2020 was a year of many things – COVID-19, existential elections, the shuttering of the music industry, and on and on – but one common, non-catastrophic throughline of the musical variety was cover songs. Many musicians and artists, finding themselves with more free time than usual and more standard-fare albums and cross-continental tours back-burnered, took the opportunity to explore live records, collaborations, and yes, covers. From Molly Tuttle to Wynonna, livestreams to socially-distanced shows, covers became an unofficial pandemic pastime.
Now, in 2021, many of these cover projects conceived and created in 2020 have made it to store shelves – digital and otherwise – and we’ve collected ten tributes worth a listen:
Shannon McNally covers Waylon Jennings
It’s fitting that Shannon McNally released The Waylon Sessions on Compass Records, whose headquarters now occupies “Hillbilly Central.” As Tompall Glaser’s former studio, the building helped give rise to country’s outlaw movement and it’s where Waylon himself recorded. With guests like Jessi Colter, Buddy Miller, Rodney Crowell, and Lukas Nelson, the project recontextualizes Waylon Jennings’ material, which is usually associated with hyper-masculine wings of the country scene. As McNally puts it in a press release, “What Waylon Jennings brought to country music is what country music needs right now, and that unapologetic and vulnerable sense of self are what women are tapping into artistically right now as the industry evolves.”
Steve Earle covers Justin Townes Earle
Many a musical child has covered their parents’ catalogs in retrospect, but it’s rare that we see the reverse. A gorgeous, gutting, and laid-bare album, Steve Earle’s J.T. is a ten-song tribute to his son, Justin Townes Earle, who passed away suddenly in August 2020, shocking the Americana and folk communities. Earle’s signature emotion bristles and crackles throughout the project, giving Justin Townes’ songs an even stronger quality of visceral electricity. Proceeds from the album will go to a trust for Etta St. James Earle, Justin Townes’ daughter and Steve’s granddaughter.
The Infamous Stringdusters cover Bill Monroe
Spread out from North Carolina to Colorado and beyond, the Infamous Stringdusters utilized home recording from their respective studios during the pandemic to accomplish musical creativity their jam-packed schedule hadn’t really allowed in the “before times.” Their brand new EP, A Tribute to Bill Monroe, returns the virtuosic jamgrass outfit to territory familiar to those who first found the group when they were cutting their teeth, striding out from traditional bluegrass into the vast, expansive newgrass-and-jamgrass unknown. The project illustrates that the true strength of this ensemble is found in utilizing traditional bluegrass aesthetics for their own creative purposes. For example, you might listen through the entire record without realizing the Stringdusters made a Bill Monroe tribute album without mandolin!
Mandy Barnett covers Billie Holiday
Mandy Barnett is a cross-genre chameleon; between her talent, her voice’s timeless Americana tinge, and her appetite for classics — from Nashville staples to the American songbook — she often finds herself reaching far beyond Music Row and classic country to R&B, standards, and in her most recent release, Billie Holiday covers. Every Star Above was recorded in 2019, pre-pandemic, and includes ten songs from Holiday’s 1958 Lady in Satin album – songs previously also covered by Frank Sinatra, Dinah Washington, and many, many others. The project feels akin to Linda Ronstadt’s pop and big band forays, never fully detached from Barnett’s country roots, but built atop their solid foundation. In another Ronstadt-esque move, Barnett partnered with recently departed jazz arranger Sammy Nestico; Every Star Above was the award-winning composer’s final project.
Charley Crockett covers James Hand
Country-western crooner Charley Crockett is truly prolific, having released nine full-length albums in the past six years. As the story goes, before his friend, acclaimed Texan singer-songwriter James “Slim” Hand passed away unexpectedly about a year ago, Crockett promised he would record his songs. “Lesson in Depression” captures the sly, winking quality of the best sort of sad-ass country, which isn’t burdened by its own melodrama. While it’s certain Crockett (as Tanya Tucker would put it) would have rather brought Slim his flowers while he was living, there’s a poignancy in how 10 For Slim – Charley Crockett Sings James Hand, like Earle’s J.T., immediately demonstrates how these impactful musical legacies will live on.
