The writer of several timeless country standards, Don Gibson put down his pen often enough to maintain a remarkable, decades-long career as a singer and performer.
His childhood was fraught with adversity. His railroad worker father died when he was just two years old, and his mother remarried a sharecropper. Gibson loathed the farm life, but also school, which he dropped out of after the second grade. Paralyzed with shyness and hindered by a speech impediment, his escapism was the music he heard on the radio.
As a teen, he learned guitar and modeled himself after other performers, paying the bills by hustling pool. His growing instrumental talent blossomed into a band. Formed in 1948, Sons of the Soil garnered enough attention to earn a spot on a popular radio show. It was there that Gibson’s individual talent shone through.
A Mercury Records producer heard them and issued four sides for them, but the band split up in 1949. After another stint in a band called the King Cotton Kinfolks, Gibson pursued a solo career. A deal with Columbia resulted in promising records, but no commercial success. Gibson focused on his songwriting, and honing his craft earned him a publishing deal with Acuff-Rose. He insisted in an accompanying recording contract, which he received from MGM Records.
After a long wait, the hits came fast. Over the course of the next few years, he wrote and recorded songs that are now synonymous with country music. “Sweet Dreams” was his first top ten hit, and later was immortalized by Patsy Cline. “Oh Lonesome Me” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You” were a powerful two-sided hit on both the country and pop charts. While the former became Gibson’s signature song, the latter is now considered a Ray Charles classic. Meanwhile, “Just One Time” was a #2 hit two times. Gibson took it near the top in 1960, and Connie Smith revived it in 1971.
The hits slowed in the sixties and seventies, but still remained constant. He had a series of successful duets with Dottie West, most notably the #2 hit “Ring of Gold.” In 1972, he returned to #1 for the first time in fourteen years with “Woman (Sensuous Woman),” later covered by Mark Chesnutt. He spent much of the seventies collaborating with Sue Thompson, charting eleven songs together from 1971 to 1976.
From the eighties up until his death in 2003, Gibson remained an Opry performer and elder statesman of the genre. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2003, a nice bookend to his Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame induction back in 1971.
Even among the new traditionalists of the early nineties, Mark Chesnutt stood out as a traditionalist, bringing pure country to the radio dial for more than a decade.
Chesnutt was born into a musical family, as the son of singer Bob Chesnutt. Born and raised in Beaumont, Texas, he quickly became a fixture on the local country music scene. His dad encouraged the music bug, and while still in his early twenties, he was already recording for local independent labels. His debut album, Doing My Country Thing, was released in 1988 on Axbar Records.
Chesnutt headlined at the Beaumont club Cutter’s, a joint that would also launch the career of Tracy Byrd. His growing popularity garnered buzz in Nashville, and he landed a recording contract with MCA. He was a big hit right out of the gate, scoring a top five hit with the now-classic weeper, “Too Cold at Home.”
Chesnutt’s album of the same title went platinum, and featured an additional four top ten hits. His next two releases extended his streak to twelve consecutive top ten hits, including several #1 singles. One of those chart-toppers was a cover of the fairly obscure Hank Wililams Jr. single, “I’ll Think of Something.” Chesnutt’s musical knowledge helped him flesh out many of his studio albums with lesser-known tracks from classic country artists.
The industry recognized Chesnutt’s talent with the CMA Horizon Award in 1993, and radio remained firmly on board throughout the next few years. As the genre moved toward a more crossover sound, Chesnutt remained firmly planted in traditional country music, releasing classic singles like “Almost Goodbye”, “Thank God For Believers”, and “Goin’ Through the Big D.”
His last big hit was a surprising one: a cover of the Aerosmith pop hit, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.” Even with strings, however, the end result was more classic Nashville sound than anything close to pop.
After departing MCA, Chesnutt had a brief stint on Columbia. Since the mid-2000′s, he’s scored a handful of radio hits on independent labels, the most recent being a top thirty cover of Charlie Rich’s “Rollin’ With the Flow.” He received astonishing critical acclaim for his 2004 set, Savin’ the Honky Tonk, and has earned good notices for his 2010 cover album, Outlaw.
