Needless to say, I was taken aback by the disco beat when I finally heard Summer's original version.
I haven't been writing much lately, but I couldn't let the passing of this timeless talent go by without comment. Like Houston before her, she was a great singer who went too soon, and country music's legacy was just a little bit richer for her passing through.
You know what's one of the best ways for a contemporary country song to worm its way into my heart? To display a mature and insightful perspective, or to tap into some universal truth, while dressing itself up with the catchiest of melodies and hooks.
That particular sweet spot is one that the female artists in country music tend to hit more often than the males – See “Deep Down,”“Hey Cinderella,” and “The Fear of Being Alone” for case studies. However, Tim McGraw's 1999 chart-topper “Something Like That” hits it, and hits it dead-on.
The song recounts the narrator's youthful experience of falling in love for the very first time at age seventeen. The verses are replete with little details – a barbecue stain, a miniskirt, a suntan line, etc. Such details may seem to have little meaning, but in this particular context, they mean everything. In the second verse, the narrator has a chance encounter with his old flame while traveling on a plane, where she says “I bet you don't remember me, to which he replies “Only every other memory,” thus assuring her that she is hardly forgotten. “Like an old photograph, time can make a feeling fade,” he sings during the bridge, “but the memory of a first love never fades away.”
Through its vivid, detail-laden approach, the lyric effectively hones in on the fact that the experience of one's first love is, in itself, unforgettable. Every little aspect of the encounter feels significant in its own way, because it's a lifetime milestone that leaves a lasting impression. Indeed, “a heart don't forget something like that.”
The point is driven home by a sprightly piano hook, toe-tapping rhythm, and wildly catchy singalong-friendly chorus – a one-two punch that helps the record make an impression both as a great lyric and as a fun, catchy listen.
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?
Friday, May 5, 2006 – The Palace of Auburn Hills, Michigan. For Faith Hill, it was just another stop on her Soul2Soul II tour with her superstar husband Tim McGraw. For young 14-year-old Ben Foster, it was my very first live concert experience (or at least the first that did not entail bringing a picnic blanket), and it was one that I never forgot. I still have the ticket stub.
I became a Faith Hill fan at a young age, and I became an even bigger fan as I grew older. As I set about acquiring all six of her Warner Bros. studio albums, my admiration for this talented artist only grew. To one who knows Faith Hill only for crossover pop hits like “Breathe,” “This Kiss,” and “The Way You Love Me,” it might come as a bit of a surprise what a strong album artist she was. Besides that, she possessed genuine country sensibilities in addition to the pop diva persona that she became so well known for.
As I continue to eagerly await Faith Hill’s return with her seventh studio album, I’m thrilled to share my 25 personal favorites out of her eclectic catalog of tunes. Many of these songs were substantial hits, but I’ve also left off a few well-known singles in favor of some lesser-known hidden treasures. As always, please feel free to share your own favorites in the comments section.
“The Way You Love Me”
Now, don’t give me that look. We’re all entitled to a little guilty pleasure time, aren’t we? Look, I still don’t know what “If I could grant you one wish, I wish you could see the way you kiss” is supposed to mean, and I’m guessing you don’t either. But what I do know is that Faith Hill somehow managed to craft a ridiculously catchy piece of pop-country nonsense that had me hopelessly hooked ever since I first heard it over a decade ago. I couldn’t not love it if I tried.
Take Me As I Am, 1993
Faith’s 1993 debut single is an enjoyable and fitting introduction to a major talent. The lyrics portray a free-spirited teenage girl who, in addition to having a rebellious streak a mile wide, is a proactive go-getter who takes life as it comes. “Life is hard,” but she says “That’s all right.” It’s an effortlessly charming record, and yet at the same time, it almost seems like an hors d’oeuvre in comparison to the deep and insightful material Faith would tackle in the future.
