Bluegrass Covers of Non-Bluegrass Songs

I actually disliked this song at first because I thought it was Phish and I actively hated anything Phish-related when I first heard this over a decade ago.  I’ve softened my stance somewhat since, but I digress. This was my first exposure to the bluegrass cover of a non- bluegrass song and to this day, I pay the extra quarter at my dive bar to play this song on the juke box. Snoop ain’t no Biggy, but he can compose some feel good rhymes.

As a result of our biggest show of the year last week with the amazing Something With Strings, I’ve been on a bluegrass kick of epic proportions. I’ve alienated co-workers, scared my dog, and thoroughly driven my roommate crazy and it feels great. At one point in my life, probably right after my Dead kick in college, I listened to the music hard as Old Crow Medicine Show and other bands of their ilk became more prevalent. This is long before Mumford, the Lumineers, and what I generally think of as the “Bluegrass Lite” era we now are at the tail-end of living. My first favorite bluegrass group was obviously Old and in the Way which featured Jerry “Dawg” Garcia on banjo and specifically, their cover of “Wild Horses” which brings it all back together for the topic of this post.

At one time, and possibly still, Old and in the Way’s debut album was the highest selling bluegrass album ever and I think it’s in no small part due to the fact that they did a bunch of popular covers in the bluegrass style. Obviously, Jerry being in the band was a factor too, as well as the other members like David Grisman on Mandolin and Vassar Clements of Bill Monroe fame on fiddle. Bill Monroe was likely the first “big” bluegrass star for those of you not in the know and considered the progenitor of the genre.

I basically wore out my OAITW record and I continually collect new covers of popular songs in a bluegrass format. Sometimes people show them to me, sometimes I hear them organically and sometimes I just wish they would exist and then they actually do. It’s a great style of music and one that sprung up in the country hollers of Appalachia with elements of British Isles musical tradition and African American blues/gospel flavors. The banjo itself is of African origin and got jacked by white folks for bluegrass music. A match made in heaven.

This is the one that got this whole post going.  Something with Strings opened up for this band and I saw Turtles on the live music station Palladia and made the connection. This song came on and, as you know, I love the Pixies. They don’t do anything crazy musically, but I think the vocals and arrangements are amazing. I’ve listened to this song twice a day for the whole week and it doesn’t seem to be letting up.

When someone puts an alternative song or a rock song or a rap song in this traditional form, I find it incredibly interesting. My brother has written a lot on covers and I feel I have missed the train. This style  seems to be my niche and I’m going to run with it now. The whole taking a song from one genre and covering it in another has probably been around as long as genres themselves had or at least since music became more than semi-rhythmic pounding on home made drums. Just look at John Coltrane’s jazz cover of “My Favorite Things” and Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass Band Christmas album. Ok, forget that last one unless you’re feeling spicy or seasonal.

The recording is a little rough, however, I love the idea of covering a largely electronic band in this format. I have no idea who these guys are, but this is a sweet cover of a decent band.

We like covers because we get to listen to a song we already know and can sing along. Putting it in a different genre makes it different from the original. It’s the same principal my own band makes its money on, taking songs people know and playing them in a style we hope is somewhat ours. The fact that we aren’t making our own music yet annoys me, but all in good time is the mindset I am forcing myself to have. After seeing so many different bands do bluegrass covers while researching this post, I am really thinking that there must be something said about the musicianship of these people who arrange popular songs in this bluegrass style. It can’t be easy and my respect level for these folks is only rising.

I love how he introduces it as a traditional song from the Ozarks and asks for a sing along. Anyone not aware this band was doing covers would be pretty lost.  Oh yeah and I also love AC/DC, preferably the Bon Scott era.

Even if the band members aren’t doing anything crazy, the time and practice it must take to arrange and perform these songs hurts my brain to even think about it. I remember trying to do this with “Money” by Pink Floyd because it was the first bass line I learned not in traditional time, as much of that song is in 7/8 as opposed to the typical 4/4 or 1/2 of country and rock. And we didn’t even arrange it in any crazy way, basically the way Floyd does it with an extra guitar solo instead of a saxophone. So, doing songs in a completely different manner than they were written and performed is no small task and these groups deserve our respect. Plus, they make you want to get up and dance.

Here we have a totally alternative rock song really tastefully down in the bluegrass style. To be honest, I was searching for a cover of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” by the same band and couldn’t find one without an ad and I stumbled onto this cover which is equally or more interesting. I do love me some “Rocket Man” though and I can assure their cover was face melting.

Bluegrass seems to attract some high level of musicians, both instrumentally and vocally. In every one of these songs, there is a lot going on and the occasional time shift added in for good measure. Playing like that is a difficult thing and while also singing the delicious harmonies bluegrass is known for, it boggles my mind how good some of these bands are. I have liked bluegrass almost as long as I’ve liked country but learning to play music has shown me even more reasons why  this genre and this music is so damn good.

I was seeking out a cover of Iron Maiden’s “Run to the Hills” in the bluegrass style and was only finding “The Trooper” and “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” when I stumbled upon this track. These folks are so tight that it hurts and that’s a good thing. His German accent makes the song sound particular unique and I’m floored I found this. I’ve always wanted my band to do a cover of  “Run to the Hills” where we play it country style then halfway through, kick it up to metal time. Someday.

I am fully back on the bluegrass train and even after I found more than enough songs for this post, I kept seeking out new ones just so I could see what else is out there. There may even have to be a sequel to this post with mostly just songs, especially if I ever find the Maiden covers I am seeking. I love this style of music, the mad skills of the people who play it, and the wide range of influences and flavors found throughout. To bring it all back together, I will leave you with a Zeppelin cover by the band who played with my band last Saturday night. These guys kill it and I’m honored to have shared the stage with them and that they are also my close friends.  I can’t wait until next time, maybe a double-band Pixies cover of “Run through the Hills”?

6 comments on “Bluegrass Covers of Non-Bluegrass Songs

  1. theelderj says:

    Bluegrass is definitely a deep and difficult style but one of those that really deserves attention because its roots are diverse and it is quintessentially American. I like that you call Mumford et al. bluegrass lite, but I think that shorts bluegrass too much.

    I have a few albums of bluegrass covers (mostly instrumental) and what I really like about it is the energy. It is strange that there haven’t been more bluegrass mainstream crossovers…

  2. Paul says:

    So here’s a response from the “Way-back Machine.” Check out Run C&W (The Burns Brothers) for “that sweet soul music the way God intended it to be played – bluegrass style.” I stumbled across their CDs years ago in a friends garage in Cornish. He sold old vinyl, tapes and CDs on weekends and at festivals.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Run_C&W

    Also check out the Ricky Skaggs/Bruce Hornsby version of Super Freak (just too weird!)

    …and for further kicks and grins the Beatles suite on Bill Evan’s album “In Good Company”

    I’m just gettin’ started….. 😎

    • theyoungerj says:

      These are all awesome! I saw your comment almost simultaneously when your wife showed up at my house to make Scandanavian treats.

  3. […] is one of my favorite songs and I happened to stumble upon this bluegrass version accidentally and I am stoked with the results. I’ve loved this song a long time and […]

  4. […] the crowd at their first few shows back in 2007 or 08 and we chatted a few times. My friend’s bluegrass band has done some shows with Speed’s lead singer and hopes are high that they will work more […]

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