Chesnutt is still touring actively, and his most recent release is Live From the Big “D”, a concert set recorded in Dallas.
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?
Any song that starts with a guitar melody so eerily reminiscent of Rosanne Cash’s “Blue Moon With Heartache” is going to reel me in right away. Throw in an understated production that recalls early Alan Jackson, and the fact that Corbin is an actual country singer instead of just a country personality, and things get even better.
The song is beautiful. Really, really beautiful. Like so many great country ballads, someone who’s been left alone because a relationship failed can relate to it just as well as someone who has been left alone because they’re a widow. On the verses, Corbin sounds so good that he could’ve sent this to radio in 1992 and stood tall among the Mark Chesnutts and Collin Rayes of that time.
But there’s a big flaw, and that’s his over-singing in the choruses. Remember how John Michael Montgomery strained his voice when he wanted to show intense emotion? He’s doing that, with less impressive results. It’s not enough to sink the record, of course. There are so many strong elements that even a weak delivery in some parts can’t stop it from being a good record. But it does keep it from being truly great.
Written by Carson Chamberlain, Clinton Daniels, and Jeff Hyde
Google “Gary Harrison songwriter” and you won’t find a website or MySpace. There’s not even a Wikipedia article. Don’t know where he’s from, how he got into songwriting or what he likes to eat for dinner.
As far as I know, he has never made an album. When he co-writes a song, does he write the music or the lyrics or a little of both? Don’t know. He’s a Grammy nominated songwriter as co-writer of “Strawberry Wine”, the 1997 CMA Song of the Year, and has penned many BMI Award-Winning Songs. It appears that his first big hit was “Lying in Love with You”, written with Dean Dillon for Jim Ed Brown and Helen Cornelius. The duet went to #2 in 1979.
Since there is so little data to draw from, a chronological treatment of his illustrious career would be difficult. I’ve decided instead to begin with the collaboration Gary is best known for, his work with Matraca Berg, and then continue with his other significant songwriting collaborations.
In his excellent Favorite Songs by Favorite Songwriters article on Matraca Berg, Kevin gave us his favorite 25 songs written by Berg. Gary Harrison has frequently collaborated with Matraca. On Kevin’s list the following 9 songs are written by Berg/Harrison:
#25 Wild Angels – Martina McBride
#22 Give Me Some Wheels – Suzy Bogguss
#20 Demolition Angel – Pam Tillis
#19 Everybody Knows – Trisha Yearwood
#10 Strawberry Wine – Deana Carter
#7 Wrong Side of Memphis – Trisha Yearwood
#5 Diamonds and Tears – Suzy Bogguss
#4 Dreaming Fields – Trisha Yearwood
#3 My Heart Will Never Break This Way Again – Patty Loveless
Give a read to Kevin’s write-up for all 25. Kevin asked for comments from his readers on their favorite Matraca Berg songs. In the 29 comments received, three more collaborations with Gary were mentioned that didn’t make Kevin’s cut, including “Hey Cinderella” and “Eat at Joe’s” by Suzy Bogguss and Pinmonkey’s “That Train Don’t Run”.
“Hey Cinderella” is from Suzy’s 1993 CD, Something Up My Sleeve. Fantasy turns into “dreams that lost their way” by the end of the first long verse. In the second verse, reality sets in. In “Eat at Joe’s”, from her 1992 CD, Voices in the Wind, Suzy’s sounds like a sultry waitress in an all night diner – “here’s a hot top on your coffee, honey you’re a mess, I ain’t your wife I ain’t your momma, but I’ll do I guess”. The bridge is a wistful but not really hopeful call out to prince charming.
