2020’s Silver Lining? A Whole Lotta Roots Music Cover Albums
With touring forced to a halt in 2020, artists found themselves with time on their hands, and the creative spirit stops for no virus. Many musicians channeled their energies into cover songs as they waited things out at home, playing them on livestreams to delighted fans and, in some cases, putting them down on recordings.
Cover songs provide artists with an invigorating challenge: How to use something old and familiar to say something current and new? How to pay tribute but be true to your own spirit? For listeners, cover songs are just plain fun. And they can be comforting, too, for reasons far more meaningful than nostalgia. When times are tough, they can transport us back to better times — even a sad song from past era can provide comfort by reminding us of how far we’ve come, and how this too, shall pass.
That so many albums of cover songs came out this year is a real silver lining, and we wanted to shine a light on some of our favorites. We’ll start with reviews of cover albums we hadn’t written up yet this year, then bring you some previously published reviews you might like to revisit. Be sure to check out our playlist at the end of the post!
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings – All the Good Times
Sometimes all you need is a guitar, some traditional folk songs and some old favorites, and a reel-to-reel tape recorder to pass the time. Back in early days of the pandemic, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings had all that at hand, and All the Good Times is the result.
Listening to the album’s 10 songs is like being there in the room with the duo; it’s pure, it’s unvarnished, and it captures the stunning intimacy and beauty of two voices that wind naturally around each other. The album opens with a gentle and measured take on Elizabeth Cotten’s “Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie,” riding along Rawlings’ unspooling and meandering guitar notes. Rawlings’ gravelly vocals capture the dark uncertainty of Dylan’s “Señor,” while the duo’s version of the traditional “All the Good Times Are Past and Gone” evokes the weariness of our times with lilting high lonesome vocals.
The centerpiece is a spare and achingly poignant version of John Prine’s “Hello in There.” Welch and Rawlings offer up a blues burning take on Johnny Cash’s “Jackson,” and the album closes with a sprightly version of “Y’all Come,” a neighborly invitation to come celebrate life and sing some songs. It’s a tribute to these songs that Welch and Rawlings recorded them, and it’s our fortune that they’ve shared these versions with us. — Henry Carrigan
Hello in There
Oh Babe It’s Ain’t No Lie
Kelsey Waldon – They’ll Never Keep Us Down
This ain’t easy listening music. But it’s music that needs to be listened to. Kelsey Waldon’s latest release, last month’s They’ll Never Keep Us Down, is a protest album, a revival of resistance against a sea of troubles.
Waldon brought her rural sensibilities along with her, including all the twang you’d expect from a native of Monkey’s Eyebrow, Kentucky. John Prine said Waldon’s voice reminded him of Tammy Wynette and signed her to his Oh Boy label. It wasn’t just her sound, he said, but the vulnerability he heard in it. That world-weary but not-ready-to-give-up-on-it-completely-just-yet attitude is foremost in Waldon’s approach to Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam.” Simone’s scathing call-out of the consequences of pretty words and do-nothingness on discrimination is still as powerful and relevant today as it was in the ’60s. Waldon’s take sounds like a Hill Country funeral band dirge, brooding and sinister as she sorrowfully delivers the eulogy.
Prine’s “Sam Stone” is transformed by Waldon’s laid-back drawl into a honky-tonk jukebox soundtrack for blasting yourself into chemical oblivion.
But it’s Waldon’s lively bluegrass march-along on the Hazel Dickens’ title cut that puts her at the head of the protest, exhorting working people back home and round the world to “get help from your own kind.” — Grant Britt
Mississippi Goddam (featuring Adia Victoria and Kyshona Armstrong)
With God on Our Side
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings – Just Dropped In to See What Condition My Rendition Was In
Onstage and over the course of eight studio albums of original material, Sharon Jones proved she was one of the mightiest soul and funk singers of all time. With the posthumous covers compilation Just Dropped In to See What Condition My Rendition Was In, we can hear that she was also an outstanding interpreter of song.
Hearing Jones and the Dap-Kings tear through classics “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” the Marvelettes’ “Here I Am, Baby,” and “Rescue Me” by Fontella Bass makes for a dancin’ good time, while the hard funk workouts on Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” and the Prince jam “Take Me With U” take away the slick ’80s R&B sheen of the originals and transform them into entirely new songs.
“Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” originally performed by Kenny Rogers and The First Edition, eschews counterculture psychedelia and replaces it with horns and swagger. And the rendition of “This Land Is Your Land” (included on the digital-only version of Just Dropped In), first recorded in 2005, is just beautiful. It puts Woody Guthrie in the present day and within the context of the civil rights movement, making a vital, necessary political statement. — Jim Shahen
Take Me With U
This Land Is Your Land
In the Bush
Mandy Barnett – A Nashville Songbook
Like Billie Holiday, Patsy Cline, Aretha Franklin, and Judy Garland, Mandy Barnett has always been in a class by herself. She’s our best song interpreter because she possesses a love of song, has a canny wisdom in selecting the songs she sings, and knows how to dwell in those songs, to turn them inside out and reveal nuances of the notes and phrasing and to make the song her own.
