Cover songs can be a hot topic at just about any given time. We recently got to hear a somewhat underwhelming OneRepublic cover by Faith Hill, which Kevin recently reviewed. Other recent attempts include Sara Evans’ pop-country reworking of Rod Stewart’s “My Heart Can’t Tell You No,” as well as last year’s polarizing Beyoncé cover by Reba McEntire.
Since cover songs are so much fun to talk about, I thought I’d weigh in on a few well-known cover songs from the past few years – the good ones, as well as a few that we would rather forget. My criteria is simple: A good cover song should bring something new to the table, and the song should be treated in a way that is well-suited to the artist as well as the genre. This list focuses specifically on country covers of non-country songs.
Click the original artists’ names in parentheses to hear the original versions.
Rosanne Cash, “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” (The Beatles)
1989 | #1
Where it goes right: Rosanne’s last career hit was a cover from a Beatles tribute album, and it didn’t sound quite like one might expect. Though rarely one to use overt country instrumentation throughout most of her career, she delivers a brisk, upbeat take that’s layered in fiddling. I’ll take it!
Mark Chesnutt, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” (Aerosmith)
1998 | #1
Where it goes wrong: It’s hard to imagine a worse pairing between song and performer. Mark Chesnutt, the revered neotraditionalist behind “Too Cold at Home” and “Going Through the Big D” covering a rock power ballad? It’s true – complete with apologetic steel guitar fills and a vocal smothered in autotune. The end result is so cheesy that you might as well slap it between two crackers. The fact that this is the top Mark Chesnutt iTunes download is very very sad.
Dixie Chicks, “Landslide” (Fleetwood Mac)
2002 | #2
Where it goes right: The Chicks give a well-known Fleetwood Mac favorite a stripped-down bluegrass treatment, which is a great fit for the nature-related imagery in the song’s lyrics. The Chicks elevate the song further with their gorgeous harmonies. As much as I love Fleetwood Mac, I have to say that this version tops the original. It’s one of the best cover songs I’ve ever heard, and one of the Dixie Chicks’ personal best moments, of which there have been many.
Sara Evans, “I Could Not Ask for More” (Edwin McCain)
2001 | #2
Where it goes right: Evans delivers a stunning and powerful vocal performance that holds nothing back whatsoever.
Where it goes wrong: The arrangement is a bit syrupy, and it’s essentially a pop cover of a pop song. Is a little fiddle or steel too much to ask for?
Faith Hill, “Piece of My Heart” (Erma Franklin, Janis Joplin)
1994 | #1
(Watch the video)
Where it goes right: The fact that Hill was unfamiliar with the Franklin and Joplin versions is telling. You can easily tell that she is making no attempt to emulate the style of another artist, instead giving a performance totally her own, while the songs’s melody fits well with the countrified arrangement.
Where it goes wrong: Again, the fact that Hill was unfamiliar with the previous versions is telling. Her performance lacks the fire and fury of Joplin’s version, which makes it easy to see why one might consider Hill’s performance to be a bit too sugary.
Alison Krauss, “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You” (The Foundations)
1995 | #49
Where it goes right: Krauss takes a forgettable Motown tune, and delivers a slowed-down mid-tempo version that much more deeply accentuates the emotions conveyed in the lyrics. In contrast, the original sounded like one big party, which is an ill-fitting treatment of a song about trying to stop one’s lover from leaving. The track is made all the more sweeter by Kruass’ angelic vocals, and by the expert instrumental backup of Union Station. The song went on to win Krauss a well-deserved Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.
Reba McEntire, “Cathy’s Clown” (Everly Brothers)
1989 | #1
Where it goes right: It’s extremely effective as a reinterpretation, as McEntire slows the song down to an emotional ballad, and tweaks the lyrics to fit her feminine perspective. Did I mention that she also gives a mighty fine vocal performance?
Where it goes wrong: The production is a bit watered-down, which was not unusual for Reba’s late eighties and early nineties output.
