Uncaged may be the product of studio recording sessions, but it pulses with the energy of a live set.
That much is evident right from the bongo drums and whistle hook that open the album on “Jump Right In.” Immediately afterward, the title track lays down a heavy arena-rock groove that was obviously made for a live setting. Needless to say, the band’s eclectic musical stylings will not suit every listener’s personal taste, while traditionalist country music fans will find relatively little to celebrate on this record. Regardless, it remains obvious that, of all the bands currently in heavy rotation on country radio, few are as fully developed as an actual band as Brown and his cohorts.
Yet Uncaged would not be the success that it is if not for the high quality of Brown’s songwriting, consistently characterized by unaffected sincerity, straightforwardness, and naturalness of flow. “Goodbye In Her Eyes” begins with the line “I could tell that it was over when her lips met mine/ It was an emptiness in her voice, hesitation when she smiled” and heads from there to “She’d found what she’d been looking for, and I knew it wasn’t me,” while the backing instruments swell with a rising sense of urgency, making the track a clear standout in lyrical construction as well as overall song structure.
The weakest track on the album is called – wait for it – “Island Song,” and sounds like just about every other “island song” pervading country music. It generally brings nothing new to the tiki bar, save for a painfully affected fake Jamaican accent on Brown’s part, while the aforementioned “Jump Right In” draws on similar reggae influences, but does so with a greater level of personality. Likewise, “Sweet Annie” is a solid song on its own merits, but one that sounds a little too much like a retread of last year’s hit “Colder Weather,” both lyrically and melodically.
Lead single and current Top 20 hit “The Wind” is easily one of the best and coolest-sounding singles to make it to radio airwaves this year. It’s one of the few tracks on the album that scans unmistakably as country music, but one that nods to genre conventions without compromising the band’s distinct sense of identity. The band taps into a smooth jazz vibe with the Trombone Shorty collaboration “Overnight” – a sultry come-on lyric that could have scanned as embarrassingly campy if delivered through a lesser performance, but one that Brown manages to sell with infectious gusto.
While the band’s influences run the gamut from Alan Jackson to the Eagles to Jimmy Buffett to Bob Marley – and this album alone includes collaborations with Amos Leigh, Sonia Leigh, and Jason Mraz - Uncaged still manages to sound first and foremost like a Zac Brown Band album. The effortless charm of Brown’s singing and songwriting, not to mention the energy of the band’s musicianship, creates a common unifying thread that runs throughout all the genre styles experimented with through the course of the set.
It’s consistently clear that, according to the Zac Brown Band’s musical approach, it’s not about genres. It’s not about radio formats. It’s not about pleasing one’s chosen demographic. It’s about music, plain and simple. As a result, Uncaged is an unshakably confident, ambitious-sounding record that refuses to condescend to its listeners, and it thus may be just the thing to impart a shot of authenticity to mainstream country music.
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?
You can count their country hits on one hand, and still have fingers to spare. But the Eagles did more to shape the sound of country music than any rock band before or since.
It was another country rocker, the legendary Linda Ronstadt, that nudged the band into existence. Looking for musicians to back her on record and on stage, the founding members – Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Bernie Leadon, and Randy Meisner – performed on her 1971 eponymous album. With her encouragement, they decided to form a band of their own.
From the time they released their debut album in 1972 until they ended their initial run with 1979′s The Long Run, the Eagles produced rock music that was heavily laced with country instrumentation. The sound was most prevalent in their earlier work, and while they’d only score one top ten hit at country radio, “Lyin’ Eyes”, they still managed to score a Vocal Group nomination at the CMA Awards.
The country connection to their work was forgotten until the nineties, when a tribute album called Common Thread brought together the nineties country superstars who were most influenced by the band’s work. Anyone who wondered why so many middle-aged rock fans suddenly embraced country music in the early nineties can have their questions answered by that tribute album. Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Trisha Yearwood, Travis Tritt, and Vince Gill covered Eagles classics faithfully, and the end result was a collection of performances that reflected just how similar their own work was to that of the Eagles.
The tribute album won the CMA for Album of the Year, and its commercial success inspired the Eagles to reunite for their Hell Freezes Over tour and subsequent album. When they decided to make their first studio album in almost three decades, they targeted the country market directly. Long Road Out of Eden topped the country albums chart and produced a Grammy-winning country hit with “How Long.” When they hit the road to support the album, they did so with the Dixie Chicks and Keith Urban.