From the vantage point of history, he is the indisputable King of Rock & Roll. But he earned that title through his ability to perform country, blues, and R&B successfully, and it is often his impact as a country artist that is most easily overlooked.
Presley was born into deep poverty in Mississippi, laying the groundwork for his exposure to American roots music. By his teenage years, he was living in Memphis, and it is in that city where he would be discovered by Sun Records owner Sam Phillips. His work for Sun Records cannot be overstated in its significance. On those early recordings, he brought together elements of country, blues, and R&B into a sound called rockabilly, which created the very foundation for what would soon be known as rock and roll. His cover of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” was among these early recordings, as were his first big country hits: “Baby, Let’s Play House”, “I Forgot to Remember to Forget”, and “Mystery Train.”
Good news for three legends of the genre, one of whom we lost to cancer only four years ago:
Ronnie Milsap, Mac Wiseman and the late Hank Cochran are the newest members of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Wiseman got his start in music after contracting polio as a child, which kept him out of the fields in his native Virginia. He was an original member of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys, made his Grand Ole Opry debut with Bill Monroe, was an executive with the influential Nashville independent label Dot Records and a founding board member of the Country Music Association.Milsap, inducted in the modern era category, was an established talent by the time he arrived in Nashville in the 1970s. He’d played in J.J. Cale’s band in the early 1960s and moved to Memphis to work with Chips Moman at the hit-making American Studios, where he worked with Elvis Presley, among others, before accepting an invitation to go to Nashville to record for RCA Records.
It was something of an experiment for Milsap, known as an R&B and rock singer, but he made sure he had a regular gig before he hit town, playing nightly at Roger Miller’s King of the Road Hotel.
He found country fans were open to his style, and he went on to win several Grammy Awards, the CMA’s entertainer of the year award in 1977 and four album of the year awards between 1975 and 1986.
Cochran, who is being inducted posthumously in the songwriter category, probably secured his place in country music history when he got Willie Nelson a songwriting job at Pamper Music by forgoing his own raise.
He wrote the Ray Price standard “Make the World Go Away” and Patsy Cline’s second most-memorable song, “I Fall to Pieces” (following Nelson’s own “Crazy”), among many others.
He died in 2010 of pancreatic cancer shortly after a touching bedside singalong that included friends Jamey Johnson, Buddy Cannon and Billy Ray Cyrus.
Long before Anne Murray and Shania Twain achieved worldwide fame, Hank Snow crossed over the Canadian border and became a country music superstar.
Snow was a child runaway, escaping home at age twelve and finding solace in the music of Jimmie Rodgers. The four years he spent traveling before returning home laid the foundation for the realism that would bleed into the traveling songs he became famous for. Snow built up a following in Nova Scotia, and then made the move to Halifax. Living in the city caused great financial hardship for Snow and his young wife, but his unpaid appearances gave him enough notoriety to finally earn some paying gigs.
Throughout the forties, his success grew in Canada. He had several local country hits and became a popular radio performer throughout his native country. But it took him much longer to get a shot in America, where his RCA label refused to release his work until he became better known in the states. He got his stateside break when Ernest Tubb invited him to the Opry stage, and that was enough to convince RCA to release his music in America.
After many years of toiling in obscurity, he was a huge success out of the gate. Snow’s honky-tonk sound and worldly lyrics dominated the charts throughout the fifties, with many of his singles topping the charts for weeks on end. “I’m Moving On” is tied with two other hits as the longest-running #1 single in Billboard history, spending 21 weeks at the top, and “I Don’t Hurt Anymore” is close behind, spending twenty weeks in the penthouse.
He had many other classic hits in this decade, most notably “Yellow Roses” and “Let Me, Go Lover!” After forming a management company with Colonel Tom Parker, Snow was influential in encouraging Elvis Presley to record country music, and dabbled in some rockabilly himself, though he rarely strayed too far from his country roots.
Even as the Nashville Sound began to dominate, Snow remained relevant, scoring big hits throughout the sixties and early seventies, most notably the #1 hits “I’ve Been Everywhere” in 1962 and “Hello Love” in 1974. Snow released many LPs that were united in themes like traveling and tragedy, and also many that paid tribute to his musical influences like Rodgers and the Sons of the Pioneers.