Pam Tillis, “When You Walk In the Room” (Jackie DeShannon)
1994 | #2
Where it goes right: Tillis could hardly have chosen a better song to countrify, as the lyric about a nervous encounter with an old flame fits right in with classic country music. She even tweaked the instrumental opening so as to be better suited for the steel guitar, which demonstrates her strong commitment to the country genre.
Travis Tritt, “Take It Easy” (The Eagles)
1994 | #21
Where it goes right: The Eagles were about the countriest rock band you’d ever meet, and did a great deal to influence the evolution of country sounds and styles, so they were a fitting candidate for an all-country tribute album. The centerpiece of the collection was honky-tonker Travis Tritt’s version of “Take It Easy” – an energetic performance that had even more body than the original, but that still felt reverent toward the legendary group’s classic version.
Conway Twitty, “The Rose” (Bette Midler)
1983 | #1
Where it goes right: Nowhere.
Where it goes wrong: Everywhere. (Can you say bad karaoke?)
Jimmy Wayne, “Sara Smile” (Hall and Oates)
2009 | #31
Where it goes wrong: To put it simply… reinterpreting a song does not mean simply “adding a banjo line.” The fact that Hall and Oates even sing background vocals on this track only adds to the overall feeling of pointlessness.
Mark Wills, “Back at One” (Brian McKnight)
1999 | #2
Where it goes wrong: If it made for an awfully cheesy pop song in the hands of Brian McKnight, it made a flat-out terrible country song when Mark Wills covered it a mere two months after the release of the McKnight version. It’s a record characterized by superfluous genre-pandering steel guitar fills, and a lead vocal that sounds more occupied with grooving to the beat than making any sort of emotional connection. The song peaked at #2, and then Wills tackled a Brandy song immediately afterwards. Seriously, dude?
Dwight Yoakam, “Suspicious Minds” (Elvis Presley)
1992 | #35
Where it goes right: Covering an Elvis song is a tall order, to say the least. The fact that Yoakam’s version rivals the original, with its contemporized arrangement and knockout lead vocal, is hardly a small feat.
What’s your take on these tunes? What are your favorite cover songs? What are your least favorite cover songs?
I’m so glad to see the love for the Dixie Chicks’ cover of “Landslide.” I adore that song so very much, both Stevie and the Chicks’ versions. I think the best version of that song is Fleetwood Mac’s, live on The Dance album.
If you were a few years older, Ben, I’d swear we were separated at birth.
I had all of these great covers in my head that I was going to mention in the comments, then you went ahead and named all of them!
Among the great covers, I’d add another Pam Tillis track – “Mandolin Rain” – and a million Emmylou Harris tracks, most notably “On the Radio” and “The Boxer.”
Among the worst…can we talk about David Kersh doing “Wonderful Tonight”? Good God, that was awful!
I’m not gonna lie, I like Twitty’s version of “The Rose”, but then again, I’m a sucker for Conway for some reason.
Great call on your choices and analysis.
I’d add Gary Allen’s “Best I Ever Had.” If I remember correctly, it doesn’t stray too far from the original, but Gary’s eperformance still seems much stronger.
Another one was unreleased, but I love Sugarland’s countrified version of Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable.”
I love “Mandolin Rain,” though since I was mostly focusing on singles, its spot ended up going to “When You Walk In the Room.” I’m with you on Emmylou – She can do a fantastic cover like nobody’s business. (Current favorite: “Save the Last Dance for Me”)
Maybe I was a tad harsh on ol’ Conway, but while I’m not a fan of his cover songs, I’ll gladly take a “Hello Darlin'” or a “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” any day of the week ;)
Great picks, Ben!
A few I can think of:
Carrie Underwood- “Look At Me,” and “I Told You So,” originally sung by Alan Jackson and Randy Travis, respectively.