She knows when to let her voice soar and when to whisper, sometimes in the same song. She evokes the sweet torture of anticipation by slowing the tempo of a song and delivering a languorous version — as in her version of Elvis’ “It’s Now or Never.” And she captures the shuffling ambiguity of loss as she turns Ray Price’s “Heartaches by the Number” into a rollicking roadhouse number. A Nashville Songbook opens with a soul jazz rendition of Eddie Rabbit’s “I Love a Rainy Night,” featuring a jaunty, soulful B3 organ on the instrumental bridge in place of Rabbit’s guitar solo. While remaining faithful to the original, Barnett delivers an exuberant version that captures the song’s joy. Her lush and achingly gorgeous rendition of Skeeter Davis’s “The End of the World” may be the most perfect version of the song. Barnett’s vocals flow over a sea of steel guitars and piano until she delivers the song’s last lines a cappella, as if she is indeed alone.
Every song on A Nashville Songbook is a perfectly cut gem that shines brilliantly thanks to Barnett’s luminous vocals. — HC
I Love a Rainy Night
The End of the World
Heartaches by the Number
Esther Rose – My Favorite Mistakes [EP]
As a singer-songwriter, Esther Rose is a colorful storyteller and warm, engaging performer. On the four-song My Favorite Mistakes EP, Rose takes those performance skills and puts them to use telling other artists’ stories.
Covering (in order) Sheryl Crow, Nick Lowe, Hank Williams, and Roy Orbison, Rose offers up renditions that are faithful to the originals but also convey her own unique personality and style.
The cover of Crow’s “My Favorite Mistake” is a beaut, and pairs nicely with the power pop of Lowe’s “Blue on Blue.” It’s a testament to Rose’s subtle arrangements and ability as a vocalist that these songs and their pop hooks don’t sound out of place on an EP featuring classic country artists like Williams and Orbison.
The latter’s “Blue Bayou” is the real gem on My Favorite Mistakes. Orbison was possessor of one of the most unique voices in music history, and rather than try to recreate that sort of melancholic croon, Rose offers up dynamic, subtle, and heartfelt vocals that more than do justice to the original. While the entire EP is worthwhile, this track alone makes the whole endeavor shine. — JS
My Favorite Mistake
Madison Cunningham — Wednesday [EP]
Madison Cunningham defined herself as an ascendant talent last year with her Grammy-nominated LP Who Are You Now. In 2019 and 2020, she made the best of her time by covering some of her favorite songs, over 30 of them, in fact, shared on her social media channels. Cunningham selected four of them for an EP titled Wednesday, released Nov. 6. By tackling songs originally recorded by Tom Waits, John Mayer, Radiohead, and The Beatles, Cunningham highlights the wide range of influences that course through her own art and showcases the original artists’ quality of songcraft.
Cunningham’s renditions of Waits’ “Hold On” and The Beatles’ “In my Life” are unsurprisingly solid (although THAT Fab Four song has been covered nearly to death), and her exceptional vocals serve to highlight the emotional resonance in both, but it’s the Mayer and Radiohead covers that really stand out. Her take on the latter’s “No Surprises” is inspired, stripping away the original’s mid-1990s Britpop sheen and highlighting its versatility and timeless essence. — JS
Age of Worry
Loudon Wainwright III with Vince Giordano & The Nighthawks – I’d Rather Lead a Band
It’s a whole lot of fun when an artist uses a covers album to revitalize old songs and introduce them to new listeners. With the sublime I’d Rather Lead a Band, idiosyncratic singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III does exactly that, teaming up with Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks to revisit 14 Jazz Age classics.
Eschewing his guitar and well-cultivated singer-songwriter style, Wainwright takes on the role of big band leader with gusto and brings new life to material from icons Irving Berlin and Fats Waller. You can hear the joy in his voice as he croons standards “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Heart and Soul.” Giordano and his ensemble are vets of the New York City nightclub scene and if you’ve seen The Irishman, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, or Joker, you’ve heard his work. He knows these songs inside-out, and the arrangements are spot on. Wainwright nails the wit, inflection points, and emotion behind these tracks and makes a near-perfect pairing with the band. Man, what a fun album! — JS
How I Love You (I’m Tellin’ the Birds, Tellin’ the Bees)
So the Bluebirds and the Blackbirds
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
M. Ward – Think of Spring
Matching M. Ward’s ghostly whisper of a voice with songs recorded by jazz great Billie Holiday, Think of Spring seems on paper like an odd venture with a potential for disaster. In practice, it’s a resounding triumph. The charismatic troubadour colors these open-hearted tunes (most featured on Holiday’s late-career album Lady in Satin) with a variety of subtle sounds from his luminous acoustic guitar, the better to showcase the quietly entrancing singing. Drawing on such composers as Hoagy Carmichael, Alec Wilder, and Richard Rogers, Ward champions unguarded romance on “All the Way,” confronts a distant lover in “You’ve Changed,” and embraces obsessive despair on “I’m a Fool to Want You,” navigating the elegant melodic twists with impressive grace. Don’t be fooled by Ward’s languid presentation: A modern-day companion to Willie Nelson’s classic Stardust, Think of Spring is an enthusiastic reaffirmation of the Great American Songbook, sure to have a long shelf life. — Jon Young
I’ll Be Around
I’m a Fool to Want You
The Well Pennies – Covers
Before their two critically acclaimed LPs of original folk-pop songs, The Well Pennies made a splash with a cover song — a banjo and hand-clap driven version of “All My Loving” for the 2014 Beatles Reimagined album.