Lowland Hum cover Peter Gabriel
Lowland Hum’s album covering Peter Gabriel’s So — which they’ve cutely and aptly entitled So Low — began as a passing joke, but the folk duo of husband-and-wife Daniel and Lauren Goans followed the passion and fun that led them to Gabriel’s hit 1986 release, quickly unspooling the passing whim into inspiration for a full-blown project. “We already loved the iconic record, but in translating Gabriel’s melodies and otherworldly arrangements,” they explain on their website, “we fell even deeper in love with the songs, Gabriel’s voice, and his uncanny ability to fully inhabit both vulnerability and playfulness…” Their “quiet music,” minimalist approach is well suited to the material and the entire project is incredibly listenable, comforting, and subtly envelope-pushing.
Chrissie Hynde covers Bob Dylan
After The Bard released “Murder Most Foul” and “I Contain Multitudes” early in 2020 (and in the pandemic) founder, singer, songwriter, and guitarist for The Pretenders Chrissie Hynde was inspired to once again revisit Dylan’s catalog – a limitless fount of material with which she was already intimately familiar. Her new album, Standing in the Doorway, features nine Dylan tracks recorded with fellow Pretenders guitarist James Walbourne – almost exclusively via text message – and for their coronavirus YouTube video series. Hynde opts for deeper cuts, showcasing her affinity for swaths of Dylan’s career often overlooked by other would-be cover-ers. This classic, “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” feels appropriately sentimental and longing, a perfect encapsulation of the day-to-day of the realities of the pandemic, filtered through a Bob Dylan lens and Hynde’s distinctive voice.
Various Artists cover John Lilly
John Lilly is a songwriter’s songwriter. Based in West Virginia, his original music has been covered by modern legends like Tim O’Brien, Kathy Mattea, and Tom Paxton. April In Your Eyes: A Tribute to the Songs of John Lilly gathers various artists from the folk, old-time, and bluegrass communities – in West Virginia and otherwise – spotlighting the incredible depth and breadth of Lilly’s catalog. The title track is stunningly rendered by Maya de Vitry and Ethan Jodziewicz, who were connected with Lilly originally through West Virginia’s iconic old-time pickers’ gathering affectionately referred to as “Clifftop.” Paxton, O’Brien, and Mattea all make appearances on the project, as do Brennen Leigh & Noel McKay, Bill Kirchen, and many other members of Lilly’s musical family and inner circle, giving the project an intentional and intimate resonance.
American Aquarium cover ’90s Country Hits
BJ Barham’s American Aquarium dropped a surprise album, Slappers, Bangers, & Certified Twangers: Volume One in May. Featuring ten covers of some of the band’s favorite ‘90s country hits, it’s a dose of all-star-tribute-concert packaged in a pandemic-friendly stay-at-home-form – and available on John Deere Green vinyl, of course. One particularly sad casualty of the coronavirus pandemic has been these sorts of musical nostalgia bombs – when was the last time any of us attended a theme night or tribute show at say, the Basement East in Nashville or Raleigh, NC’s The Brewery? – and Slappers, Bangers, & Certified Twangers has us in the mood to attend the first ‘90s country covers live show possible now that things are finally reopening.
Various Artists cover John Prine
A year without Prine seems far, far too long to travel with such a Prine-shaped hole in our musical hearts. But his presence and legacy certainly still loom large; the Prine family has announced “You Got Gold: Celebrating the Life & Songs of John Prine,” a series of special concerts and events held across various venues in Nashville in October. Oh Boy Records is also planning to release a new tribute record, Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine, Vol. 2, to coincide with You Got Gold. The first two tracks from the project that have already been unveiled feature Sturgill Simpson performing “Paradise” and Brandi Carlile’s rendition of “I Remember Everything,” which you can hear above. Each month until October, the Prine family and Oh Boy will release another song from the project, unveiling special guests who each pay tribute to Prine, his songs, and the enormous vacuum his loss has left in the roots music industry.
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