My favorite Pinmonkey song is still “Barbed Wire and Roses”, but “That Train Don’t Run”, from their 2006 Big Shiny Cars CD, isn’t far behind. It’s up-tempo like Barbed Wire. It was also a single for Matraca Berg from her 1997 “Sunday Morning to Saturday Night” cd. The singer recalls a former lover who may have been a bit on the wild side. It must be “your memory rattlin’ the shutters, that train don’t run by here no more”. The next line is “I lie and listen to the last boxcar, sweet dreams baby wherever you are”. Love that last phrase. Sounds like something Bogie might have said.
A bit of trivia: I wonder how many times that last phrase, “sweet dreams baby, wherever you are”, has been used in a song. In addition to the Pinmonkey song, I found it in “Goodnight”, written by Charlie Black and Dana Hunt, from Suzy Bogguss’ self-titled 1999 CD. The last line of the chorus is “I’m signing off, sweet dreams baby, wherever you are”. A song by Jedd Hughes, “Time to Say Goodnight” has “sweet dreams baby, sweet dreams baby wherever you are tonight”. It was written by Hughes, Tommy Lee James and Terry McBride and can be found on Hughes’ 2004 CD, Transcontinental. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone else finds another instance.
I found another Berg/Harrison collaboration but this time with Jeff Hanna on a Chely Wright song, “Emma Jean’s Guitar”. It’s an album track from Chely’s 1997 Let Me In CD, which featured “Shut Up and Drive”. The story tells of a guitar with Emma Jean’s name etched in the finish found in a pawnshop. The singer wonders about Emma Jean’s hopes and dreams and feels that she’s the guardian of her guitar.
Gary has written quite a few great songs without Matraca. Another frequent co-writer for Gary has been Tim Mensy. My favorite Mensy-Harrison collaboration is Trisha Yearwood’s “Nearest Distant Shore”, an album track from her 1992 Hearts in Armor CD. It’s a song about getting out of a bad relationship: “You did your best but “the one you swore to love is pulling you down, you’re in over your head, chilled to the bone by the waters you’ve tread, chart a course to land before you drown”.
“That Wasn’t Me” was an excellent album track for Martina McBride on her 1993 CD, The Way That I Am. She knows that the guy is still hurting from the memory of an old girlfriend. She tells him “that wasn’t me”. It’s time to move on because she “can no longer pay the price” of his not letting go.
For fans of Mark Chesnutt, there’s “I Just Wanted You to Know”, a #1 song in ’94 from the CD Almost Goodbye and a #6 the same year, “She Dreams”, from What a Way to Live. Other Mensy Harrison collaborations include Doug Stone’s “I Thought It Was You”, a #4 in 1991, “A Singer in the Band”, an album track on Joe Nichol’s Revelation CD in 2004, and a Mark Wills song “Any Fool Can say Goodbye”.
With J.D. Martin, Gary Harrison wrote “Rollin’ Lonely”, a Johnny Lee song from his “Workin’ for a Livin’ ” album, which reached #9 on the charts in 1985, “Domestic Life”, a John Conlee #4 hit from his “American Faces” album in 1987, “Two Car Garage”, a #3 hit in 1983 from the B.J. Thomas album “The Great American Dream” and “Broken Toys”, a song about child abuse from BJ’s 1985 album “Throwin’ Rocks at the Moon”. The last song was written with Gloria Thomas as well as J.D.
Gary co-wrote 3 songs with Tammy Cochran from her “Thirty Something and Single” album released in June of 2009, the title track, “It’s All Over But the Leaving” and “He Really Thinks He’s Got It”.
With Karen Staley, he wrote “Face in the Crowd” which peaked at #4, a duet with Michael Martin Murphey and Holly Dunn from the former’s 1987 “Americana” album and “Now and Then” which Michelle Wright took to #9 in Canada.
Some other Gary Harrison songs are:
- “I Hate Everything” written with Keith Stegall, a #1 for George Strait in 2005. Check out the wake-up call at the end.
- “Alone Some” with Billy Yates, an album track for Billy from his 2005 album “Harmony Man”.