“All My Loving” appears again on the Des Moines, Iowa, duo’s Covers album, kicking off eight songs that travel chronologically through six decades of pop music. The song choices are delightfully quirky and delightfully rendered, tied together only by Sarah and Bryan Vanderpool’s evident love for each selection and ability to take each somewhere surprising.
Slowed down, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” becomes wistful and contemplative, the banjo and orchestral arrangement supporting entwined harmony vocals that match the natural beauty of the state at the heart of the song. The synths on Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” are cleared away to reveal lyrics that stand up to modern times. And I’m ashamed to admit I never really listened to the lyrics of The Cranberries’ “Zombie” until this stunning version, whose delicate piano-voice-strings arrangement roots out the sadness of the song about “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland that many overlooked amid Dolores O’Riordan’s angry (but also appropriate) delivery.
In The Well Pennies’ hands even teen favorites Twenty One Pilots find a folky foothold. Ending the album, “Stressed Out” gives voice to the desire to return to simpler and less sinister times, something we can all nod along to in 2020. — Stacy Chandler
Everybody Wants to Rule the World
Lambchop – Trip
Conceived by Lambchop leader Kurt Wagner as a sort of team-building exercise, Trip is an intriguing, sometimes puzzling, collection of six covers (clocking in at 38 minutes), with each band member choosing a song and supervising the recording of his selection.
Ranging from Motown to Nashville to tunes so obscure they could pass for new, this unpredictable set is defined by Wagner’s trademark woozy warbling, which can bend any style to its powerful gravitational pull. Whether acknowledging a country influence on George Jones’ sleepy “Where Grass Won’t Grow” or turning Stevie Wonder’s breathtaking “Golden Lady” into a spooky dream, Lambchop firmly asserts its own identity without losing the thread of the source material, not an easy trick.
Elsewhere, Wagner takes greater liberties, with striking results: His jittery version of “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone” captures heartbreak far better than The Supremes’ glib hit. Wilco’s “Reservations,” however, is a real head-scratcher. Originally a meandering, seven-minute ballad, in Lambchop’s hands the song becomes a meandering, 13-minute reverie verging on trance music; placing it first on the album feels perverse. On the other hand, Lambchop without serious idiosyncrasies just wouldn’t be Lambchop. Stay strange, gents! — JY
Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone
Here are some 2020 cover albums we covered earlier in the year (click the album title to read the full review).
Emma Swift has given us all a gift with Blonde on the Tracks. From a swinging, jingle-jangle “Queen Jane Approximately,” powered by the sound of a front-porch jug band, to all 11 minutes and 57 seconds of “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” to “I Contain Multitudes,” a track from Bob Dylan’s just-released Rough and Rowdy Ways, there’s only true gold here. — Anne Margaret Daniel
Molly Tuttle’s engaging …but i’d rather be with you features vibrant renditions of songs by everyone from Cat Stevens and The Rolling Stones to Harry Styles and FKA twigs. With just one full-length album under her belt so far, it might seem premature to take the covers route, but there’s no arguing with the sparkling results. — JY
Blackbirds is another triumph for LaVette, issuing from what appears to be a bottomless well of impassioned renderings of old standards and contemporary favorites made virtually unrecognizable by LaVette’s shape-shifting. This time she re-imagines songs from ’50s-era Black female singers she had great respect for growing up, and one from a couple of scruffy English guys circa 1968. — GB
On Kindred Spirits, Larkin Poe — sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell — offers spare versions of songs originally recorded by artists including Robert Johnson, Lenny Kravitz, Elton John, and Phil Collins. These close-to-the-bone versions dwell in the musical spaces that the originals open, and they follow down notes and phrases that sparkle with sonic brilliance. — HC
Following 2018’s virtuosic set Dancing with the Beast, Gretchen Peters releases her tribute to Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member Mickey Newbury, who died in 2002 after releasing a number of albums, his songs recorded by such luminaries as Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, and Elvis Presley. Peters’ criteria for selecting each tune: Did I love it? and Did I think I could bring something of myself to it? — John Amen
But that’s not it for 2020 cover albums! Here are a few more worth checking out:
Chris Cornell – No One Sings Like You Anymore
Various Artists – Stop, Hey, What’s That Sound? Classic Protest Songs Reinvented
Grant Peeples – Bad Wife
Lara Downes – Some of These Days
Steve Forbert – Early Morning Rain
Wynonna – Recollections [EP]
The Evie Ladin Band – Playing Our Hand [EP]
Tyler Ramsey – Found a Picture of You [EP]
Isaak Opatz – Hot & Heavy-Handed
Fruit Bats – Siamese Dream
Staci Griesbach – My Shania Twain Songbook