The Untouchables

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April 15, 2009

The following is a guest contribution from Charles H. Geier. Charles runs two excellent sites of his own – The Widening Geier and Sports Statistics: By the Numbers.

the-untouchablesCountry music is a genre which I have come to appreciate largely through osmosis. My parents did not play it in the house or the car when I was growing up. New York has had trouble maintaining a quality country station, and even when it has, the radio dial did not find its way down there often.

My youth occurred before the internet and satellite radio, and our tape deck for car trips tended to be filled with Phil Collins, Paul Simon and the soundtrack to various musicals (being the youngest, my objections were drowned out by “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes”…etc). My mother did occasionally refer to my father’s affinity for Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman”, but mostly because he would never sing past the first seven words.

While I did experience some country music courtesy of the mainstream crossovers, my true exposure came thanks to Kevin. He has made reference before on this site to the amount of music on his iPod, and I have seen a great deal of this music when it occupied racks-upon-racks of tapes and CDs. When we became friends, I couldn’t help but be exposed to all manner of country songs and artists, and I have gradually (and sometimes grudgingly) grown to appreciate and even seek out country on my own.

The foregoing is mostly a roundabout way to introduce what I have been allowed to address as a discussion topic. I have long noticed that country songs are regularly recorded by several artists. While Whitney Houston introduced many people to “I Will Always Love You”, I have heard many different recordings by Dolly Parton. Though the Patsy Cline version is heard most frequently, “Crazy” has popped up on shuffle as performed by Willie Nelson, Dottie West and LeAnn Rimes. An artist can bring their own spin to a familiar tune, and sometimes make it their own, a concept championed by the judging panel of American Idol.

Last week, Kevin and I were discussing cover songs, when I brought up the idea of  “untouchables.” I conceived of an “untouchable” as a song that is so well done by a particular artist that subsequent covers either fall flat in comparison, or are never attempted at all. In the above songs by Parton and Nelson, I have enjoyed the spins that others have put on the original/most notable version. The sincerity and vulnerability of the Dolly version is an interesting contrast to the power and bombast of the Houston take. Patsy’s iconic vocal is interestingly juxtaposed to Willie’s distinctive delivery. I love both songs, but would not consider them untouchable.

For me, one of the first songs I thought of was George Jones’ version of “He Stopped Loving Her Today”. I have discovered that Johnny Russell was the first to record the song, but that his label refused to release it. Other notable artists to cover the song include: Alan Jackson, Josh Turner, Johnny Cash, Sammy Kershaw and David Alan Coe.

However, every version I have heard has only made me think of the Jones cut, and the feeling I get every time his voice crescendos with the violins while nailing the chorus. I would propose this as an untouchable song, unless the artist was merely honoring Jones, as many of the above did in their versions.

Another would be “I Walk the Line” by Johnny Cash. The only other versions I could find with a quick search were the Rodney Crowell duet and a cover by the rock band Live. While Joaquin Phoenix did a solid job in the movie, you just can’t cover Cash very convincingly. There are many songs by him which just don’t sound the same without his voice moving them along.

So here is where the discussion would jump off:

What songs do the readers of Country Universe consider untouchable, and why?

Thanks to Kevin and the other writers for allowing me to guest post.

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23 Comments

Category: Miscellaneous Musings

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  1. Kevin J. CoyneNo Gravatar says:

    I’ll go with Pam Tillis, “Maybe it Was Memphis.” I think the song has been done definitively and nobody should go anywhere near it.

    I’d have said Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors” until Shania Twain did it with Alison Krauss & Union Station. She has a similar back story, which might be why it worked.

    Dolly Parton covered “I Walk the Line” – Johnny has nothing to worry about. I get a kick out of her adlibbing at the end, though.

    httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ONGaVhbk3lQ

  2. Music ManNo Gravatar says:

    Speaking of “I Walk The Line”, Shelby Lynne covered it early in her career and it’s a very good.

    I happen to love and collect cover versions, I love different interpretations of well known songs, so, as long as it’s not a karaoke sounding cover, I’m usually interested in given it a listen.

    I’d say that nothing is untouchable, JMHO.

  3. Matt BNo Gravatar says:

    There are plenty untouchables but I’d have to say that the biggest factor with ‘untouchables’ is how beloved the songs are and what person is singing the them. For example, I can’t picture Trace Adkins singing a Vince Gill song but it’s not a stretch to think that a Blake Shelton type of vocalist could.

  4. highwayman3No Gravatar says:

    I think Reba’s ‘Fancy’ is untouchable. Someone else could cover it but you’d always think of Reba’s version.

  5. Music ManNo Gravatar says:

    Reba’s was a cover of Bobby Gentry’s original from 1969:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q4ZCrMESar8

  6. Music ManNo Gravatar says:

    Blake Shelton’s “Goodbye Time” was a cover of Conway Twitty’s original:

    Conway: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQByUh6fUfM

    Blake: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B9hbim42oHY

  7. William WardNo Gravatar says:

    “Hurt” as performed by Johnny Cash. Actually a cover of course, but I can’t even listen to the orginal without thinking of his version.

  8. Paul DennisNo Gravatar says:

    Loretta Lynn singing “One’s On The Way”
    John Anderson singing “Swinging”

    Roy Orbison singing either “Crying” or “Blue Bayou”

    Tiny Tim singing “Tiptoe Through The Tulips”

    yeah

  9. BLLNo Gravatar says:

    I think ‘The Dance’ and ‘Friends in Low Places’ are forever Garth’s, even though both were recorded previously to Garth’s recording them.

