Some say the true measure of a song’s merit is whether it sounds good with just vocals and acoustic guitar. But that’s poppycock; the real way to test a tune’s mettle is to break out the banjos and mandolins and see whether it stands up to the bluegrass treatment. In the list that follows — a sequel to last year’s 13 Boss Covers of Your Favorite Pop Songs — a variety of old-timey pickers, pluckers, and strummers tackle modern-day pop, rock, and rap favorites, using bluegrass like one of those Instagram filters that make digital photos look like dusty old Polaroids. In doing so, they remind us that good music is good music, and that certain songs transcend time and place and instrumentation. The history of pop music is just one big crazy train, and when Nicki Minaj passes Bill Monroe en route to the party in Ozzy’s car, she gives him a funny little wink that he totally gets.
Banjo Billybo, “Someone Like You”
One takeaway from Adele’s “Someone Like You”: Love makes you act like a goddamn fool. In the 2011 smash, the heartbroken British songstress sings of stopping by an ex’s house in hopes of rekindling the romance, even though the bloke’s happily married. Now, this Banjo Billybo character doesn’t much care for the song, as he explains at the beginning of this YouTube clip, but that doesn’t stop him from hee-hawing his way through a chuckle-worthy version. If Billybo’s rendition lacks love, there’s plenty of goddamn foolishness.
The Gravel Spreaders, “Crazy Train”
These Bay Area dudes are all about metal covers, and their take on Ozzy Osbourne’s signature song is silly yet also kind of sincere. Dig how Doc Buck Knife lovingly adapts that classic Randy Rhodes guitar intro for mandolin, and how doghouse bassist Bud Hole delivers the lyrics in a plainspoken everyman style that underscores Ozzy’s message of peace, love, and understanding. Now all the Spreaders need are some polka-dot flying-V banjos.
Rob Scallon, “Raining Blood”
Bluegrass and thrash metal share a fundamental need for speed, so banjoist Rob Scallon’s rendition of this Slayer gem isn’t such a stretch. It is a hoot, though — especially when his buddy in the straw hat shows up with a pair of spoons and adds some crazy clatter to the satanic jamboree. Forget the Charlie Daniels Band; when the devil goes down to Georgia, he goes partying with guys like Rob.
Robin Adele Anderson, “Anaconda”
Mad props to Ms. Anderson and her band for transforming a salacious 2014 hit (Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda”) based on a sample from a similarly saucy 1992 hip-hop jam (Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back”) into a classy bluegrass/ragtime number suitable for grandmas and small children and everyone in between. “Oh my gosh,” sings Anderson at 2:10, taking things to the hokey-jokey extreme, “Look at that banjo!”
The Blueshine Brothers, “All About That Bass”
Technically speaking, these guys are all about that treble, as their version of Meghan Trainor’s 2014 pop triumph is decidedly lacking in low end. That’s probably part of the joke — not that three burly bluegrass dudes singing a quasi-feminist ode to full female posteriors really need extra comedic ammunition.
Lowhills, “Careless Whisper”
Even without that silky saxophone so integral to the original, the Lowhills do right by George Michael’s chart-topping 1984 hit about doing a lover wrong. This is Americana of the jazziest, swankiest variety — think Sade transplanted south of the Mason-Dixon. Were these Charleston cats to try “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” they’d probably make that seem suave, too.
Love Canon, “Touch of Grey”
As a self-described “super ’80s bluegrass hits machine,” Love Canon probably doesn’t face much competition in its hometown of Charlottesville — or anywhere else on the planet for that matter. But even if there were other outfits copping the band’s gimmick, it’s doubtful they’d do this, the Grateful Dead’s one and only Top 10 pop hit, with a slicker, defter touch. This is bluegrass meets yacht rock — just look at the banjoist’s captain’s hat.
Red, White & Bluegrass, “Friday”
Can genuine musicianship and quality singing redeem a song that’s beloved by millions of YouTube viewers purely because it’s terrible? The fellas in Red, White, and Bluegrass attempt to answer that question with their cover of Rebecca Black’s 2011 viral sensation “Friday.” As an ironic YouTube parody of an ironic YouTube hit, the trio’s version raises enough questions about musical authenticity and Internet culture to fuel about a dozen think-pieces. As something to giggle along with on Friday at 4:30PM when the boss is down the hall and you don’t feel like doing a lick more work, it’s about a dozen times more valuable.
O Bardo e o Banjo, “Ace of Spades”
If Yanni, John Tesh, and Celine Dion were to perform Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades” in a public library while being shushed by old ladies reading Agatha Christie novels, it would still rule. Such is the power of the hard-rocking, harder-living British trio’s 1980 speed-metal anthem. In the hands of Brazil’s most badass bluegrass outfit, “Spades” is a rollicking hellbilly freakout that’s half Lemmy, half Opry, all the way fantastic.
Paul Harris and the Cleverlys, “Gangnam Style”
There could’ve been more dancing, as the banjo player does a decent job of copping Psy’s moves from the original “Gangnam Style” video near the end, but even so, this self-styled “GrassHipPop” combo from Stone County, Arkansas, deserves lots of credit. To work out the arrangement, Harris and the boys probably had to watch Psy’s 2012 viral video at least three or four times in a row — with the sound on. It’s a lot of work for a joke with limited shelf life.
Mustered Courage, “September”
The fact that September in Melbourne means spring, not autumn, hasn’t affected this Aussie band’s understanding of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September,” a wedding-reception staple regardless of the season. The boys move briskly and joyously through the tune, and by the look of the disco lights swirling all around them, they’re rocking a party where their efforts — though perhaps not their headbands and polyester shirts — are much appreciated.
Cornmeal, “Dear Prudence”
Fun fact: John Lennon’s first instrument was a banjo, not a guitar. That means that had things turned out differently for the Beatles, the original “Dear Prudence” might have sounded something like Cornmeal’s take. Then, George or Paul would’ve needed fiddle skills like the dude in this clip, who’d be a natural for a DMB cover band.
David Lee Roth, “Jump”
In 2006, the always unpredictable David Lee Roth went from Diamond Dave to Rhinestone Dave and recorded a pair of totally plucked-up Van Halen covers for the all-bluegrass tribute album Strummin’ With the Devil. One of them was “Jump,” and here, Dave shows why neither synths nor spandex nor slow-motion high kicks are needed to make this one shine.