“Walking In Memphis- Lonstar
“How Do I Live”- Trisha Yearwood covered by LeAnn Rimes
“I Will Always Love You”- Dolly covered by Whitney Huston
“Home” by Micheal Buble- covered by Blake Shelton
“What Hurts The Most- Mark Wills (technically) covered by Rascal Flatts
“Tiny Dancer”- Elton John- covered by Tim McGraw
“Stealing Kisses” – Lori Mckenna covered by Faith Hill
“My Maria”- BW Stevens covered by Brroks and Dunn
“Rose Garden”- Lynn Anderson, covered by Martina McBride
“Hurt”- Nine Inch Nails, covered by Johnny Cash
“Let Him Fly”- Patty Griffin, covered by the Dixie Chicks
“Never Say Die”- Randney Foster, covered by the Dixie Chicks
“Travelin’ Solider”- Bruce Robinson, covered by The Dixie Chicks
“Top Of The World”- Patty Grifffin, covered by The Dixie Chicks
“Time To Get A Gun”- Miranda Lambert
“That’s The Way The World Goes Round- Miranda Lambert
Patty Griffin “Gettin’ Ready,” covered by Miranda Lambert
Emmylou Harris- “Easy From Now On,” covered by Miranda Lambert
Kasey MusGraves- “Mama’s Broken Heart”- covered by Miranda Lambert
Gillian Welch- “Look At Miss Ohio”- covered by Miranda Lambert
“Strawberry Wine” by Deena Carter, covered by The Wreckers
Just remember that Ben’s focus was on country Good list. covers of pop songs.:)
Of course, if people want to share their favorite country covers of country songs, that’s cool too. One of these days I might even do a follow-up post on country covers of country songs, since there are plenty of good ones to choose from (and a few not-so-good ones).
Two of my favorites Ernest Tubb’s cover of Chuck Berry’s “Thirty Days” and Buck Owens’cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Water”
I would love to see a country cover of “Someone Like You” but I don’t know who could pull it off? Maybe Carrie Underwood or lets make it interesting and pick a guy.. maybe David Nail? I really don’t know, its just thought lol
A few of my favorites are:
“Desperado” by the Eagles covered by Clint Black
“Home Sweet Home” by Motley Crue covered by Carrie Underwood
“Lips of an Angel” by Hinder covered by Jack Ingram
“I’ll Stand by You” by The Pretenders covered by Carrie Underwood
“Lover, Lover” by Sonia Dada covered by Jerrod Niemann
“To Make You Feel My Love” by Bob Dylan covered by Garth Brooks
LeAnn Rimes does a great job covering Adele’s “Someone Like You”
I love the original version of “Cathy’s Clown” by the Everly Brothers. In comparison, Reba’s cover sounds awful to me. I see that it meets your criteria since it brings something new to the table and it’s suitable for her as a country artist. I don’t care if a cover closely follows the original as long as it sounds good.
I like the covers you included by AK, PT, TT, DY, SE and the Chicks. I didn’t know that the Sara Evans song is a cover.
Wow, I almost forgot about Jake Owen’s “Lips of an Angel.” Not sure how Jerrod Niemann’s “Lover, Lover” slipped past my radar though.
Hmmmmm…. I haven’t heard Rimes’ cover of “Someone Like You”. I’m curious.
Earning Spots in the Worst Covers Hall of Fame:
Alabama – God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You
Brooks & Dunn – I Ain’t Missing You
Doug Stone – Take a Letter Maria
Dwight Yoakam – I Want You to Want Me
John Anderson – Keep Your Hands to Yourself
Lorrie Morgan – Angel
Mark Chesnutt – Heard It in a Love Song
Julie Roberts – Girl Next Door
Clint Black – Long Cool Woman
Clay Walker – La Bamba
Others in my iTunes library:
Alan Jackson – Summertime Blues
Billy Dean – We Just Disagree
Bobbie Cryner – Son of a Preacher Man
Collin Raye – Open Arms
Deana Carter – Brand New Key
Dixie Chicks – You Can’t Hurry Love
Dolly – Too many to list, some amazing and others so bad… they’re good
Hal Ketchum – Five O’Clock World
The Judds – Don’t Be Cruel
Kathy Mattea – From a Distance
Keith Urban – Jeans On
Kenny Chesney – Please Come to Boston
LeAnn Rimes – Purple Rain, Insensitive, Unchained Melody
Lorrie Morgan – Eight Days a Week, Faithfully
Martina McBride – Hit Me with Your Best Shot (Live), Marry Me
Mary Chapin Carpenter – Party Doll
Neal McCoy – Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye
Rascal Flatts – Life Is a Highway
Reba – Fancy/The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia/On My Own (A few of my favorites.)
