The old saying states: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” This can apply to cover songs. Sometimes it’s all about the song and sometimes it’s about honouring the singer who made the song famous. And in most cases it’s not actually imitation per se. The singer may put their own spin on the song to come up with something fresh.
Recently, Garth Brooks released a new box set entitled “Blame It All On My Roots: Five Decades of Influences.” The set includes 4 CDs with 11 cover songs each, representing different genres that have influenced the country superstar. One of the CDs is “Country Classics”, which features Garth’s take on Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down, Don’t Close Your Eyes, Jambalaya – and other recognizable songs from country music’s past. Although Garth has been known and often criticized for taking country into new territory, his disc of more traditional songs reminds us he can really deliver a traditional country song.
Michelle Wright celebrated her influences during her Fall 2012 tour, “Songs From The Halls.” I attended the Port Hope, Ontario show at the Capitol Theatre. The show allowed audience members to gain insight into the artists that made an impact on Michelle’s musical world. She not only sang songs we all know and love from Anne Murray and Merle Haggard, but also put the spotlight on her soul influences, like Al Green and Aretha Franklin. Michelle grew up in Merlin, Ontario – a stone’s throw from Detroit – and couldn’t help but fall in love with the Motown sound. One of my favourite cover songs that Michelle has put on record is Love Has No Pride from her 1996 album, “For Me It’s You” – the most famous version was done by Linda Ronstadt. Michelle’s rendition infuses it with the right amount of emotion to capture the heart of the song’s message.
“When my band and I are selecting songs to cover, we usually try to pick songs that get the girls up and dancing. Happy girls equals happy guys.” explains Mike Butler, the CMAO’s January Artist of the Month. “However, I made my band learn The Good Ol’ Hockey Game because I wanted to do one for the fellas. Always gets them stompin’. If I see a girl who can sing along with me when we play that – I fall in love.”
Terri Clark released her album “Classic” in 2012 featuring country classics like It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels, Golden Ring and Gentle On My Mind. Not only does she breathe new life into these favourites, but on two of them she’s joined by the artists who made them famous: Reba McEntire on How Blue & Tanya Tucker on Delta Dawn. I saw Terri perform at the Sound Academy in Toronto after this album was released. She devoted a segment of her concert to the album and had the stage’s appearance changed to look like the Grand Ol’ Opry stage in Nashville. Many in the audience would know these songs, but I couldn’t help but think how cool it was to see groups of younger people singing along. Perhaps they recall the songs from their parents playing them or, in many cases, I’m sure Terri was introducing these songs to them and proving that great songs are timeless. George Canyon also salutes country’s greatest songs on his albums “Classics” and “Classics II”.
That’s another important part of cover songs in country music – by performing them, the past is honoured and passed on to the new generation of music fans and performers.
It’s always interesting when a country act covers songs outside the genre. Tebey – joined by Emerson Drive – has released a version of Avicii’s Wake Me Up. Avicii is the stage name of Tom Bergling, a Swedish DJ, remixer and producer. The original song features vocals by Aloe Blacc. Listening to this version, it fits very comfortably into the country format. Production and vocals can always work the magic, but this song’s lyrics also suit the genre. In 1999, Alabama covered & released N Sync’s chart-topping ballad (God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time On You. Again, melodically and lyrically, the song fits both the pop and country genres.
In 2002, Johnny Cash covered Hurt which was a 1994 song from Nine Inch Nails and written by band member Trent Reznor. Sung by The Man In Black, this song – and the video for it in which the country legend appeared frail and vulnerable – seemed to act as a farewell song. Cash died the following year. About the cover song, Reznor explained at the time: “I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. That winds up interpreted by a music legend from a radically different genre and era and still retains sincerity and meaning – different, but every bit as pure.” Indeed, this illustrates another aspect of a cover song. It can take on a new meaning or deeper meaning when performed by an artist who brings a truth to it that is more than art, but also a personal statement that cuts to the core.
Sometimes a cover song can uncover talent that has been blurred by scandal. Take Miley Cyrus, for example. In a popular YouTube video, she covers Jolene – the classic country song written & made famous by her godmother Dolly Parton. There is no smoke or mirrors… or wrecking ball; just a performance that shows Miley can truly sing. In this instance, the cover song video performance has been shared by people online as evidence of the potential she doesn’t always put to use. A song from 1974 – 18 years before she was born – has shown us another side of this infamous pop star.
“I enjoy doing covers,” admits Ontario country artist Colin Amey, whose current CD “Just Do What You Do” features a Kim Mitchell rock classic. “Of course, when I released Go For A Soda, a lot of people were surprised with the choice. I’ve always been a big fan of 80’s rock and that stuff is always fun to play live! When I do my solo acoustic shows, I always seem to be covering Canadian classics. Sometimes, I’ll end the night with Blue Rodeo’s Bad Timing. Some other fun covers to do are Painted Ladies by Ian Thomas or Neil Young’s Heart Of Gold. A few years ago, we were playing a matinee show to an almost empty bar, and we were just goofing around playing pretty much anything that wasn’t on the set list. I started playing this really laid back, almost haunting version of Keep On Rockin’ in the Free World and when the band started playing along, it had such a cool vibe. Totally different from the original. I may end up recording it at some point!”
Martina McBride, who released a collection of country covers on her album Timeless in 2005, will release a new album shortly with her versions of classic soul and R & B songs. She has recorded songs made famous by the likes of Etta James, Van Morrison & Otis Redding. In an interview via The Associated Press, Martina addresses the subject of imitation versus reinterpretation: “It’s an instinct thing,” she said. “You don’t want to make a karaoke record. You don’t want it to sound exactly like the original and then you don’t also want to make it so different that it’s unrecognizable because these songs are sacred to a lot of people.”
The Lovelocks are a female alt-country duo from Ontario comprised of Ali Raney and Zoe Neuman. Their debut EP is being released in February 2014. Ali explains why cover songs can be key to an act’s success: “As new artists, working a few covers into our set list is imperative. Credibility is earned over the long haul through great songwriting, solid musicianship, authenticity and in general just being an honest and kind person. As an unknown band performing for a new audience each night, one of the ways that we work at earning that credibility (a part from focusing on writing great songs, of course), is that we also choose to showcase a little of who we are and what our tastes are in our arrangements of other people’s songs. We always try to make the cover tunes familiar enough that the crowd will say ‘I love that song’, but we also work hard to put our own spin on them, so that people walk away saying…’I really love that song…and The Lovelocks did a wicked version!’ It’s not enough to assume that just because your audience likes the original tune that you’re covering that they’ll also like your band’s music. You have to put your own fingerprints on it, and work it out so that it’s true to who you are, and the story you’re telling.”
The covers mentioned in this column only scratch the surface. And fans will always debate whose version of a song is best. But ultimately, the song that’s covered is the star, not the singer. As an artist, what cover songs in your shows let your fans understand your influences? What cover songs ‘push the envelope’ and surprise your audience because the songs are a bit different for them – and even for you? That’s something to think about the next time you choose a cover song to perform.