A great cover isn’t necessarily about paying loving tribute to the original song, it’s about transforming it in such a way that it reveals something about the original composition that you never saw before. Whether it’s taking actual notice of lyrical content for the first time or stripping the lyrics away entirely to appreciate a beautiful melody, these folk and bluegrass covers of other genres all provide an illuminating alternative to the original.
10. Chris Thile – “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”
A cover of: The White Stripes
Leave it to a visionary like Nickel Creek’s Chris Thile to look at a Jack White song and say “Sure, that can become a great bluegrass tune.” His version of “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” doesn’t sound like “a bluegrass cover,” it sounds like a song that was always meant to be performed in this style. It is completely transformed. Of course, a lot of that is just a product of Thile’s talented vocals and spellbinding musicianship. He remains perhaps the most captivating virtuoso mandolin player working today—something you can hear even more clearly in the live, solo version of the same song.
9. The Wailin’ Jennys – “Old Man”
A cover of: Neil Young
Neil Young’s classic “Old Man” is already a brooding, morose sort of song, but the stripped-down instrumentation of The Wailin’ Jennys version only emphasizes this fact more. Their three-way harmony is stronger and clearer than in the original song, making it easier to focus on the rather depressing but poetic lyrics. Few groups can harmonize like these three women from Cananda, which has made them favorites of NPR audiences everywhere thanks to their regular appearances on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion.”
8. Hugo – “99 Problems”
A cover of: Jay-Z
You don’t see a lot of bluegrass covers of hip-hop classics, but one would assume Jay-Z himself had a hand in the suggestion to New York country/blues singer Hugo, seeing as Hugo is signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label. I’m not ashamed to say I enjoy this one far more than the original—it’s just an extremely well-produced, flashy hoedown that sounds completely natural with a great stomping beat. You may remember hearing it in a few movies in 2011—it was in both the Ashton Kutcher/Natalie Portman rom-com No Strings Attached and the ending credits of the surprisingly good 80’s horror remake of Fright Night with Colin Farrell.
7. The Duhks – It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
A cover of: Bob Dylan
Dylan’s song was already “folk,” yes, but his work of course involves a lot of rock ‘n’ roll influences as well. This is one of the few songs on this list where the cover is actually more bombastic and aggressive than the original, as Canadian folk band The Duhks use a wider complement of instrumentation to great effect, especially the banjo and fiddle, contributing a swagger and galloping beat. But the really transformative aspect is the vocals of Sarah Dugas, a powerhouse singer who can absolutely belt soul and gospel tunes with the best of them. She’s the thing that makes this cover really stand out.
6. Sam Bush – “White Bird”
A cover of: It’s a Beautiful Day
“White Bird” isn’t the best remembered song today outside of aging hippie circles, but it was a fairly large FM radio hit in 1969 for San Francisco psychedelic rock band It’s a Beautiful Day. Regardless, it’s a psych-rock classic in the same vein as the similarly named “White Rabbit” two years earlier. Sam Bush, meanwhile, is a pioneering mandolin/fiddle player who was instrumental in the early years of progressive bluegrass/newgrass, and he’s clearly got a thing for psychedelic rock. His version of “White Bird” only strips away a tiny bit of the orchestration and theatricality of the original, making it slightly homier but still firmly rooted in the 1960s. Plus, it gives him plenty of excuses for impressive fiddle solos.
5. Rodrigo y Gabriela – “Stairway to Heaven”
A cover of: Led Zeppelin
If you know Rodrigo y Gabriela, then you know what to expect here: Heavy metal intensity, rendered via the art of classical guitar. Transferring the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll to this acoustic format is what the duo has done their entire careers, up to and including their new album 9 Dead Alive. Their instrumental take on Zeppelin’s immortal “Stairway” starts off slow and mournful before slowly expanding to show the full range of their guitar mastery. By the time it reaches “And as we wind on down the road,” you’re hanging on the edge of your seat in disbelief that this could be accomplished by only two people.
4. Old School Freight Train – “Clocks”
A cover of: Coldplay
If you asked me about my idealized version of Coldplay, I’d probably reply something along the lines of “the same band, with no vocals.” There’s something about Chris Martin that has always bugged me, but this cover neatly solves that problem with one fell swoop by replacing the entire melody with the fiddle of Old School Freight Train. The track is part of an entire album of bluegrass artists covering Coldplay tunes (the “Pickin’ On” series), but the rendition of “Clocks” is easily the standout tune. It dawdles with some experimental breakdowns and completely turns the song into its own avant garde bit of modern bluegrass, bolstered by a familiar melody.
3. Aoife O’Donnovan with The Duhks – “Love is the Seventh Wave”
A cover of: Sting
I love The Duhks, okay? The Canadian progressive folk band has a knack for picking unusual tracks out of other genres and then totally reworking them into something fresh and new. I mean really, who would think to take “Love is the Seventh Wave,” a pop-reggae track off Sting’s 1985 solo debut and then transform it into banjo-pickin’ tune with heavy Celtic folk influences? It’s another song that is so well conceived and scored that someone hearing it for the first time would never realize it was a cover of another genre. This live version features Aoife O’Donnovan, the lead singer of another influential prog-bluegrass band, Crooked Still.
2. The Be Good Tanyas – “For the Turnstiles”
A cover of: Neil Young
Disclaimer: I have no idea what this Neil Young song is about, and I can make out maybe every other word in both versions, but I absolutely adore it. It has such a simple rhythm, but it just fits like a glove. The vocal delivery of The Be Good Tanyas, another Canadian folk/alt-country group, is certainly unusual but still fits well. Neil Young, after all, doesn’t have the greatest elocution himself. That beat and the harmonica accompaniment make me want to pour myself a big glass of straight rye whiskey.
1. Tim O’Brien – “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)”
A cover of: Bob Dylan
“Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)” certainly isn’t one of the better-known Dylan songs, but in the hands of progressive bluegrass luminary Tim O’Brien the song becomes a thing of beauty. Its galloping, minor-key beat blends perfectly with O’Brien’s reedy vocals. The song was actually one of 13 on a full album of O’Brien’s Dylan covers, Red on Blonde, which I highly recommend. Country singer Dierks Bentley was apparently a fan—he copied O’Brien’s cover almost note-for-note in 2010 and even got Chris Thile to chip in. They can’t hold a candle to O’Brien’s take on the song, though.