“Sleeping with the Telephone” (with Reba McEntire)
Reba McEntire – Reba Duets, 2007
With this fantastic collaboration from Reba’s 2007 duets project, Faith and Reba play the parts of two neighbors, each of whom is married to a man who risks his life on a daily basis. Their circumstances are different, with one husband being a soldier and the other being a police officer, but each wife copes with the same troubling feelings of deep worry and anxiety. But honestly, this track is a shoo-in just for the pure pleasure of hearing Hill and McEntire, two of country’s most dynamic vocal powerhouses, paired together – trading verses and blending their voices in harmony on the soaring chorus.
“Let Me Let Go”
A brokenhearted woman tries to move on in the wake of a break-up, but is unable due to the unshakable feeling that they really were meant to be together. (“If this is for the best, why are you still in my heart, are you still in my soul?”)
“Someone Else’s Dream”
It Matters to Me, 1995
The story of a young woman gradually discovering her own distinct identity, and discovering that her parents’ hopes and dreams will never be hers. When the song reaches its final bridge, the young woman has firmly made her decision: “She’s got twenty-seven candles on her cake, and she means to make her life her own before there’s twenty-eight.”
“Love Ain’t Like That”
In a clever composition with some classic Matraca Berg lines, Faith debunks a series of mistaken ideas about what love is really about, while also underscoring the importance of commitment in a lasting relationship. Favorite lines: “You can’t buy it at the store, try it on for size, bring it back if it don’t feel right.… You can’t trade it in like an automobile that’s got too many miles and rust on the wheels.”
“Let’s Go to Vegas”
It Matters to Me, 1995
The unshakable joyfulness of “Suds In the Bucket” meets the wide-eyed charm and innocence of “She’s In Love with the Boy.” From the light airy arrangement to Faith’s enthusiastic performance, “Let’s Go to Vegas” embodies all of the youthful romantic excitement found in that one little moment of “Hey, I just had a crazy thought…”
The Hits, 2007
This one might have come across as an attempt to re-visit the power ballad euphoria of “Breathe,” which it might have been, but it carries an extra air of mystery that gives it a distinct identity separate from its predecessor, while the melody and performance make the song captivating on its own merits alone.
“What’s In It for Me”
On the kickoff track of Faith’s runaway success of an album, her performance sounds like the release of an eternity’s worth of pent-up fury. The aggressive country-rock production, combining awesome guitar work with some mighty fierce fiddling, added up to a record that sounded truly ferocious.
“The Secret of Life”
In this philosophical number written by the ever-excellent Gretchen Peters, several men drinking in a bar ponder over the fabled “Secret of Life,” eventually concluding that “The Secret of Life is nothing at all.” Faith’s half-sung, half-spoken performance brought the conversational tone to life, taking a song that was hardly radio-friendly, and turning it into a Top 5 hit.
A full-on pop power ballad in which Faith strikes the delicate balance of exercising her powerful pipes in a fiery delivery, while still retaining the emotional connectivity of a great country record. Her formidable vocal prowess is on full display, but even the biggest power notes are still colored with a deep emotional quiver.
Faith Hill took the pop-country power ballad to new heights with this cross-genre career-defining hit.
Regardless of how overexposed the song might have been, it’s a memorable record for the way it combines physical attraction with the warmth and comfort found in true love, while also displaying the increased power and fullness that Faith’s voice had acquired over the years.
“I Can’t Do That Anymore”
It Matters to Me, 1995
This Alan Jackson-penned ballad puts into song the frustration, exhaustion, and hurt of a sunken housewife worn down from constantly striving to please her unappreciative husband
“I Need You” (with Tim McGraw)
Tim McGraw – Let It Go, 2007
Of all Faith’s collaborations with her famous husband, this is one of the best. This was only their second full-fledged duet single (with their first being “Let’s Make Love”). The restrained arrangement lends a deeply intimate romantic feel to the record, while both vocalists give killer performances. Tim McGraw digs deep into his lower register, while Faith’s soaring performance elevates the record to greatness. Never before or since had their chemistry been captured as effectively as it is here.
