December 22, 2006
The Trisha Theory: Once Trisha Yearwood sings or records a song, it has been sung definitively. No other vocalist need bother tackling it; they will inevitably pale in comparison to Yearwood’s performance of the song.
I’ve come to develop this theory over time, listening to Trisha Yearwood completely always improve on, and often completely eviscerate, previous performances of songs she chose to tackle. Some examples:
- “Woman Walk the Line” – written and recorded by Emmylou Harris, then covered by Highway 101.
- “New Kid in Town” - The Eagles classic that was the only song that sounded better by the new country artist on their tribute album.
- “It Wasn’t His Child” – a Sawyer Brown holiday tune that Yearwood spun into greatness.
- “Try Me Again” - Linda Ronstadt wrote it and her version still can’t compare to Yearwood’s cover.
- “Lying To The Moon” – songwriter Matraca Berg stopped performing this song for a few years, she was so blown away by Yearwood’s cover of it.
- “I Don’t Paint Myself Into Corners” – Rebecca Lynn Howard sang her heart out, but couldn’t hold a candle to Yearwood’s cover of her song.
- “A Lover Is Forever” – Rosanne Cash cut it first, but Yearwood knocked it out of the park.
Going back through Yearwood’s studio albums, it’s shocking how few of the great songs she recorded first have since been covered, great as they are. I think this is because lesser singers are too intimidated to dare try. Yearwood’s perfect control and phrasing, along with her keen understanding of where the line between genuine and over-emotion is drawn, make her versions of songs end up the definitive ones.
Nothing demonstrated this to me as clearly as the recent CMT Giants: Reba tribute concert. I’ve been waiting to blog on this show until a YouTube clip of Yearwood’s performance of it finally surfaced. The conceit of the show was to have younger female vocalists (where were the men?) cover Reba’s material, to honor the legend’s contributions to music. There was a problem, though: Reba McEntire is one of the most distinctive, talented vocalists in the history of recorded music.
They looked almost like sacrificial lambs, one female star after another tackling Reba’s hits and paling in comparison to the redheaded diva. Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Nettles, Faith Hill and Martina McBride tried, and failed, to deliver worthy performances. Even Reba’s legitimate peers, in terms of talent – Dolly Parton and Wynonna – didn’t match, let alone improve on, Reba’s classic performances of the songs. To her credit, LeAnn Rimes came close, with her touching performance of “The Greatest Man I Never Knew.” The tortured backstory between Rimes and her own father made the performance more powerful, but still couldn’t reach the heights of Reba’s original.
Then, towards the end of the show, Trisha Yearwood emerged to perform “If I Had Only Known,” one of the best songs Reba McEntire has ever recorded. She chose the song after the death of her band and tour manager, and although the video clip isn’t anything special, it does provide a visual element to an amazing performance. I’ve been listening to that song for fifteen years, and it’s always been a personal favorite. I’ve revisited it frequently when dealing with sickness and death around me. It seemed impossible to ever hear it with fresh ears again, but then, Yearwood emerged and performed the song live, not only rejuvenating it for me, but improving on the original, thus proving the Trisha Theory.
She’s never been my absolute favorite singer, but if there’s a more talented and nuanced interpreter of song, I haven’t heard them. She’s untouchable.