As his career winded down through the latter half of the seventies, Snow was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1978 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1979. In 1981, he parted ways with RCA after forty-five years, but he remained an active performer on the Opry stage well into the nineties, before his death in 1999 at age 85.
A young talent from Arkansas that developed from an in-demand session musician into a frontman for the ages.
Glen Campbell played guitar from the age of four. He picked up instrumental guidance from jazz records while developing his vocal skills at church. By his teenage years, he was already playing in country bands throughout Arkansas, and by age eighteen, he had his own country band called the Western Wranglers.
Looking for work, he moved to California in his early twenties, where he became a popular session musician, playing on records by Elvis Presley, Merle Haggard, Frank Sinatra, and the Monkees. He played live gigs backing up established artists, while also pushing his own solo career, which was aided greatly by his touring with the Beach Boys. Their Capitol label signed Campbell to a deal, and after working diligently throughout the sixties, he would end the decade as a huge star.
Campbell released a string of classic hits and albums from 1967-1969, including several gold singles and LPs. His dual success on the pop and country charts with “By the cialis tablets foreign Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman”, and “Galveston”, made him a household name, and he dominated at all three major industry award shows. His By the Time I Get to Phoenix set remains one of the only country albums in history to win the Grammy for Album of the Year, and his CBS show, The Glen Campbell Good Time Hour, further cemented his popularity.
The hits slowed down as the seventies rolled in, though Campbell had well-received duets with Bobbie Gentry and Anne Murray. Alcohol and substance abuse contributed to this decline, but despite battling those demons, he managed a brief comeback in the middle of the decade. A pair of crossover hits topped both the country and pop charts: “Rhinestone Cowboy” and “Southern Nights.” Both became signature songs for him, and helped get his radio career back on track.
Campbell would remain an inconsistent but regular presence on country radio until the late eighties, a decade that saw him conquer his addictions and become a born-again Christian. In the nineties, he penned his autobiography, Rhinestone Cowboy, and opened a wildly popular theater in Branson, Missouri. While this decade was intended to begin his retirement, Campbell remained a passionate live performer, and he won several awards for his inspirational albums.
Campbell was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005, but soon demonstrated that his music career wasn’t quite through yet. In 2008, he returned to Capitol records and released Meet Glen Campbell, his first new country album in fifteen years. A diagnosis with Alzheimer’s inspired 2011′s farewell project, Ghost on the Canvas, which was hailed as one of his finest works. He followed the album with a bittersweet farewell tour that is intended to bring an end to his public appearances upon his completion.
A cornerstone of country, southern rock, and gospel music, Charlie Daniels and his fiddle have made an indelible impact on the fabric of American music.
Born and raised in North Carolina, Daniels first achieved notoriety through his astonishing fiddling talent. Since he was also efficient with a guitar, he started off by assembling the instrumental band the Jaguars. They played throughout the late fifties and early sixties, and were signed to Epic Records for a period of time. While the band was slowly fizzling out, Daniels got his first taste of real success as a songwriter and a backing musician. Elvis Presley recorded his composition, “It Hurts Me”, in 1963. By the end of the sixties, Daniels had played on the seminal Bob Dylan album Nashville Skyline, and toured with Leonard Cohen.
His recording career entered full stride in the seventies. After a self-titled solo album in 1970, Daniels expanded his act into the Charlie Daniels Band. In this incarnation, Daniels would enjoy his greatest notoriety as a singer, songwriter, and performer. By deftly tackling societal issues from a fiercely Southern perspective, Daniels added powerful and remarkably effective social commentary to his songs, surrounding his worldview with scorching fiddle.
A series of classic singles like “Uneasy Rider”, “The South’s Gonna Do It”, and “Long Haired Country Boy” firmly established Charlie Daniels and his band as a force to be reckoned with. After a series of critically acclaimed albums that sold well, the band reached its peak of mainstream success in 1979, with “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” It became Daniels’ biggest hit on both the country and the pop charts, and powered Million Mile Reflections to sales of over three million in the United States alone.
Daniels and his band coasted on their success throughout the eighties, touring extensively and continuing to score country hits, along with the occasional pop crossover. Some of his most high-profile hits remained political in nature, most notably “Still in Saigon”, his remarkable attempt to shed light on the Vietnam War veterans struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In 1989, he had his last major commercial success with the band’s album, Simple Man. Though the title track just missed the country top ten, the vigilante hit received wide media exposure, and pushed sales of the album to platinum status.