- “Crazy Me” and “I Do It for Your Love” with Richard Marx, from the Kenny Rogers 2000 CD There You Go Again.
Impressive list and I’ve probably missed some songs. If you search BMI.com, you’ll find 918 work titles for Gary Harrison. He’s been so busy, he probably hasn’t had time to set up a website or MySpace.
This Keith Whitley classic was recorded as part of a tribute album to the late country star. It became a hit all over again, perhaps because Krauss performed it in a near-whisper. The quiet arrangement matches the sentiment beautifully. – Kevin Coyne
Lawrence dishes on his ex’s cheating ways to her new potential lover. How did she get that way? He reveals that he’s the one who taught her everything she knows from the cheater’s playbook. Moreover, he seems regretful of her corruption. – Leeann Ward
Cowboy Take Me Away Dixie Chicks
1999 | Peak: #1
In a modern world where life can so easily feel cold and mechanical, love remains earthy and exciting and mysterious. It’s a window into a different world, one where we’re not defined by the predictables of our routine – the same stresses, the same cars and buildings – but by our core nature as people, our place in the greater fabric of Earth and, perhaps, heaven. On the surface, “Cowboy Take Me Away” sounds like just a sugar-sweet love song – I’ve even heard it called “pre-feminist” – but there’s something else going on here: a plea for life to have meaning again. – Dan Milliken (more…)
Many a star was launched in the nineties, a few of them right out of the gate. This section includes the debut singles from Toby Keith, Jo Dee Messina, LeAnn Rimes, and Doug Stone, along with Grammy-winning hits by Alison Krauss and Dwight Yoakam.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #100-#76
The Battle Hymn of Love Kathy Mattea & Tim O’Brien
1990 | Peak: #9
Sure, the novelty of thirteen year-old Rimes’ prodigious Patsy imitation helped things along. But that unshakable yodeled hook would have made “Blue” a classic in any era of country music. – Dan Milliken (more…)
The hits come from all over the place here. Breakthrough hits from Trace Adkins and Carlene Carter join one-hit wonders Brother Phelps and George Ducas. And alongside crafty covers of songs by sixties rock band The Searchers and nineties country artist Joy Lynn White, you can also find tracks from three diamond-selling country albums.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #200-#176
Carrying Your Love With Me George Strait
1997 | Peak: #1
A traveler gets through his lonely nights on the sheer strength of love. It’s perhaps a little too saccharine for some, but the sweet melody and Strait’s understated vocals make the record work. – Tara Seetharam
A man sits around in a bar “talking ’bout the good old times, bragging on how it used to be.” Standard premise, but Black’s melancholy performance lifts the record to Haggardly heights. – Dan Milliken (more…)
At least the third song on this list about a guy mulling over romantic gestures he wishes he’d made to his former love, and the most traditional among those songs. You could easily imagine this one being a minor classic by a 60′s or 70′s legend, so close is its replication of that style. – Dan Milliken
I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying Toby Keith with Sting
1997 | Peak: #2
My hard-and-fast rule for Toby Keith: The sadder he is, the happier the listening experience tends to be. He’s all kinds of sad in this snapshot of post-divorce melancholia, reflecting on everything from unfair custody protocol to the greater motions of the universe. Even a gratuitous Sting cameo can’t detract from the single’s gloomy grandeur. – DM
You Ain’t Much Fun Toby Keith
1995 | Peak: #2
Toby Keith is also funny, though. What’s a man to do? Sobering up ain’t all that it’s cracked up to be from is perspective. Ever since he’s done so, his wife has been taking advantage of his increased functionality by giving him honey-do lists that he wasn’t ably tackling pre-sobriety. It’s enough to drive a man to drink. – Leeann Ward
Tender Moment Lee Roy Parnell
1993 | Peak: #2
Every once and awhile an artist delivers a song so powerful that it seems to shatter all divides in its genre. A tribute to both the late Keith Whitley and Gill’s late brother, “Go Rest High On That Mountain” pairs deeply spiritual lyrics with a tender, emotion-soaked performance. The combination is magic. – TS
