental, especially with banjo and fiddle a la John Hartford or dulcimer a la Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, though we’ll stick to the lyrical conceit today.)

Some favorites versions, then, of an old song, easy to play and sing, its renewed relevance ever on our tongues as we continue our fight against the machine. Join us as we flesh out a vast and varied set of and beyond the American range, from the high-intensity Appalachian bounce of The Mammals to The Downtown Shimmy’s harmonica-driven blues, from Snakefarm’s psychedelic funk to the frenetic energy of Del McCoury’s high tenor wail, from Chris Jones’ gospelgrass to French duo Lonesome Day’s slow walking blues, from Thomas Hellman’s chug-along Quebecois trainsong to the hoot and holler of new primitive Appalachian interpreter Lebo Jenkins, plus the neo-traditional feminist turn of Elizabeth LaPrelle, a deconstructed atmosphere from Daniel Dutton, and the regionally diverse and differentiated grit of American-and-beyond singer-songwriters and cultural ambassadors Eric Bibb, Willie Watson, Andrew Calhoun, Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, Tim O’Brien, and David Broad.

John Henry, Covered In Folk
A Single Song Sunday Mix
[zip!]

Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been exploring the ethnographic intersection of folkways and coversong since 2007 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 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 over 50 well-loved but otherwise unshared covers from 2016-2017, including exclusive live covers from our very own Unity House Concert series.

2 comments » | Billy Bragg, Single Song Sunday, Tradfolk, Willie Watson

Little Sparrow: A Cover Lay Down Mix

January 23rd, 2018 — 8:31pm

sparrow

The sparrow: a symbol of fragility, and a semaphore for desperation and despair. In our case, though, the term is literal: the elderchild’s been rehabilitating one in a small cage in her room after finding it trapped in a coal grate in one of the coldest days of winter, its tailfeathers mostly missing, its mate picking at it in a vain attempt to startle it into freedom. It’s been there a month, and sometimes, I forget she has it.

But Saturday night, in a rare moment of hubris, she brought it downstairs to show our dinner guests, and suddenly, it sprang free. What followed was more reality television show than sitcom: two and a half hours of climbing up furniture and taking apart Ikea bookshelves, punctuated by frantic minutes chasing a tiny, terrified bird as it skimmed the ceiling from room to room, occasionally touching down on window dressings too high to reach, or diving into piles of boxes and wrapping paper, inviting us to uncover it time and again through intense intervention and careful disarray.

Eventually, we managed to chase it into the elderchild’s room, where the door could be closed, and the still-wobbly flier coaxed into its rehabilitative cage. And because we are who we are – easily exhausted, generally busy, prone to procrastination – today, the place remains a disaster: childhood photo albums piled high on the playroom daybed, the pantry undone, half the bookcase disassembled, pink screwdrivers and boxcutters scattered around it.

Our house is often messy. Our inner lives are, too. We are too easily goaded into self-celebration, and risk the sanctity of our service in the name of pride. But if this fragility is made of our own foibles, then we are wise to attend to it, indeed.

And so we turn to the songs of the sparrow. In the name of our children, and the fears we harbor within.

Little Sparrow: A Cover Lay Down Mix


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, 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 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 over 50 well-loved but otherwise unshared covers from 2016-2017, including exclusive live covers from our very own Unity House Concert series.

2 comments » | Mixtapes, William Fitzsimmons

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