The Artist, the Performer, and the Cover Band
A few years ago, I wrote a brief comment about a lackluster performance from a local cover band that had appeared at a festival we were attending. The next day the band’s leader approached me, taking exception to my characterization of the band as a cover band.
“We’re not a cover band,” he said, “we play classic bluegrass.”
In bluegrass, many bands play almost nothing but covers of the great songs from the first couple of generations of bluegrass performers. They select songs from Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, Jimmy Martin, Jim & Jesse McReynolds, the Osborne Brothers, and several dozen other bands that were most active from the mid-1950s to the ’70s. Not only do these bands strive mightily to imitate — though they may say “re-create” — the original sound, they avoid adding any interpretation to the songs that would not sound exactly like the record from which they learned the song. Few, if any, enlightened re-imaginings of the verses or tune of the original appear in these songs, except that the tempos are often slightly off from the original, and the trio singing verges on abominable. Frequently, these bands seek slavishly to copy the precise licks and rolls of Earl Scruggs or the chop and double stops of Bill Monroe, having spent countless hours slowing down recordings and listening over and over, in order to get the precise timing and notes.
Such choices make sense for bands appearing at an open mic, but they become questionable when a band seeks to perform for pay at a festival while using that same material. There’s real enjoyment to be found in both performing with or watching pick-up bands and local/regional bands at bluegrass festivals. These bands entertain, at least partly because we know and care for them, while helping preserve a base of support for traditional bluegrass music and values. They often are entertaining and enjoyable. But it’s the rare local band who is worthy of being called “just as good as many touring bands” by its fanbase.
In fact, constant touring hones and tightens a band’s sound, and forces it to compete in the world where excellent picking and singing stand as the base for advancement, not the result of it.
Listen here to two versions “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” — one by its composer, Richard Thompson, and the other by the Del McCoury Band in one of the most innovative interpretations of a groundbreaking song.
At a jam, pickers are expected to bring familiar material, whether they’re pulling from classic standards or newer, popular bluegrass songs. In fact, when you begin to hear songs from contemporary songwriters at a jam, that signals the newer artist’s broad appeal. When your song becomes a jam standard, you’ve arrived in the bluegrass world.
A band begins to stand on its own when it tries to incorporate its own music — new songs written from within the band or less-frequently-sung older songs, into their festival set. Now, it’s probably true that most newly written songs will go no further than that local band’s basement-produced CD that they sell at their merch table. But the mere step of writing, working up a song, and presenting it indicates the ambition and courage required to begin moving into the status of “professional musician.”
This can be a huge step for many bands, as it involves risk-taking to a degree most pickers neither desire nor embrace.
But artists create. Does that mean they must write original songs to be considered artists? I don’t believe so, but what they should at least do is to be additive. When they are singing or playing material written by others, they must make an attempt to interpret the song in a way that brings a new understanding of the lyric, a new interpretation of the tune, a different way of hearing it. This must be done while some truth or remnant of the original is retained.
If that happens, then a listener might well say, “I never thought of those words in quite that way.” Or perhaps, “That’s a really interesting way to capture the meaning of that tune.”
Matt Witler, mandolinist with the Lonely Heartstring Band, pointed out to me recently: ”With a bluegrass tune, just performing the tune from another genre with bluegrass instruments might be enough.” Eric Gibson remarked, though, that covering songs, “Shows where your heart is,” which might be the essence of playing and arranging great covers.
Here’s a little-known Bob Dylan song from the Basement Tapes sessions to illustrate this. Notice that, in the Lonely Heartstring Band’s version, there’s no effort to capture Dylan’s personal dynamic. Instead, they create a convincing cover that can stand on its own.
Finally, to be called a “cover band” is no insult. But, when a band steps on stage to perform, it behooves the members to do justice to the original while seeking a way to make it their own. As with any other artistic endeavor, a band must make effort in its creation. True excellence will elude most bands making this step, but the fun lies in the effort — the thinking, the experimenting, and the practice that goes into creating the cover or composing and performing a new piece.
It’s been argued that a butterfly fluttering its wings in the Brazilian forests has an effect on the entire world. So too with creating and seeking to perfect a new version of a song, or the creation of a new song entirely.
Take the step. Take the risk. It’s worth the effort.