Sammy Kershaw – Third Rate Romance
Tanya Tucker – Lots of covers on her early Columbia releases
Toby Keith – I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying
Wynonna – I Want to Know What Love Is (Beats the original IMO.)
I really like this piece. Great choices too. I agree with your assessments except for “The Rose”. I guess I’m a sucker for Conway too, but I’ve liked almost all of his covers, even “Heartache Tonight”.
I hate to be nitpicky, but Mark Chesnutt recorded “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” about the same time as Aerosmith in 1998. It’s not an ’80s ballad.
Interesting topic. While I didn’t care for Conway’s version of “The Rose”, about the same time he had two other covers that I did like — the aforementioned “Heartache Tonight” and especially “Slow Hand.” Cash’s “Hurt” should have been on the list. As for awful, it doesn’t get much worse than LeAnn Rimes doing “Purple Rain,” although Sammy Kershaw had a horrid rendition of “Fire And Rain” on the “Red Hot + Country” compilation. Passable covers? Add Kevin Sharp’s “Nobody Knows” to the list.
Thanks for the correction, J.R. I should have checked that beforehand.
Good call on Cash’s “Hurt,” Steve.
Leeann beat me to it, but I was going to mention Gary Allan’s cover of “Best I Ever Had” too. His performance is heartbreaking. When you think back on what happened to his wife, songs like that and “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful” seem to take on a whole new meaning.
And @Ben, that “Lips Of An Angel” cover was Jack Ingram, not Jake Owen. I’m a big fan of Jack, but I didn’t think that cover was better than the original.
I think the Mark Chesnutt cover of “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” is one of Chesnutt’s better singles. Chesnutt had a good voice but most of his songs don’t really hold up – they just sound dated to me. I think “Too Cold At Home,” “Ill Think of Something,” and “Brother Jukebox” are awesome but after 1992, Chesnutt’s music went downhill. When he came out with “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” in late 1998, it was actually one of the best things he had done in a long time in my view even though Aerosmith definitely did a better job on the song than Chesnutt, who was a b-list singer at best who got more critical praise than he deserved.
I did it again! I am always getting Jake Owen and Jack Ingram confused.
I actually didn’t know “Best I Ever Had” was a cover,” but Gary Allan definitely does a fine job on it.
I would add two more Alison Krauss tracks to the list:
I Will (The Beatles)
Baby Mine (Dumbo)
Dumbo may not fit into the rock context of the story, but still the most beautiful version of that song I’ve ever heard.
And since it just played on my iPod:
Flowers on the Wall – Eric Heatherly
Don’t know if anyone remembers this guy, but it’s fun version and though it’s not groundbreaking, I like it better than the original version from the Statler Brothers
I’m an Everly Brothers fan, and that Reba version always sounded like sacrilege to me.
When it comes to covering pop songs, Robbie Fulks’ version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” is pretty incredible. I’ve heard him do a killer live version of “Dancing Queen” too, but I don’t know if that was ever recorded.
I don’t know how many might remember; but back in 1997, before she got into so much trouble with prescription drugs, Mindy McCready, on her album If I Don’t Stay The Night, did a pretty good cover of “Long Long Time”, which had originally reached #25 on the Hot 100 in October 1970 for Linda Ronstadt. Mindy doesn’t really outdo Linda on this song (in fact, it’s really hard to outdo Linda on anything she has ever sung), but her version does show what kind of a singer she might very well have developed into had she not also developed some very bad, and even near-fatal habits (IMHO).
Erik’s mention of Linda Ronstadt (surprise, surprise – but she’s one of my favorites too) reminded me that Trisha Yearwood covered Linda’s “Try Me Again”. Also, Victoria Shaw covered “Different Drum”, the Mike Nesmith song that Linda made famous as a member of the Stone Poneys. What I didn’t know was that Different Drum was originally recorded by a bluegrass group, the Greenbriar Boys. I found this out on secondhandsongs.com.