For the past two decades, Daniels has remained a widely popular draw on the road, and a widely respected media star, appearing regularly on political talk shows to share his views on issues of the day. Always a fan of gospel music, he’s released several spiritual sets in recent years. Songs from the Longleaf Pines, a bluegrass gospel collection from 2005, was released to overwhelming praise. In 2007, he became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Always a patriot, his latest release is 2010′s Land That I Love, which features a handful of new songs alongside his many America-themed songs from the past.
One of the great crooners of the post-war era, Red Foley helped build a crucial bridge between the country music of the mountains and the Nashville Sound of the sixties.
Born Clyde Foley in 1910, his hair color earned him the nickname Red. His professional career was launched by a talent show win at age 17. As a freshman in college, he was discovered by a talent scout and invited to join the house band of the National Barn Dance. He released his first recordings in the mid-thirties, and by the end of that decade, he was the first country artist to host a nationally broadcast radio show, which he co-hosted with Red Skelton. During this period, Foley wrote “Ol’ Shep”, which would be recorded by many major artists, including Elvis Presley and Hank Snow.
Following World War II, he entered a period of stunning success in many media formats, earning himself the title Mr. Country Music. Throughout the forties and fifties, his recording career was incredibly successful, highlighted by collaborations with his band, the Cumberland Valley Boys, and fellow artists like Lawrence Welk, Ernest Tubb, and Kitty Wells. Several of his songs are now country classics, most notably “Smoke on the Water,” “Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy,” and “(There’ll Be) Peace in the Valley (For Me).”
Beginning in 1946, he emceed the Prince Albert Show, which broadcast a portion of the Grand Ole Opry’s show every week. His profile was raised even more significantly by the Ozark Jubilee, the fifties network television show that Foley hosted for many years. His television fame helped bring his smooth style of country music to a very broad audience, though Foley never actively pursued the pop music scene.
Indeed, his country records decreased in popularity as the Nashville Sound took root, though his gospel recordings remained quite popular. The sixties found him guesting on sitcoms and talk shows, while he continued to tour the world as part of the Grand Ole Opry cast. In 1967, Foley was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, an achievement that was sadly overshadowed one year later by his untimely death at age 58.
Today, Foley’s name is not as recognizable as many of his contemporaries, but it takes only one listen to his signature songs to immediately grasp the impact he had on the development of contemporary country music.
A first class singer, songwriter, and musician, Jerry Reed’s talents ran far deeper than his tongue-in-cheek persona might have indicated.
Born and raised in Georgia, Reed played guitar from an early age. Music brought him comfort and structure during a childhood of instability. By the time he was out of high school, he was already signed to Capitol Records. Though he released several singles over the next few years, it was his songwriting and guitar playing that first earned him notice.
Throughout the late fifties and the sixties, his songs were recorded by Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, Johnny Cash, Brenda Lee, and others. He also became an in-demand session guitarist, with a career highlight being the sessions he played with Presley, who feel in love with Reed when he heard his 1967 single, “Guitar Man.”
A strong working relationship with Chet Atkins led to a contract with RCA and further raised Reed’s profile. By the late sixties, Reed was getting critical notice for his own records. He had his big breakthrough in 1970, when “Amos Moses” became a gold-selling pop and country hit. In 1971, ‘When You’re Hot, You’re Hot” became his first #1 country single and another big pop hit.
Throughout the seventies, Reed matched popular singles and albums with high profile media exposure. He was a regular on Glen Campbell’s television show, and he appeared in several films. His greatest notoriety came as Cledus Snow in the wildly popular Smokey and the Bandit film series. “East Bound and Down” was recorded for the soundtrack of the first film, and became one of his biggest hits.
Reed’s recording career had a second wind when he released the 1982 album The Man with the Golden Thumb. Often rated as his strongest studio album, it featured the classic hit “She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft).” Reed quickly followed with the hit album, The Bird. The title track had him mimicking both George Jones and Willie Nelson, and the album also featured a hit cover of the Creedence Clearwater Revival song, “Down on the Corner.”
