Singing other people’s songs is a sensitive art form. I’ve found that the covers I like are the ones that either do a great job of capturing the true spirit of a song, or do the daring thing of making the song something completely different than it was before—arguably a new song. If this second approach is taken, the cover needs to be amazing or it’s a failure, in my opinion.
Willie Nelson recently won a Grammy for his album of George Gershwin songs. I confess it’s the first time in years that I’ve enjoyed listening to Gershwin. But these aren’t the only, and probably not the most popular, covers that Nelson has done. I’ve discovered that he’s able to penetrate to the essence of a song and make its basic point even better than the original writer did. This is no matter of controversy to me. The French organist Olivier Latry plays Messiaen’s music better than Messiaen did, and countless DJ’s have remixed great sound tracks and made them even better.
Two of Willie Nelson’s efforts stand out to me—his covers of Marie by Townes Van Zandt, and Desperadoes Waiting for a Train by Guy Clark. Van Zandt and Clark were close friends, moving into the Nashville area, incidentally, just as Nelson was moving back to Austin in the mid 1970’s. But they all knew each other’s work. Nelson and Merle Haggard made Townes Van Zandt’s Pancho and Lefty famous in 1983 with their cover of it on the record by the same title.
It may seem unusual that Willie would do a Townes song better than Townes did, given the latter’s guitar picking capabilities, but Willie can hold his own, and if Townes’ picking is better than Willie’s, the latter’s singing is certainly stronger. To me, the ingredient that makes Willie’s version of Marie better is his more accurate execution of the mood of the music. The song is about a jobless hobo, who narrates the song, entangled in bureaucracy at the unemployment office who becomes homeless when he meets a girl named Marie and has to move out of the mission where he’s staying to live under a bridge with this new girl. Marie develops the suspicion that she’s pregnant and thinks it’s a little boy. “I hope he don’t end up like me,” the narrator laments. But shortly after that, she dies in her sleep, and the protagonist hops on a train and heads south.
Townes was a master songwriter and an amazing performer when he was on, but sometimes his performances could be languid, as is the case with Marie. His tempo lags, and his delivery is almost as overwrought as an opera singer’s. His mood is all sadness, void of the indignation the narrator of this story undoubtedly feels.
Willie’s version, on the other hand, conveys the angst proper to this tale. Even his guitar snarls angrily in the background. He picks up the tempo, and his delivery has a matter-of-factness that sears the soul. One thing that helps is sheer genetics: Townes has a mellifluous baritone voice, but Willie’s is dry and reedy. It reminds me of a bassoon, or, more accurately, its predecessor, the Renaissance instrument known as a dulzian. It fits the mood of this song perfectly.
Willie’s other master cover is of Guy Clark’s song Desperadoes Waiting for a Train. Guy Clark, like Townes, has unmistakeable characteristics and an instantly identifiable half-spoken, half-sung delivery, and there’s no mimicking him. Any attempt to do so would fall short, much as many such attempts to emulate Lou Reed have been wanting. So Willie didn’t try to emulate him in this cover, which is part of the Guy Clark tribute album This One’s for Him, produced by his biographer Tamara Saviano.
The song is about Clark’s step-grandfather, Jack Prigg, an oil-driller who’d lived and worked all over the world, and, by the time Clark knew him, lived in his grandmother’s hotel in West Texas. The song describes Prigg’s mentorship of Clark, giving him money for the girls, teaching how to drive when Prigg was too drunk to get home, taking him around to see his friends. The song goes on to describe Prigg’s old age and death, and Clark’s visit to him the day before he died. As Prigg is about to die, Clark sings, “Come on, Jack, that son of a bitch is comin’.” This is beautiful. It reminds me of a friend of mine who was a train enthusiast who’s wife told him on his deathbed that the next time he hears a train he should feel free to get on it and take it for a ride, and shortly thereafter, he died. It’s this moment in Willie’s cover that’s exciting and makes his thicker instrumentation advantageous. Just as the train is coming, the whole band cranks it, and gives the song a climax that Clark’s version does not have.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Nelson’s version is better than Clark’s, but it gives a whole new appeal to the song, and that is a display of his mastery. Of course, there’s a thrill in hearing the story first hand from Clark, and his quirky delivery gives the song a flair that no one else will ever be able to give it. But Willie’s version gives the song a better sense of direction and climax, and it’s so much more powerful that way. Ironically enough, although Willie’s instrumentation seems thicker, his track seems less produced than Clark’s whose version on his first album, Old No. 1, borders on the overproduced sound that a lot of Nashville-produced records are known for. I prefer listening to Clark’s version on the live record from Austin, in which he performed with fiddler Stuart Duncan and bassist Edgar Meyer.
Finally the story that proves my point: his cover of Gravedigger by Dave Matthews, of all people.
Matthews is an admirer of Nelson’s and was totally stoked to find out that he was going to cover his song. Since then they’ve even performed it together.
He has even changed his own rendition of it in places to emulate Nelson’s version, as he explained in Rolling Stone. What higher praise could there be? The writer of a song makes changes because he thought someone else interpreted it better. This is evidence that Willie Nelson knows how to tackle a song from the inside out and sing it according to what it is. This takes not only genius but also humility, and I’m pretty sure he has both.
This is nowhere near a complete list of the covers Willie Nelson has done. He’s covered Coldplay, Pearl Jam, Bob Dylan, among others. Maybe at work today I’ll get to put my earbuds in and explore some of those too.