Cover songs can reveal novel meanings, explore new cultural avenues, and introduce little-known songs to broader audiences, notes Ray Padgett. In 2007, when he was still a student, Padgett founded a blog about cover songs called Cover Me. It has now grown to become the world’s largest blog devoted to this art form, drawing some 80,000 individual readers per month. The site features major artists side by side with under the radar talents, covering both classic hits and obscure gems.
In addition to being interviewed as a cover song expert by the Wall Street Journal, NPR, and the BBC, Padgett’s music writing has also appeared in publications including SPIN, MTV, and Consequence of Sound. His new book, Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time, came out in October. Through a close examination of nineteen songs, Padgett opens a fascinating window into the craft, and business, of making music.
The Rumpus: Where did you grow up and what kinds of music were you into as a kid?
Ray Padgett: I grew up in Chicago, in the neighborhood of Hyde Park. I was a music super-fan from as long as I can remember, which I didn’t think was unusual until later. I think the first time I realized I was more of a music fan than my friends was probably in middle school when a friend brought over a “Weird Al” Yankovic CD. You know, that’s sort of the age when people listen to “Weird Al,” but once I became obsessed, I wasn’t just listening to the new albums but also going back and getting all of the old albums from the 80s. This was the early stuff—polka medleys and parodies of songs I’d never heard. I was saving my allowance to get every one… After that I got more into “acceptable” people like Bob Dylan.
Rumpus: That’s very interesting because Dylan has been covered many, many times by many artists—and I think I read that it was listening to his Sirius show that inspired Cover Me. Is that right?
Padgett: Yes. In the book Dylan is the only artist who gets two appearances because he’s very important in the history of covers. In an indirect way the book and the blog were both inspired by him. For maybe two or three years, when I was in college, Dylan had a radio show on Sirius called “Theme Time Radio Hour” and the idea was that every week he would play ten or so songs on a theme. The theme might be shoes or the theme might be politics.
Rumpus: Was there a particular episode that stood out for you?
Padgett: One day the theme was summer, and the first song he played was a cover of the Gershwin song “Summertime.” That’s one of the most covered songs ever. I knew the song well, and I’d heard various versions, but they were all kind of slow and languid, and pretty and mellow. But he played this version by a 60s soul singer by the name of Billy Stewart. It was totally unlike any version I’d ever heard! It was fast, there were drum solos and horns, scatting and yelling and shouting, and I just remember listening to this in my dorm room and thinking that I literally didn’t know you could do this to a song. I didn’t know that you could take lyrics that are very famous and just totally change the music that much. That sent me down the path: what other versions of songs changed things so dramatically?
Rumpus: That led to you do your own college radio show?
Padgett: Yeah—before Cover Me was a book or blog, it was a radio show I did for maybe six months in my freshman or sophomore year. I basically played cover songs. I’m sure no one listened to it—this was not one of those cool stations everyone listened to; I’m not even sure my parents tuned in—but I had fun. And then I went away to study abroad in Scotland so I couldn’t do the radio show anymore. But I was still following all of these covers and I wanted to share my love of them, so I started the blog.
Rumpus: The Cover Me blog celebrated its tenth anniversary last October. How many songs have you covered on the blog so far?
Padgett: Oh god! We’ve done 3,602 posts as of today, often each posts mentions several songs so I’d ballpark that at maybe somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 songs.
Rumpus: Wow. And you’re not just A/B-ing songs.
Padgett: It’s really evolved. For the first two or three years it was just an ugly BlogSpot like so many in the MP3 blog era. Once a week I would just post five MP3s, and write a little bit about them. But as it’s grown I built it up into a website and we’ve added news and features.
Rumpus: Can you tell me more about the various sections?