A good power ballad shot to greatness by its artists’ striking chemistry – palpable, fiery and so very genuine. More than just a hit single, “It’s Your Love” represents the moment in country music history at which we were introduced to one of its definitive couples. – TS
Grandpa Told Me So Kenny Chesney
1995 | Peak: #23
An earnest, soulful confession of love. It’s hard to ignore the fact that it leans more in the adult-contemporary direction than that of anything else, but when a song is this moving, it’s also hard to care. – TS
What She’s Doing Now Garth Brooks
1992 | Peak: #1
In an unusual tact for Mr. Brooks, he forgoes melodrama in order to allow the natural drama of pining for a lost love to speak for itself. The dialed down performance works in the service of the song, as the sadness appropriately penetrates through. – LW
Find My Way Back to My Heart Alison Krauss & Union Station
1997 | Peak: #73
Some of the best songs from AKUS play on the home life that’s sacrificed by following the musical dream. Krauss remembers how she used to laugh at songs about the lonely traveling life, but she’s not laughing now. – KC
A man makes a soaring yet understated plea for his lover to let go of her past love. The song is made sadder by the touch of resignation in Wariner’s performance, which suggests the man knows he’s making his plea in vain. – TS
A whole song about deciding whether or not to go all the way with one’s movie date. McCready gives a fantastically entertaining performance, speak-singing her lines with a a bold campiness that most other gals wouldn’t dare. – DM
Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow Alan Jackson
1990 | Peak: #2
Ten years before “You Belong With Me” made its splash, McCann set her sights on the same demographic with a song just as relatable, vibrant and passionate. That the song lacks Taylor Swift’s sharp perspective is perhaps what makes it such a great record: there’s something so pure about McCann’s fully unapologetic, headfirst fall into love. – TS
Chesnutt makes a phone call to an old love that could be construed as creepy, pathetic or terribly sad – take your pick. I’m going with a mixture of all three, with a pinch of selfishness thrown in. Either way, “I Just Wanted You to Know” is a memorable slice of the-one-that-got-away reality.- TS
In the twenty years that passed since the release of this song, the path to success in the music industry has morphed into something that looks very different than it used to. Unlike that of Bobby in the song, these days an artist’s journey can come in all shapes and forms, sometimes abrupt and sometimes completely unprecedented.
Think what you want about this paradigm shift, but here’s what I believe: regardless of how you shoot to the top, the only way you’ll achieve longevity and, most importantly, respect in country music is if you share the fire in Bobby’s eyes. This soul-stirring hunger and unshakable passion is the heart of “I’m Gonna Be Somebody” and the reason it remains a timeless classic. Here’s to hoping – and I’m optimistic – our modern artists are made of the same stuff. – TS
The second segment of our countdown includes the first appearances by Garth Brooks and Reba McEntire, two of the biggest-selling stars of the decade.
#375 How Do I Get There Deana Carter
1997 | Peak: #1
It’s always a gamble when friends decide to take their relationship to the next level. “How Do I Get There” explores the struggle of following one’s heart, even though it’s taking a big emotional risk to do so. – Leeann Ward
If I Could Make a Living Clay Walker
1994 | Peak: #1
This song is either ridiculously cheesy or irresistibly cheesy depending on your taste, but there’s no denying Walker sells the heck out of it with charm and enthusiasm. – Tara Seetharam
It Sure is Monday Mark Chesnutt
1993 | Peak: #1
Mark Chesnutt is one of the best male vocalists of the nineties, but there were many times when he did not always rise to the challenge of conveying the energy to elevate a decent song to a good one. Case in point: “Friends in Low Places”, which was eventually properly energized by Garth Brooks. “It Sure Is Monday”, however, is a positive example of Chesnutt actually making a song his own by demonstrating the ability to breathe life into a decent song and make it really good. – LW (more…)