Linda’s classic country-rock material has been covered quite a bit by a lot of female artists over the last twenty years or so, which goes to show the lasting impact she continues to have, and the high standards she set for herself that so many others feel they have to match. More recently, alt-country songstress Caitlin Rose has covered “Faithless Love”, a track from Linda’s seminal 1974 country-rock masterpiece Heart Like A Wheel, so, even if Linda herself has retired from active performing and recording, her spirit still resonates.
” I’m not gonna lie, I like Twitty’s version of “The Rose”, but then again, I’m a sucker for Conway for some reason.”
I like it, too.
The worst thing about critics like you is that your ratings are completely based on how you feel about a song. If Conway Twitty’s version of “The Rose” is so horrible as “Bad Karaoke”, then how the hell did it reach #1. It is an absolute insult to label a Conway Twitty song as “Bad Karaoke”. Have you actually heard bad karaoke? That’s when the person has no ability to sing in tune. Is that how bad you really think that song is? I suspect, either you just don’t like that song or you really like Bette’s version a lot more. I hadn’t heard her version until after i read this. I don’t see where her vocal performace is superior to Conway’s. I think you are dead wrong on that review. Therefore, I label your review of it as the worst review in the history of music reviews.
Hah! The rare Conway Twitty Super Fan…
@ Michael A. Actually, I am not a Twitty superfan. I like a lot of his music, but I have not collected everything he has done or like everything he has done. But I am a huge fan of music and what bothers me is when critics degrade a song without any merit. It’s fine if he doesn’t like the song, but to basically say that a #1 song is as bad as “bad karaoke” is really off base. He is obviously in the minority. It can’t be one of the worst cover songs of all-time if it was a #1 song just because he doesn’t personally like the song. Obviously, the song is not as bad as he claims it to be. I have a problem with the review, because he insulted (not criticized) the vocal performace of Twiity by comparing it to “bad karaoke” and gave no creedance to the fact that many people (enough to be a #1 hit at least) actually did like his version of the song. He apparently believes that it’s only his opinion that matters when judging how good a song is. It seems to me that he has a hatred (at least Twitty’s version) for that song and it clouds his ability to judge the song fairly. Maybe, he heard the Midler version first and loved the song and since Twitty’s version is far different it seemed completely wrong. That happens a lot with covers when they are done completely different. A person tends to prefer the version they heard first (if they liked it). And when somebody does it completely different, it just doesn’t feel the same. I heard Twitty’s version first, I couldn’t imagine the song sung any different. So when I listened to Midler’s version, I wasn’t impressed. Who knows, all I know is that Twitty’s version didn’t get to #1 by being as bad as “bad karaoke”.
Popularity doesn’t equal quality.
Hi Michael. Thanks for taking the time to join the discussion and express your views so openly, as it helps keep things interesting.
First of all, I’m afraid I don’t quite see why any critic would be faulted for evaluating a song based on how they feel. What are a critic’s ratings supposed to be based on? Chart success? If that were the case, then the critic’s role would be pointless, since anyone can look at the charts to see which songs are currently popular. Thus, writing about one’s opinion of a song is perfectly normal and acceptable for a critic.
I don’t mind being in the minority. This is hardly the first time. Yes, the fact that a song becomes a hit means that a significant number of people liked it. But it goes without saying that even then, people will still form their own individual opinions, and there will still be some who dislike the song. In this case, I happened to be one of them. I personally think that his performance sounds like bad karaoke – not the worst ever, but bad in general – and the fact that the song was a hit doesn’t change that. And that’s fine – You like it; I don’t. It’s very subjective. I did state my opinion quite directly, but I don’t believe I implied in any way that my opinion is the only one that matters.
I can’t say I have any special attatchment to the Midler version, though I do consider it a degree superior to Twitty’s. Apologies if you found my judgment offensive. Conway Twitty was a talented artist, and as I stated above, there are plenty of his songs that I do like. “The Rose” simply does not happen to be one.