Padgett: One of those is “Full Albums,” which is one of our most popular sections where we’ll post covers of every song off a classic album like Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks or Patti Smith’s Horses. Another is “Five Good Covers,” which is five versions of an often-covered song. We’ve also got “Cover Classics,” which looks at old famous cover albums. “In The Spotlight” focuses on great cover artists, like Richie Havens or Joan Baez. Another version of that is “Under the Radar,” where we feature less famous artists who are doing great covers. And that’s just a start. It was never a business plan to write the blog and I never expected it to become as big as it has. It got followers without me even trying.
Rumpus: How do you source the material now?
Padgett: I have an extensive network of Google Alerts set up, my Tweet deck has about eight columns, we have ten to fifteen writers and editors that bring in material, and we also get a ton of submissions from musicians, many I’ve never heard of, and some are really exciting. It’s always fun to post something about someone who’s never been written about! We have a few people like that whom we’ve gone on to have relationships lasting seven or eight years. One of them is this amazing San Francisco-based artist who goes by Unwoman. She’s a cello player who does these amazing gothic cello covers of songs from the 80s and pop songs and all sorts of things. She was actually one of the first people who emailed us.
Rumpus: Looking back, what were some of the most surprising or enlightening entries, the stuff that really blew you away?
Padgett: Here’s a good one: In 2016 we got an email from a Pittsburgh-based bluegrass band called Man About a Horse who covered the Radiohead song “Electioneering”—it was an amazing jam with banjo and fiddle and upright bass. It couldn’t sound more different than the original, which is what I love. So I reached out to them when we put together a compilation of covers to celebrate our tenth birthday and this time they did a cover of “Last Kiss.” That song has been a cover hit several times over but a band like this can still bring something new to it. Another one is this guy from Sweden who I’ve become a huge fan of—he goes by The Land Below and he’s an electronic artist and singer who does these very slow and spacey ambient covers of everyone from Slipknot to Eagle-Eye Cherry. He did “Hooked on a Feeling” but took out all of the ooga chakas, which many consider the essence of that song. We post a lot of famous people, too, but it’s particularly gratifying to discover people like this who are making these great covers, often in their bedrooms.
Rumpus: To segue to the book Cover Me, one of the things I enjoy most is that you share the story of how various cover songs evolved. Describe your selection process and research methods to me.
Padgett: With the book, I started with a list of two hundred, maybe three hundred, iconic covers. As opposed to writing some sort of encyclopedia, where there’s like three hundred covers with like three sentences about each, pretty early on I knew I wanted to pick fewer songs and delve into them deeply. As much as possible I wanted it to be original reporting, so I would start in the library, and seeing what I could find online, but then also finding actual people who could talk to me.
Rumpus: Was it difficult to find these sources?
Padgett: In some cases, the main people are still around—for example I talked to David Byrne about “Take Me to the River” and Mark Mothersbaugh about “Satisfaction,” and to my original hero, “Weird Al.” But in some cases, they’re gone, so even though I couldn’t talk to Jimi Hendrix I could talk to Jimi Hendrix’s girlfriend about “All Along the Watchtower,” and I can’t talk to Whitney Houston about “I Will Always Love You,” I could talk to the guy who ran the mobile recording truck where the song was recorded as Kevin Costner looked over his shoulder. For each of the chapters, I brought in as many original interviews as possible, including some with people who’d never been interviewed on the topic before.
Rumpus: There are plenty of instances where the original is considered better than the cover, but are there also some instances where the cover is better, or is considered to be the definitive version?
Padgett: So many! You could make that argument for probably half the chapters in the book, from Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” to Whitney’s “I Will Always Love You.” More broadly, people are always asking me what makes a good cover, and my answer is to flip it and ask what makes a bad cover. There are always lists of “the worst” like Madonna covering “American Pie” or several covers by Britney Spears. I think the worst cover of all time is a tie between every cover that doesn’t change anything. I think that when you do a cover you don’t just want to recreate every drumbeat or guitar strum in the original. But from there the possibilities are wide open.
Rumpus: Do you have a specific example in mind, where the possibilities have gone in many different directions?
