County Tracks has yet to hit its first birthday, but the other blog I run, Cover Me, turns ten this month. And in a nice bit of serendipity, this month I also released a book called Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time and the early response has been fantastic. Variety called it “one of the best multi-subject music books to come down the pike in years” which, you know, who am I to argue?
Why am I awkwardly quoting my own reviews? Because I am holding a Burlington book-release event at Phoenix books on November 1st, with live music from Mark Daly of Madaila and Amanda Gustafson and Eric Olsen of Swale. And while I try to write everything on this site in a way that might interest outsiders who know nothing about Vermont or its artists, I know a decent portion of our readers are locals. If that number includes you, I hope you’ll stop by Phoenix books on November 1st! All details here.
This seemed like a perfect opportunity to blend my two passions, cover songs and Vermont music. So, to selflessly promote Vermont bands while selfishly pimping my own book party (November 1st! Phoenix! Burlington!), I’ve rounded up a couple dozen of the best covers to ever emerge from the Green Mountains. First half below, second coming tomorrow. No doubt I missed plenty, so please let me know what your own favorites are in the comments.
Anaïs Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer – Sir Patrick Spens (Child 58)
In the late 1800s, an folklorist named Francis James Child collected three-hundred traditional ballads from England and Scotland. These became known as the “Child Ballads,” though he himself didn’t write any of them. In the era of recorded music, they’ve been covered by everyone from Fairport Convention to Fleet Foxes. Vermonter Anaïs Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer released a full album of them in 2013. They’re all beautiful, but “Sir Patrick Spens” is my favorite.
Barbacoa – Blood Boy (Envy cover)
Back in the 1990s, record label Good Citizen released a two-disc set of local bands covering each other called Burlington Does Burlington. We could have picked any number of songs from it. Eugene Hutz belts a song in his early pre-Gogol Bordello local band The Fags. The Pants manage to turn a Phish jam into a garage-punk nugget, complete with barroom sing-along. But we’ll go with surf-rock instrumentalists Barbacoa’s saxophone deconstruction of ’90s alt-rock favorites Envy.
Chamberlin – Lost in the World (Kanye West cover)
Chamberlin only lasted a couple years, but during their short existence they quickly broke out as one of the state’s biggest bands, touring with that state’s actual biggest band at the time – depending on whether Phish still counted as “local” in 2011 – Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. Chamberlin’s second release was a charity covers EP – which we ranked one of the best of that year at Cover Me – tackling a host of then-current singles by Passion Pit, Vampire Weekend, Foster the People, Cults, and Kanye. It’s a shame they didn’t do more, but then again, their breakup formed the seeds of new Vermont breakouts Madaila, so it’s not all bad.
Cricket Blue – Sally’s Song (Danny Elfman cover)
Cricket Blue do a number of great covers, from Bobbie Gentrey to Anaiss Mitchell, but with Halloween coming there’s no better choice than “Sally’s Song,” one of the lesser-known songs from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. A decade ago there was a big, splashy tribute album to this soundtrack with unfortunate covers by people like Korn and the All-American Rejects. We wish they’d used Cricket Blue instead.
Dick McCormack – Red River Valley (Traditional Cover)
Vermont record stores often have, tucked away in a dusty corner, a handful beat-up local folk LPs from the state’s hippie heyday. Most aren’t available digitally, and some don’t even turn up a single Google result. I purchased one lovely Dick McCormack album a few years back that I have yet to find MP3s for, but a blogger did once rip his 1976 album Voices In The Hills from vinyl. After a number of tender originals (go listen to “As the River Thaws Each Spring”), he closes with a rousing sing-along through the cowboy song “Red River Valley.” Fun fact: Dick McCormack is now a State Senator! Who knew a folk singer could become a senator? This guy did.
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals – White Rabbit (Jefferson Airplane cover)
Well-chosen covers used to be a highlight of any Grace Potter and the Nocturnals show. I tried to round them all up back in 2010 and topped out at over 50 – and those were just the ones a bootlegger had recorded. So choosing a highlight is hard. Her Beyoncé cover is pretty unstoppable, and she can belt the blues like nobody’s business. Hell, she once did a whole medley blending songs from Top Gun. But perhaps the one that stands highest is her take on her fellow Grace – Slick – which was a staple of their live shows over the years.
Henry Jamison – If You Could Read My Mind (Gordon Lightfoot cover)
The newest track on this list comes from Vermont’s latest breakout act, Henry Jamison. Gordon Lightfoot may seem an obvious choice for a singer-songwriter, but Jamison takes it in some non-obvious directions. This is no folkie strum-along. Instead, Jamison combines plucked strings with handclaps and swirling electronics to back his gorgeous high-lonesome voice.
The High Breaks – Paranoid (Black Sabbath cover)
Covering Black Sabbath songs in a surf-rock style sounds like a gimmick. And it is. But can a gimmick be good? The Ventures made a career out of it, after all; they’re about to hit fifty years running. Though surf has fallen wildly out of style since their heyday, the High Breaks keep the board afloat. They write their own wave-ready originals, but also have a great alter ego “Surf Sabbath” that delivers precisely that the moniker promises.
The Jazz Mandolin Project – Everything In Its Right Place (Radiohead cover)
The Jazz Mandolin Project undersells itself with that name. Yes, they do play jazz sometimes, and yes, there are mandolins involved. But on their 2005 covers album The Deep Forbidden Lake, they take that template into some weird and experimental places. So much so that a cover of a Kid A song makes perfect sense alongside the Neil Young and Tom Waits tunes.
Joshua Panda – Come On Up to the House (Tom Waits cover)
Vermont music fans know that Josh Panda is a terrific songwriter (he wrote our #1 song of 2016), but anyone who goes to shows regularly knows he’s in the running for the state’s best cover performer, regularly fronting tributes to the Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead, Doors and more. Once he even did a full show only covering songs from 1975. He rarely records them on albums, but he did sneak this fantastic Tom Waits cover onto his 2010 self-titled album.
Kat Wright and the Indomitable Soul Band – Say My Name (Destiny’s Child cover)
Soul revivalist Kat Wright covers everyone from Aretha Franklin to Ray Charles in her live shows, and has the pipes to do her obvious inspirations proud. But her greatest cover is a little more left-field, a horn-fueled live version of Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name.” I’m not the only one who thinks so either; the video has become one of her biggest online, topping 50,000 views.
Kat Wright and Brett Hughes – Did Somebody Make a Fool Out of You (Tony Joe White cover)
I planned on only one song per musician so this is cheating a bit, but Kat paired with honky-tonker Brett Hughes on guitar is so dramatically different than her soul sound that we’ll allow it. Plenty of other musicians play in multiple bands here too, after all. They’ve never released an album in this format, but now that Brett’s finally recording his own debut, we can hope a duets record won’t be too far behind.
The book party for ‘Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time’ takes place November 1 at 7pm at Phoenix Books in Burlington. It will feature special covers performed by Madaila’s Mark Daly and Swale’s Amanda Gustafson and Eric Olsen, plus a conversation about cover songs with the Burlington Free-Press‘s Brent Hallenbeck, and a book signing. More information at Facebook and at PhoenixBooks.biz.