Ben, there where other songs that i disagreed with on the list but at least with those you gave some valid reasons why they weren’t as good as the originals. You didn’t actually review the Twitty song, you basically just said it was bad. The biggest problem I have is not that you don’t like it but that you judge it as one of the worst covers ever despite evidence contrary to your opinion. So you are in fact elevating your opinion over many others. So why is it one of the worst covers ever? Twitty’s version was very different from Midlers. It hit #1, which suggests it wasn’t as bad vocally as you suggest it is. Obviously many people connected positively with it. You gave no reason to back up why it’s a bad song or rendition other than just because you didn’t like it. That is why it was a bad review. The rest of the reviews were fine and I disagreed with others but at least you gave reasons why they weren’t good covers.
It wasn’t exactly meant to be a proper full-fledged review, nor were the other blurbs. That wouldn’t be totally necessary, since a good portion of our readers are already familiar with these songs. These are just five-second rundowns, and the Twitty critque conforms to that approach. The reason I gave for his grade is that I think he sings the song terribly. Isn’t that a worthwhile reason?
Sometime in the wake of Nickel Creek’s first album (and due in part to its success, I’m nearly certain), a sibling group called Malibu Storm put out a self-titled album… although theirs featured only one instrumental track.
Anyway, the lead single from that album was a cover of Def Leppard’s “Photograph”, and you can find the promotional video on YouTube. At the time, of course, the Shania Twain / “Mutt” Lange nexus was releasing invincible country and pop crossovers, and one of the band members noted the oddity of a fully pop/rock vintage Lange-penned number being reworked as a country tune.
Unfortunately, in my opinion, the song itself is so ill-suited to the adaptation that the result sounds more like a novelty than a fully realized cover… and there is no redemption to be found in the laconic, humorless production or the pedestrian vocals.
The pedestrian vocals were what sunk the entire album for me, in fact, so much so that I posted a rather blistering review of it on some forum (a google search suggests that, thankfully, it has been lost in the aether) back when I was young(er) and stupid(er) and fancied myself an authority on the genre.
I’d like to second the mention for Kevin Sharp’s “Nobody Knows”. I can’t help but love that one!
Some others of note:
On the upside:
ALWAYS ON MY MIND (Willie Nelson)–I don’t know how many remember, but this, which is Willie’s biggest pop crossover hit (reaching #5 in June 1982) is a reworking of a song Elvis recorded back in 1972 when his marriage to Priscilla was falling apart. Willie’s great version is his own, while it also pays homage to the King.
C’EST LA VIE (Emmylou Harris)–E.H.’s typically spunky reworking of Chuck Berry’s 1964 rocker shows how to put an original spin on a classic while still remaining true to the spirit of the original.
And on the downside:
AMIE (Lonestar)–I’ve always kind of felt that Lonestar was a second-rate version of Pure Prairie League and Poco; and then they go out and do a carbon copy of PPL’s 1975 C&W/rock classic that really adds nothing new to it. Also, Lonestar’s Richie MacDonald is rather inferior to PPL’s Craig Fuller as a lead vocalist (IMHO).
POOR, POOR, PITIFUL ME (Terri Clark)–Linda understood very well the blackly comic premise of this Warren Zevon-penned ode to gang rape and S&M. I don’t think Terri did, though; and her heavy vocal twang is, I think, inferior to the nasty and spunky vocal snarl Linda bought to the song in her classic 1977 recording of it.
Sierra Hull has a cover of “Someone Like You.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fpAZVpSnyY0
Little Big Town has been doing many great youtube covers and needs to record an album of ’em ‘stat’.
I’m going to say something about Toby Keith that I have rarely had any reason to say. He did do a fairly respectable version of “Sundown” earlier this year; and though it didn’t exceed the classic original by Gordon Lightfoot, which went to #1 on the Hot 100 and #13 on the C&W chart in the summer of 1974, it did show the kind of skill he could muster when he gets out of that hyper-patriot/redneck shtick of is.