Covering the Cover Song
What’s your favorite version of “Hound Dog”? Big Mama Thornton’s or Elvis’? How about “Ball ‘n’ Chain”? Thornton’s or Janis Joplin’s? What about “Everybody Loves a Winner”? William Bell (who wrote the song) or Linda Ronstadt or Delaney and Bonnie? “Dark End of the Street”? James Carr, Percy Sledge, or Linda Ronstadt? Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” or Talking Heads’ later version? Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” or Jimi Hendrix’s or Dave Mason’s?
The list could go on, of course. By now, versions of songs that “cover” the original song have often become more familiar to audiences than the original. On a morning radio show not long ago, the deejay wondered whether Linda Ronstadt’s “Just One Look” came out before Doris Troy’s original (which came out years earlier). Of course, there are now “tribute” bands performing in small and mid-sized theaters around the country whose mission is to entertain the crowd with faithful covers of songs by the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Steely Dan, and others. Why anyone would spend an entire evening watching one band imitating another band is puzzling, but such a phenomenon illustrates just how deeply listeners yearn to hear a certain song over and over, no matter who’s playing and singing it.
Ray Padgett’s new book, Cover Me: The Stories behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time (Sterling), provides an entertaining look at the history of cover songs, as well as an in-depth examination of songs — such as “I Will Always Love You” and “Summertime Blues” — that later artists have introduced to new audiences who might or might not have been familiar version of the song. Padgett founded the blog Cover Me in 2007, spurred by his own listening to Bob Dylan’s playing, on Dylan’s radio show Theme Time Radio Hour, of Billy Stewart’s version of George Gershwin’s “Summertime.” Hearing that version opened Padgett’s ears to the “expansive possibilities of cover songs. It took a song I thought I hadn’t even liked that much (too slow, too maudlin) in an entirely irreverent, up-tempo direction. It brought new meaning to the lyrics, sounding more like what summertime actually is: fun.” Drawing on his now-ten-years of writing about cover songs, Padgett focuses on 19 specific covers, discussing the stories behind the songs and their influences on music.
Although his book is clearly not a history of the “cover song” nor a theoretical discussion of the nature of such songs, his introduction helpfully traverses this territory, exploring briefly the history and meaning of cover songs. As he points out, the meaning of the phrase “cover song” has changed over time. In the 1940s, record labels often rushed to produce sound-alike copies of popular hits. “These labels tried to hoodwink a listener who heard a hit song on the radio into mistakenly buying a copycat version by their own artist.” By the 1950s, he writes, artists were bringing their own style to songs they chose to perform: “the cover song as a unique creative expression was born … a cover was no longer ripping someone off but was rather an artist taking a song someone else performed and making it his or her own.”
Of course, plenty of artists these days include such songs on their albums, and many of them admit that they’re unconcerned about playing a note-for-note version of the original. Some artists, such as Shawn Colvin and The Wailin’ Jennys, have released entire albums of covers, and there are numerous tribute albums on which various artists play their own versions of an artist’s songs. After Tom Petty died, several artists (Chris Hillman, The Lone Bellow, Shawn Colvin, The Wailin’ Jennys, to name a few) performed — either on their albums or in live performances — Petty’s song “Wildflowers.”
Drawing on interviews he conducted himself with several artists (Lenny Kaye, David Byrne, Chris Frantz, “Weird Al” Yankovic, among others), as well as on archival materials, Padgett tells cracking good stories about these 19 cover songs and the ways that each artist — the singer of the original and the cover artist — reacted to the song’s success with his or her audience. Each cover song reached out to listeners in a certain context, and the cover artists made the song their own. For example, Chris Frantz of Talking Heads offers his thoughts about why their version of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” grabbed listeners’ attention more than many of their other songs: “Most of our other songs you wouldn’t call sexy. Not that they weren’t interesting and really good, but they didn’t have that.” David Byrne ran into Teenie Hodges — the song’s co-writer — a few times, and Byrne recalls that Hodges was “incredibly happy that we covered his song and, I think, probably also happy that we realized he had a part in it.” Byrne acknowledges that Talking Heads’ version is a successful song: “Our version, it does seem very much like it’s ours. That’s what makes a successful cover, I guess. You own it, as opposed to copying somebody else’s version. You make it yours.”
Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” embodied, according to Padgett, the strength that Cash pulled out of his weakness amid being ill and in pain. Says Rick Rubin, the song’s producer, “when Johnny sings it, all of a sudden it becomes a different song. It has a different weight to it when he sings the lyrics. He has a way of personalizing the music and communicating the emotion of the lyrics that very few people have.” Rosanne Cash reflects on her father’s version: “That fearlessness of looking at your own mortality is the sign of a great artist. It sent waves through the entire culture.”
Padgett’s Cover Me (whose very title, of course, recalls the Percy Sledge classic, though Springsteen has a song with the same title) is a gift, for it encourages us to reflect on what cover songs mean to us, to seek out the versions of these 19 songs — or to spin them again as if for the first time — and to listen to the stories of the artists who have introduced an older song to a new generation of listeners with their own version of it.