Discussion: Cover Songs

This is a republished post, backdated to reflect that and posted again for reader visibility, edited for past grammatical errors and sentence structure issues. This was one of my earliest “opinion” pieces, and though I’d write it much differently if I started from scratch today – enjoy, I guess!

The inspiration for this piece came to me after I heard the latest album from The Steel Woods, Straw In The Wind. I knew there were a couple cover songs on this album, but I didn’t know exactly how many. After doing some research, I found out that four of the 13 tracks here were originally covered by other artists – John Anderson’s “Wild and Blue,” Black Sabbath’s “Hole In The Sky,” Brent Cobb’s “Let The Rain Come Down,” and Darrell Scott’s “Uncle Lloyd.”

Some of you might be thinking, “what’s wrong with that?,” and I’d agree with you. Others may be thinking that it can’t possibly be a great album because there’s too many covers. After all, you’re not really hearing enough of the band or artist, are you?

In my opinion, that’s an unfair criticism, and no, I haven’t seen this criticism pop up for the Steel Woods specifically, but it’s a criticism I’ve seen for other albums. I remember when Whitey Morgan’s 2015 album, Sonic Ranch, came out. People debated whether or not it could truly be considered “excellent,” considering there were so many covers on the album, and that Morgan doesn’t wrote a lot of his own material.

This argument may be too old, and it might be somewhat useless, but indulge me for a moment. For those of you who have heard this criticism, what do you think? I only ask because it is completely understandable to criticize an album because of this, even if I think it’s not a completely fair criticism.

When you think about it, we’re taking outside factors from before the music was made and applying them to the music at hand, even though it may not be fair. Really, when you think about it, unless the artist at hand was the original writer of the song, aren’t all songs technically just covers? Think about it – not every songwriter you see in the liner notes has tried their hand at singing in the solo spotlight; some just prefer writing.

I just pulled out a random CD from my collection to prove my point. It was, ironically enough, Sunny Sweeney’s Trophy album – you know, the album that has a cover of “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight” by Jerry Jeff Walker on it. Why talk about that, though, when we could talk about “Pills,” the one other song Sweeney didn’t have a hand in writing. I mean, is it fair to hold Sweeney’s feet to the fire because her version doesn’t differ from Noel McKay’s version? You can literally pull any song not written by an artist out, check the writers and ask the same questions. We only talk about Whitey Morgan’s version of “Waitin’ Round To Die” because we know who Townes Van Zandt. We talk about the Steel Woods’ cover of “Wild and Blue” because we know who John Anderson. So what if the new version doesn’t differ from the old? There could be a version floating around somewhere for every song not written by the artist singing it. Should we hold their feet to the fire, too?

Now, maybe you are biased toward one early version of a song because it connected to you at a certain time and place, making it so you can’t connect to this newer version as much. Hey, that’s fine. I’m the same way with certain songs, and that’s another element that makes music so subjective. I think Big and Rich bring a nice country-rock edge to their version of “California,” but I like Tim McGraw’s version better because he’s a better vocalist (and the more polished tones work well). It’s only unfair when you criticize the song because of that rather than some other element. For example, I mentioned vocals, and for me, neither of the two Big and Rich members are interesting enough vocalists to make that song work as well as it could, but I don’t think it’s simply “OK” just because their version doesn’t stand up to McGraw’s.

And some of you might be thinking – we shouldn’t even be having this argument! After all, if all artists just wrote their own songs, we wouldn’t have a problem, right?

But George Strait didn’t write the majority of his songs. Meanwhile, Cole Swindell wrote nearly his entire debut album, and though quality is subjective, there is something to be said for how interchangeable the songs feel on that album.

While I do like to see artists write their own material, to me it’s not the most important factor in determining whether I like an artist or not – not by a long shot. Sure, it may help to better craft a distinctive voice behind the microphone, but it’s an unfair standard to judge artists against. This also delves into another aspect of the performance art – relatability. I can’t directly relate to a majority of my favorite country songs, but I feel the emotion churned out by the performances. When Natalie Maines sings about falling in love with a soldier later killed in the Vietnam War on “Travelin’ Soldier,” I feel Bruce Robison’s words and Maines’ pain.

So, in closing, not everything may be as good as the original, but we can’t let outside factors from before cloud our judgment on the art at hand.

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