The nineties brought a fun collaboration with Mel Tillis, Bobby Bare, and Waylon Jennings, a live album dubbed Old Dogs. Reed also starred as the coach in the box office smash, The Waterboy. Illness sidelined him as he aged, and he passed away in 2008 due to complications caused by emphyzema.
Guitar Man, 1967
Amos Moses, 1970
When You’re Hot, You’re Hot, 1971
Lord, Mr. Ford, 1973
East Bound and Down, 1977
She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft), 1982
The Unbelievable Guitar and Voice of Jerry Reed, 1967
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
As with her take on “Imagine” decades later, Parton’s cover of the now-classic Elvis Presley single “In the Ghetto” is fatally flawed.
In both cases, Parton’s humanity makes the song resonate with her, but her performance indicates that she doesn’t understand the worldview that the lyrics are written from.
“Imagine” makes the case that the way to world peace is to reject religion, nationalism, and capitalism. Parton’s self-written work demonstrates that she believes all three of those are essential.
“In the Ghetto” documents the inevitable human cost of crippling, systemic urban poverty. Replace “urban” with “rural”, and you’re on Parton’s turf. But the urban experience is clearly still too foreign to her at this point in her career.
Long story short: When a multiple Hall of Famer is outsung by Eric Cartman, you know this isn’t one of her essential efforts.
As I’m sure the rest of you do, I make playlists all the time. Many of them are lists of individual artists, but some of them have a concept.
My latest playlist is of covers. First, I have the original version (or the one that’s famous for being the original) followed by my favorite cover of it. My only rule is that I have to like both versions. So, songs where I like the cover but not the original won’t make the list.
I’ll share a sampling of what I have so far, as long as you share your latest or greatest concept playlist in the comments:
1. Buddy Miller, “Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go” (Miranda Lambert)
2. Hank Williams, “Hey, Good Lookin’” (The Mavericks)
3. Elvis Presley, “Suspicious Minds (Dwight Yoakam)
4. Dolly Parton, “Coat of Many Colors (Shania Twain/Alison Krauss)
5. Waylon Jennings, “Dreaming My Dreams with You” (Alison Krauss and Union Station)
6. Johnny Cash, “Understand Your Man” (Dwight Yoakam)
7. Merle Haggard, “The Way I Am” (Alan Jackson)
8. John Prine, “That’s the Way the World Goes ‘Round” (Miranda Lambert)
9. John Anderson, “Swingin’” (LeAnn Rimes)
10. Buddy Miller, “Don’t Tell Me” (Alicia Nugent)
11. Kasey Chambers, “Pony” (Ashley Monroe)
12. Tammy Wynette, “Stand by Your Man” (Dixie Chicks)
13. Bill Monroe, “Blue Moon of Kentucky” (John Fogerty)
14. Conway Twitty, “Goodbye Time” (Blake Shelton)
15. Hank Williams, “I Saw the Light” (Blind Boys of Alabama/ Hank Williams Jr.)
16. Bob Dylan, “Shelter from the Storm” (Rodney Crowell/Emmylou Harris)
17. Merle Haggard, “Today I Started Loving You Again” (Buddy Jewell/Miranda Lambert)
18. Nitty Gritty Dirtband, “Fishing in the Dark” (Garth Brooks)
19. The White Stripes, “Dead Leaves in the Dirty Ground” (Chris Thile)
20. Al Green, “Lets Stay Together” (John Berry)
21. David Allan Coe, “You Never Even Called Me by My Name” (Doug Supernaw)
22. The Decemberists, “Shankill Butchers” (Sarah Jarosz
23. Steve Earle, “My Old Friend the Blues” (Patty Loveless)
24. Eric Clapton, “Lay Down Sally” (Delbert McClinton)
25. Fred Eaglesmith, “Time to Get a Gun” (Miranda Lambert)
26. Dolly Parton, “Jolene” (The White Stripes)
27. Johnny Cash, “I Still Miss Someone” (Suzy Bogguss)
28. Pearl Jam, “Better Man” (Sugarland)
29. Kris Kristofferson, “From the Bottle to the Bottom” (Dierks Bentley/Kris Kristofferson)
30. Don Williams, “Lord, I hope this Day is Good” (Lee Ann Womack)
31. Bob Dylan, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s all right” (Randy Travis)