The Renaissance of Cover Songs in Country Music

And a bunch of my favorite new covers.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

If I asked you who recorded “Green Green Grass Of Home,” you would probably have a tough time choosing just one person. My favorite version was Merle Haggard’s, but there were numerous people doing this song, all around the same time, across multiple genres.

“Green Green Grass Of Home” is just one of many songs that were like this back in the day.

I’ll list a few here, along with my favorite versions of them:

Why were covers ever successful?

Covers were extremely prevalent in the 20th century era of music, and there were several reasons why.

The first, is that labels weren’t so protective of their copyrights. If you wanted to do a commercial recording of your version of a song, just take it up with with the original performers, writers, and their labels. Usually you could work out a fair deal. While this is still technically how it works; it feels as though the labels are quite stingy with their artists’ songs.

The second reason, is the way music royalties worked in that era. It was mutually beneficial to the original performers’ camp, as well as the new cover artist. Songs were much bigger individually then, than they are now. You had to buy records and/or 45s if you wanted to hear anything on demand. So if you’re a Jerry Reed fan, who heard Elvis’ “When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold,” it would be more efficient to just buy Jerry Reed’s version. It saves you money, and both artists, their labels, and the original writers still benefit. This just simply isn’t necessary now in the age of streaming.

The third and final reason is that casual music fans were much more casual back then. Someone who liked country music could realistically stay in a country music vacuum by only purchasing country records, and only listening to country radio. Music was just much more segregated then. Let’s say Decca has three artists that are all successful in different genre-spaces. It would be beneficial for them to have a song written, and just give it to each artist. Three different versions, three different sources of revenue from the same song. With this method Decca can reach so many more fans because they’re putting themselves into three different dedicated spaces. This also helps with the brand recognition of the label itself.

Why did covers ever become unpopular?

Commercial cover songs began to decline significantly in the 2000s. The reasons here are more speculation than fact.

I believe one of the biggest reasons is because the more unique you can be, the better. This current era of music is incredibly saturated with artists trying to hit it big. To succeed you have to stand out and have something differentiating you from the rest of the crowd. Singing a song that has already been done, isn’t a great way to do that most of the time.

I don’t believe public interest ever declined in covers, but they just became unviable in the new landscape of cutthroat chart success. People love covers, but most of the time the masses would prefer something new and fresh.

Singles just have more exposure, and marketing behind them now too. If someone tries to cover an Ariana Grande song, people will just say “oh hey it’s that Ariana Grande song.” In the heyday of covers though; it was sometimes hard to even know who the original artist was.

Are they making a comeback?

It does seem as though; slowly, but surely, covers are starting to find their way back into the mainstream space.

They started picking up steam on YouTube in the early 2010s, because if you were a small artist, you could cover a popular song, and when someone went to find it, your cover would come up with it. This is how artists like Justin Bieber got their start.

YouTube is still the best platform for cover songs, because we’re still not totally to the commercial resurgence of them. Most artists are still not releasing official covers, but are dabbling with them on YouTube.

Commercially there is a rise taking form though. It’s becoming more common to see some bigger covers, mostly because it’s a cover of a deep cut, or unknown song. One of the first massive ones to break out recently in country music was Chris Stapleton’s cover of George Jones’ deep cut; Tennessee Whiskey. Brooks and Dunn released a reimagined album with new versions of their greatest hits, and had a new artist featured on each one, so these were like half-covers. Then Josh Turner released a full length album of nothing but covers, called Country State Of Mind.

Some of my favorite modern covers

There is no shortage of great covers, old and new, so picking favorites is hard. To make it easier I’m just going to stick to new artists, and only choose one song from each.

Firstly is Sierra Ferrell’s jazzy cover of The Stanley Brothers’ “I Think I’ll Go Away.” The only thing I can say about this is — wow! Ferrell is one of my favorite traditional style country artists right now, and she normally is fairly subdued with subtle, sweet vocals. On this cover however; she absolutely belts, and sounds very Aretha Franklin-esque.

