So what exactly makes for a great “cover” song-----by definition the performance or recording of music other than one’s own material. I asked myself this question as I enjoyed a marvelous and very springlike March afternoon outdoors at the annual Bigfork Brewfest. The musical entertainment was being provided by Bigfork’s own Fetveit Brothers. The Fetveits are a high energy acoustic duo who have the uncanny ability to take nearly any popular song from the 1960’s through to current material, make it fresh, alive ,and in the case of older material, completely relevant once again. In essence, the boys were, in effect, turning these songs into “original” material and often making me, and seemingly others in the audience, nearly forget that these tunes were in fact created by someone else. I was watching the ultimate cover band! It was fascinating to hear these young musicians, who have an obvious and deep appreciation of popular music history, engage a crowd and breathe new life into the songs, the creations, of others. Congratulations boys on a job well done!
After some careful thought as well as decades of attendance at perhaps thousands of musical performances ranging from local bar bands to concerts put on by superstars of the industry, I attempted to solve the great mystery I posed to myself on that afternoon in Bigfork---what makes a great cover song? Upon careful examination of my own music collection, I was stunned to see just how much of the music that I owned was actually “Cover” material performed by otherwise creative “original” artists. I didn’t know, for example, that “Love Hurts” by Nazareth was originally performed by The Everly Brothers, or that “Red Red Wine” by UB40 was written and performed first by Neil Diamond. In short, cover music is everywhere. The list of cover songs from my own collection seemed endless.
What conclusions did I finally draw about the making of great cover music?
First and foremost, the cover artist must bring something fresh to the original song whether it be by supplanting the song into another genre (ex. From reggae to rock as Eric Clapton did with Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff”) or by, at the very least, casting it in a different light by changing the arrangement or tempo. Why should I listen if the song is to be performed as a note for note carbon copy of the original? Secondly, at the same time the cover artist must walk a fine line and “respect” the original. Removing a song too far from its’ roots and original essence can backfire on the cover artist and result in a backlash from an audience, but a good rendition of a cover song can save an artist staggering through a show in front of an indifferent or hostile crowd. A poorly conceived cover song can actually hurt a performer’s career and legacy. Did Michael Bolton’s version of “When a man Loves a Woman” really aid his career in any way? Usually, a cover artist is covering a song that is well-known and was once popular to some extent. The cover artist must show some degree of respect for the fact that the original songwriter knew what they were doing. It is certainly a tightrope that must be walked by the cover artist. You cannot be a carbon copy, yet you must in some way be “original” without hurting the original’s essence. Wow! Sounds a little bit like a comment a talent judge might make on the very popular “American Idol” or “The Voice” television programs whose very premise is how a contestant performs using the music others. PS. Where have you gone Judge Simon Cowell? You are missed!
Great cover songs have launched careers of otherwise original artists (Van Halen’s version of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” comes to mind). They have sustained the careers of many others both in the recording studio and in live performance. Covers of classics by Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry remained staples of the Grateful Dead’s live shows for decades while no one was better than folk guitarist Richie Havens at reinterpreting and making the songs of The Beatles and Bob Dylan literally his own. These are just a couple of examples of the significant impact of the “cover song” on popular music. Besides the Fetveit Brothers mentioned earlier, we are indeed very fortunate to have many talented musicians in the Flathead Valley who perform great cover material (and often as well as their own great original tunes). The very talented Halladay Quist performs some fantastic acoustic versions of classic Neil Young. Brent Jameson provides superb covers of Paul Simon material. If you have not heard the reggae style version of Steve Miller’s “The Joker” performed by God Fearing Women, you are in for a musical treat. Too numerous to mention, there are many great straight cover bands (no original material) in the
Flathead playing classic rock, blues and jazz standards—all putting their own spin to great music. Check them out!
Great Cover Songs…
An extremely incomplete list!
“All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix (original recording: Bob Dylan)
“Twist and Shout” by The Beatles (original recording: The Isley Brothers)
“I Heard it Through the Grapevine” by Creedence Clearwater Revival (previous recordings: Smokey Robinson & The Miracles and Marvin Gaye)
“Stop Your Sobbing” by The Pretenders (original recording: The Kinks)
“Baby, Now That I Found You” by Allison Kraus (original recording: The Foundations)
“Take Me to the River” by The Talking Heads (original recording; Al Green)
“I Fought the Law” by The Clash (original recording: The Bobby Fuller Four)
“Summertime Blues” by Brian Setzer (previous recordings; Eddie Cochran and The Who)
“Hard to Handle” by The Black Crowes (original recording: Otis Redding)
“I’m Losing You” by Rod Stewart (original recording: The Temptations)
“I Love Rock and Roll” by Joan Jett & the Blackhearts (original recording: The Arrows)
“Walkin’ the Dog” by Aerosmith (original recording: Rufus Thomas)
“Superstar” by The Carpenters (original recording; Delaney & Bonnie)
“Try A little Tenderness’ by Otis Redding (original recording: Ray Noble/Bing Crosby)
“Mustang Sally’ by Wilson Pickett (original recording: Mack Rice)
“Pretty Woman” by Van Halen (original recording: Roy Orbison)
“Jersey Girl” by Bruce Springsteen (original recording: Tom Waits)
“Wild Night” by John Mellencamp (original recording; Van Morrison)
“Hallejah” by Jeff Buckley (original recording; Leonard Cohen)
“Mr. Tambourine Man” by The Byrds (original recording: Bob Dylan)
“La Bamba” by Los Lobos (original recording; Ritchie Valens)
“Mad World” by Donnie Darko (original recording: Tears for Fears)
“Proud Mary” by Ike & Tina Turner (original recording; Creedence Clearwater Revival)
“With a Little Help from my Friends” by Joe Cocker (original recording; The Beatles)
Originally published in 406 Woman magazine - Off Key Notes April/May 2015