  10. Matt BNo Gravatar says:

    The Dance has been recorded by Westlife in the UK. It’s not bad at all. “If Tomorrow Never Comes” was recorded by Ronan Keating there as well (he also covered “When You Say Nothing At All” and “I Hope You Dance” and “She Believes In Me”)

  11. Steve from BostonNo Gravatar says:

    I have a lot of respect for the old masters, but very few songs are untouchable, in my opinion. Many of these original artists have the definitive, signature versions, but sometimes even these are surpassed by talented singers of the present generation.

    Not meaning to be a contrarian, and I know it’s heresy…But I do think that Sara Evans does a better job with “One’s On the Way” than even the great Loretta Lynn. I could list more examples by various artists, but I realize the subject of this thread is to cite untouchable songs, not instances where the originals have been surpassed.

    I can think of at least one example of an untouchable rendition however, in additon to those already cited here. That is Patty Loveless’ version of “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” I know she didn’t write it, but it fits her life story in a very natural way. Patty brings it to vivid life with her expressive Appalachian alto. Brad Paisley and Kathy Mattea’s renditions are quite good, but Patty’s is iconic, and was even used as background music recently on an ABC special about the struggles of life in Appalachia. I think the producers of the show chose the definitive, untouchable version.

  12. Erik NorthNo Gravatar says:

    Two songs from Linda Ronstadt’s canon come to mind that, though they have been covered since she did them, are so indelibly identified with her that they fall into the Untouchable category: “Long Long Time” and “Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me.”

    “Long Long Time”, which Linda recorded in Nashville in 1970 and which was also her first solo hit, is given such a gut-wrenching performance by Linda that to even attempt that song nowadays without sounding overwrought is all but impossible (though Mindy McCready tried it in 1997, and did better than most might have). Even more, Linda was reportedly down with a head cold on that January morning she came in to record it, which may seem hard to believe, but I believe it.

    “Poor Poor Pitiful Me”, which Linda did in 1977, was basically her response to critics who said she wallowed in self-pity and had no sense of humor. Through her good friend Warren Zevon, who wrote it, she showed them otherwise, though it also proved that her humor was jet-black, since the song was essentially a grisly ode to gang rape. This irony, I think, was missed by Terri Clark when she remade it almost two decades later.

  13. HubbaNo Gravatar says:

    I did like Josh Turner’s version of “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
    I have to throw in with the “there’s no such thing crowd” here, but if I were to nominate a song, it would be George Strait’s “The Chair.”

  14. DeniseNo Gravatar says:

    I agree…Friend’s in Low Places should not be performed by anybody but Garth….I will never forget at a Rascal Flatt’s concert a couple of years ago, the blond guitar player sang it. I had to cover my ears and go “nananana” thru the whole song.

  15. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar says:

    The only ones I think are really uncoverable are “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and any of the iconic Patsy Cline songs (“Crazy”, “I Fall to Pieces”, “Walkin’ After Midnight”, “Sweet Dreams”), because those performances have become so tied to their respective songs that practically no one can cover any of them without copying the original mannerisms and sounding like a karaoke singer. There are probably a few other songs like that, but not many to that extent.

  16. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Dan,
    I realize I feel that way about Alan Jackson’s “Where Wer You.” The Wrights do a version that is respectable enough, but it lacks the heart that naturally came from Alan. I think when Alan recorded it, he was in the right place/space at the time. Now, if I hear anyone else singing it, it kind of sounds hollow to me.

  17. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar says:

    I agree, Leeann. “Where Were You” is definitely one of them; I couldn’t believe they had anyone at all perform it at the CMT Giants tribute to Jackson, although I guess George Strait was the best choice they could have made.

  18. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Yes, if anyone would be able to come close to recreating the palpable humility of Jackson’s version, it would be Strait.

  19. ScottNo Gravatar says:

    Totally untouchable for me would include,
    “I’m so Lonesome I could cry” by Hank Williams
    “Friends in Low Places” “Unanswered Prayers” and “The Dance”
    “More Than a name on a Wall” by the Statler Brothers
    Several Songs by Patsy Cline
    “He Stopped Loving Her Today”

  20. Kevin J. CoyneNo Gravatar says:

    I saw Trisha Yearwood do “Friends in Low Places” last summer during the requests portion of her show.

    She told the person who called it out that she used to give a fresh answer when people brought up the Garth thing, but then she found out that somebody had requested “She’s in Love With the Boy” at his concert and he sang the whole thing.

    She sang it well, but noted how difficult it was to sing.

  21. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    That’s hilarious.

  22. PartridgeNo Gravatar says:

    Some songs are so personal that it would just seem strange for someone else to be singing them, Coal Miner’s Daughter, for example. I’ve seen others sing that song and I wondered if they had ever touched a piece of coal. But for the most part, I don’t consider any song “untouchable” – there is probably even someone out there who can do Coal Miner’s Daughter.

  23. HermanNo Gravatar says:

    There are many untouched but I must say that the biggest factor with the ‘untouchables’ is how the beloved songs of people and what they sing. For example, I can not picture Trace Adkins Vince Gill sang a song but not a stretch to think that the kind of singer Blake Shelton can.

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