It was hard to choose just one from Sierra Ferrell, as I think she is one of the best at covering songs, and I highly recommend going and checking out her other covers.

Next up is Luke Combs’ wonderfully countrified version of Ed Sheeran’s “Dive.” I like this better than the original version.

Luke Combs is very, very good at covering songs from other genres, and making them sound like they were written to be country songs. He really takes the song and makes it his own, unique experience.

It killed me to only include one Charley Crockett cover in this list, but I landed on the Tanya Tucker cover; “Jamestown Ferry.” Crockett made this his first big step onto the country scene. It rightfully caused a splash. He takes the original and slows it down, and makes it much more mournful sounding.

Crockett is the king of covering old country songs. He sounds and looks like he stepped out of a time machine. He has insane levels of charisma, and everything he touches is gold. He’s another artist that I urge you to check out his other covers.

This one is just nuts. If you showed this to someone who didn't know this song they’d never guess this was originally by Post Malone. Billy Strings and Sierra Hull completely transformed this song into something totally new.

Billy Strings’ band is phenomenal at what they do, Billy Strings is one of the best guitar players of all time at this point, and Hull can shred the mandolin. All of them playing at once is such a treat, and it’s made even better by the transformation of the song they’re playing.

Speaking of Post Malone; you may not know it, but he’s a massive fan of country music. This cover of Brad Paisley’s “I’m Gonna Miss Her” is stellar. Posty manages to cover this country song in a more tasteful way than most country on today’s radio.

When I saw this, I had no idea how on earth he could possibly make it work in his style. The answer was he really didn't need to. He did it in a pure country form, while still putting his signature touch on it. I would kill for a full Post Malone country cover album… one can dream.

Sturgill is much like Charley Crockett in the way that his voice sounds like it’s from a time machine. “Diggin’ Up Bones” is my favorite Randy Travis song, so when I saw Sturgill had covered it I was very excited.

My excitement was warranted because his voice works so well with this song. He really lets it air out, and belts a few lines.

This one will give ya chills folks. Tyler Childers’ powerful Kentucky voice absolutely shreds this Kristofferson song. He delivers this performance with such raw emotion and power. You can feel that he covered this song because it meant something to him.

The lyrics are so well suited to Childers regular discography as well, so this just feels like a natural choice. This was actually the performance that inspired me to write this piece.

It came as a shock to hear this normally deep voiced cowboy hit the opening notes of this Eddy Arnold hit. This really showcases the dynamics of Wall’s voice, and shows he isn’t confined to just deep songs.

The song itself evokes the spirit of the old west and makes you want to go on a ride through the wilderness and camp out in the cold.

One of my favorite songs of all time, by the late, great Keith Whitley, is done immense justice by Turner’s rendition. His deep, silky voice is perfect for it.

This is one of the covers from his 2020 album I mentioned previously; Country State Of Mind. Every cover on that project is knocked out of the park, so it was hard to choose just one.

This one is kind of a half-cover like I mentioned, but I had to include it for my fellow Kacey-lover Terry Barr. This is such a touching performance, and Kacey’s vocals are just so unbelievably gorgeous as always.

This performance was one of the big things that really opened me up to Kacey Musgraves. She is so delicate with the delivery, and when she duets with Willie, she sings soft so as not to overpower him. It’s a tear-jerker for sure.

I think I’m gonna stop the list there. I hope you enjoyed these covers, and let me know if you have any favorites to share! Thanks for reading as always!

I’ll link some of my other stories here that feature some of the artists mentioned:

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I’m Ethan, and this is my (mostly) country music blog: Critical Country | Top Writer in Country Music and Music | Contact me at ethansilvers@yahoo.com

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Critical Country

Critical Country

I’m Ethan, and this is my (mostly) country music blog: Critical Country | Top Writer in Country Music and Music | Contact me at ethansilvers@yahoo.com

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