This track served as one of the lighter moments on the mature and compelling collection of songs found on Faith’s Fireflies album. The plucked-out, nearly-hillbillyish country-bluegrass arrangement sounds worlds removed from polished crossover number like “Breathe.” In a song ripe with clever and silly lines, Faith steps into the minister’s shoes at a backwoods white trash wedding. The flirt of a bride is three months late, and the groom is “checkin’ out the bridesmaids, thinkin’ that he might take the maid of honor’s honor.” Fittingly, Faith ices the cake with a closing line of “Y’all come back now, ya hear?”
“A Man’s Home Is His Castle”
It Matters to Me, 1995
Listening to this song is like peeking in the windows of a home torn apart by domestic violence. “Castle” takes on an added level of realism in that it gives a voice to the battered woman, and even gives the couple names (Linda and Jim). The victimized woman is hurt, angry, and desperate, and every tortured emotion is conveyed in the lyrics, which make no attempt to tamper the song’s impact with a manufactured happy ending.
“Take Me As I Am”
Take Me As I Am, 1993
Could it be? A love song that brings maturity and self-realization to the table without sacrificing the joy and
giddiness of newfound romance? Faith delivers exactly that with the title track to her debut album, which includes standout lines like “I’d trade a million pretty words for one touch that is real,” as well as romantic lines like “Baby, don’t turn out the light… I wanna see you look at me.”
“Like We Never Loved At All”
A delicate piano intro with strains of steel set the tone for a beautiful ballad of a woman who struggles to move on after a breakup, while her pain in increased by the realization of how easily her former flame seems to have moved on. The song is bolstered by Tim McGraw’s harmony vocal, while memorable visual images (“There… walking with your friend, laughing at the moon… I swear you looked right through me”) bring the narrator’s pain down to a strikingly relatable level.
“It Matters to Me”
It Matters to Me, 1995
An expression of hurt feelings that is all the more effective for its simplicity and straightforwardness: “When we don’t talk, when we don’t touch, when it doesn’t feel like we’re even in love… It matters to me.” How much more direct can you get?
“When the Lights Go Down”
Faith’s 2002 set Cry was criticized by some for going in a straight-up adult pop direction. But the detractors often missed the fact that Cry is a fantastic pop album, which includes some of the best songs Faith Hill has ever recorded. Exhibit A is “When the Lights Go Down” – a stunning musical testament to the clarity and inescapability of ultimate truth, elevated by Faith’s showstopping vocal performance. The song takes on a tone of positivity as it highlights the fact that life’s most turbulent experiences afford us the opporunity to discover our own inner strength. Easily one of the finest tracks on the Cry album, it’s a shame it wasn’t fully embraced by radio.
“You’re Still Here”
It’s hard to go wrong with a Matraca Berg/ Aimee Mayo song. In a similar vein to Trisha Yearwood’s “On a Bus to St. Cloud,” “You’re Still Here” is a tale of the love that’s long gone, most likely in death, but whom the narrator still sees in her dreams, in her baby’s eyes, and everywhere else. At one point she even says “I heard you in a stranger’s laugh, and I hung around to hear him laugh again, just once again.” It’s an achingly beautiful lyric, delivered in one of Faith’s finest and most emotionally-resonant performances on record, while the soft touches of oboe in the arrangement add layer of mystery to the track.
“Wish for You”
A mother’s expression of all that she wishes for her child. It’s made even more touching by the fact that she never once makes the wish that everything in life will go perfectly for her child. Instead, she simply wishes that, when things do go wrong, her child will pick herself back up, move on, and be a better person because of it. That keeps the song from coming across as cheesy, instead deepening its emotional impact, and keeping it firmly grounded in real life.
“If My Heart Had Wings”
Sometimes it irritates me when certain female artists constantly feel the need to belt out their songs at the top of their lungs. In the case of “If My Heart Had Wings,” however, I can’t imagine the song being sung any other way. Begging to be blared at high volume in one’s car with the windows rolled, “If My Heart Had Wings” is three and a half minutes of pure pop-country euphoria.
Does this song even need a caption? Probably not, but here it goes anyway. “This Kiss” is a perfect sonic encapsulation of all the joy and romantic giddiness of a newfound love (and yet it came out when Taylor Swift was still in grade school). There are few pop-country tunes that are able to achieve such high levels of catchiness, or to give the replay button a workout like this song does.
Mature, intelligent, and insightful – exactly the kind of material country radio is perpetually in need of, and yet all too often shies away from. “Stealing Kisses” plays like a sequel to the innocent youthful “Love Story”-esque material of artists such as Taylor Swift. As a young woman, the narrator is “stealing kisses from a boy” only to find herself a housewife “begging affection from a man” with the passage of time.
Lori McKenna writes a beautiful song, and Faith Hill beautifully sings it. The song was released as the fifth and final single from Fireflies, and though it only scraped the bottom of the Top 40, it offered one of those rare and special moments when the voice of the adult woman was heard on country radio. Faith Hill and her label are to be commended for having the guts to send it to radio in the first place. A definite career highlight, “Stealing Kisses” aptly demonstrates that, at her best, Faith Hill is just as capable of delivering deep, substantial material as she is capable of serving up a tasty morsel of ear candy.
Their fraternal harmonies saturated stations across the radio dial in the fifties and early sixties, and today they’re best remembered as founders of both rock and country music as we know it.
Brothers Don and Phil Everly were born two years apart in the late thirties, and grew up listening to music that transitioned out of the depression and into the second world war. Their father, Ike, was a traveling musician and had his own radio show out of Shenandoah, Iowa.
They started as part of the family act, but as they got older, they became a duo. Through the help of Chet Atkins, they received a record deal at Columbia, which faltered after one failed single. Still, Atkins encouraged them to stay at it, and helped them get a publishing contract in Nashville.
Their publisher, Acuff-Rose, introduced them to the higher-ups at Cadence Records, and when they signed with the label, the hits came quickly. Hits like “Bye Bye Love”, “Wake Up Little Susie”, “Devoted to You”, and “Bird Dog” made a big impact on the radio, reaching the upper ranks of the pop and country charts in America. Their Rockabilly sound reached all the way around the world, as the duo had big hits in the United Kingdom and Australia.
As format walls hardened, the band signed with Warner Bros., where they had their last big pop hits with “Cathy’s Clown” and “When Will I Be Loved.” Interestingly, though the songs didn’t crack the country charts back then, both would later be covered by female country artists who took them all the way to #1. When Reba McEntire sang “Cathy’s Clown” and Linda Ronstadt sang “When Will I Be Loved”, they sounded just as country as anything else at the time, if not a bit more.
Throughout the sixties, their fortunes faded at radio, and a feud broke the duo apart in the seventies. But before they temporarily called it quits, they released the landmark 1968 set Roots, a critically acclaimed set that was one of the earliest examples of the country-rock that Ronstadt and the Eagles would mainstream in the years that followed.
The Everly Brothers were among the first group of acts inducted during the inaugural year of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. Since then, they’ve been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
I can’t tell if it’s because she was a bit hoarse, or if she was trying to hold back her tears. Either way, it was so stunningly powerful that I was even a bit shaken up by the whole thing.
I know that there’s going to be the inevitable claims of authenticity and real talent and such, which makes sense given the pop landscape that she’s performing in. But honestly, it’s been a really long time since anything has happened on a country music stage that’s even come close to what Adele pulled off that night.
It reminded me of Reba McEntire’s performance of “For My Broken Heart” on the 1991 CMA Awards. She’s a seasoned pro who rarely misses a note, but she tears up so much in the final chorus that she can’t get the notes out, and imperfection that makes the performance timelessly perfect:
I can’t find the clip online, but it also reminded me of Vince Gill singing “The Key to Life” on the 1998 show, also breaking down in the final few lines of the song. I miss moments like this in country music.
No wonder I’m so awfully disinterested in country this year. Besides the usual mainstream drivel, I’ve also been disappointed by new albums from usually reliable folks like Dolly Parton, Todd Snider, Alison Krauss & Union Station, and even Emmylou Harris. I’ve taken to pretending that The Civil Wars are somehow country so that I don’t write the genre off completely this year.
The only thing I’ve really loved so far? Matraca Berg’s The Dreaming Fields. It’s got that same rawness that must be speaking to me for some reason these days. There’s no chance of Berg making it back on the radio in 2011, but with all the shameless format-hopping that’s been allowed by country programmers in recent years, maybe we can get them to give a few spins to Adele.
First, it established Twain’s affection for the exclamation point, a punctuation mark that she would take to ludicrous extremes in the years to come.
Second, and far more importantly, it firmly established her point of view on relationships. She’s really just looking for two things: respect and monogamy.
The bare midriffs and the playful videos were just the window dressing. What Twain was really selling was a distinctively feminist point of view, permanently shifting the perspective that all female country artists would sing and write from in the years to come.
A more careful historian would tally up the number of female victim songs, pre- and post-1995, but really, just check out the catalog of Reba McEntire for a simple case study.
Thanks to this record, victim queens are outta here.
Written by Robert John “Mutt” Lange and Shania Twain
This is one of those times when Reba really needs to start acting her age.
She’s fifty-six years old. She’s lived. She’s been married, and she’s been divorced. She’s become a mother, and watched her child grow to adulthood. She’s risen to superstardom in a male-dominated genre format. She has an added level of age and experience to bring to the table, which should be especially evident when she puts pen to paper to offer a lyrical composition of her own.
“Somebody’s Chelsea” is a story-song in which the female narrator meets an elderly gentleman on a plane, and listens to him reminisce over sixty years of happy marriage to his late wife Chelsea. What profound insights does this middle-aged woman bring to this conversation?
“I wanna be somebody’s Chelsea Somebody’s world Somebody’s day and night One and only girl….”
That’s it? All she can do is spit out a few clichés? The story almost had me interested at first, but the narrator’s conclusion offers a weak listener payoff that rings hollow and insubstantial.
Unfortunately, “Somebody’s Chelsea” sums up to a great extent what’s wrong with Reba’s All the Women I Am album as a whole. In her constant struggle to maintain commercial viability in a youth-obsessed market, she’s become so preoccupied with chasing current trends that she’s lost the heart, authenticity, and artistic focus that shines through in all her best work.
On the occasions when Reba has sung from her full-grown woman perspective, magic happens. Look at past classics like “The Fear of Being Alone,” or even more recent cuts like “When You Have a Child.” The former finds Reba feeling out a new romance with caution, warning herself not mistake fear of loneliness for love. With the latter, she puts into song the conflicting emotions that a mother experiences in having a child, and watching the child grow up and leave home.
Could Carrie Underwood pull off either of those songs? How about Taylor Swift? No, of course not. But Reba can because she has the life experience that allows her to deliver such sentiments with authority.
Truth be told, this song still wouldn’t be very interesting even if it were coming from a younger artist. It sets the listener up to expect something profound, but it never fully developes its concept, instead regressing into superficiality. Still, it’s a particularly disappointing entry coming from a seasoned legend who should have so much more to say.
This newly-inducted Country Music Hall of Famer is not helping her artistic legacy with these late-term single releases. Her efforts at downplaying her age may prolong her hitmaking streak, but there’s no way around the fact that the quality of her music has suffered as a result.
Written by Reba McEntire, Liz Hengber, and Will Robinson
But this gospel number brings out the very worst in Lee Ann Womack as a singer. She simply sounds terrible when she tries to get too soulful. She tries to do the Reba McEntire curlicues at some points, the Dolly Parton vibrato at others. She can’t pull either one of them off.
It’s not a good thing when the Blind Boys are singing to Womack to “forgive yourself”, and all I’m thinking is that if she was really sorry, she’d stop stretching two-syllable words out over fifteen seconds.