Padgett: The song “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” is a great example. That song had been kicking around Motown for a while. Smokey Robinson did it, and then Marvin Gaye did it. There’s a funny story from the book where Berry Gordy, who ran Motown, had a line where he would ask people, “If you only had enough money to buy this song or a sandwich, which would you buy?” Apparently Marvin Gaye’s initial version did not pass the sandwich test. Gladys Knight then recorded it and hers became a hit, and then they retroactively released Marvin Gaye’s, and it was even bigger, and then Creedence Clearwater Revival came along a few years later and theirs could not sound more different than Marvin Gaye’s, but the fact that their version is amazing in no way negates how great Marvin Gaye’s is. The same is true for other covers of the song that followed. The beauty of a great cover is that the versions can coexist. The covers may amplify the original, but they don’t replace it.
Rumpus: Well, that makes me think about instances where people think they’re hearing the original but it’s actually a cover, for example, Irma Franklin recorded “Piece of My Heart” before Janis Joplin. We talked about Gladys Knight a minute ago, and I read in the book that “Midnight Plane to Georgia” started out as another song called “Midnight Plane to Houston.”
Padgett: Yeah—there are tons of songs like that. For whatever they didn’t become hits the first or first few times around. You can argue that that’s unfair but in the case of “Midnight Plane to Georgia” I’d say Jim Weatherly, who wrote the original “Houston” version, well, in terms of production it’s this folk pop, James Taylor-like thing that I don’t think sounds like a huge hit. It took Gladys Knight a few iterations, and adding the Pips, and the background vocals, and all her soul and swagger to make it the great song it is. There are definitely instances where a great cover sheds light on the greatness of an original, and others where the inverse is true. Leonard Cohen is another example where the songwriting is fantastic but for whatever reason the original recording was not always destined to be a massive hit. Sometimes it takes someone else to come along and tweak the original arrangement or production, etc. to make that happen.
Rumpus: That brings us to very interesting legal territory, which you explore in the book. What happens when songs interpolate other songs? For example, Patti Smith brought elements of “Gloria” by Them into her song of the same name, but she also added a lot, both lyrically and musically. Is it still a cover song, or another category entirely?
Padgett: To be honest, it can be a little fuzzy. I tend to lean on the side of being more broad and open in what I consider a cover. In Patti Smith’s “Gloria,” I haven’t literally counted the words but I think that more than half are Patti Smith’s own. But obviously it’s called “Gloria” and the chorus is based on the original. In terms of the legal angle, it’s settled that you can cover any song you want without permission as long as you pay for what’s called a mechanical license—a percentage of whatever you make to the songwriter. But the catch there is you have to do the words just as they’re written. If you change them, you do need permission.
Rumpus: Even just a bit?
Padgett: There’s a funny story in the book about The Fugees doing “Killing Me Softly.” They were planning on doing a cover of a song written by Charles Fox—with lyrics by Normal Gimbel—that was a hit for Roberta Flack, but in the context of a hip-hop album. Rather than Lauryn Hill singing it as a straight ballad, they wanted to change the line to “killing the soundboy,” which was a Jamaican-esque slang term referring to offing a wannabe. But the original songwriter said no. That ended up actually working to The Fugees’s benefit because the reference they wanted would likely have limited the song from becoming their biggest hit.
Rumpus: Can you distinguish between a cover and appropriation/infringement? I’m thinking, for example, of the “Blurred Lines” case a few years back, where it’s not the words that were alleged to be similar but something in the musical composition.
Padgett: I find that stuff really interesting, but I think if you’re not keeping any of the original lyrics that’s where I draw the line. I recently read about Radiohead saying that Lana Del Rey may have ripped off “Creep.” But if I don’t see it in the lyrics, then I’d say it’s not a cover.
Rumpus: How about tribute bands? They often get a bad rap—folks like Chuck Klosterman have depicted them as wannabes, and dismissed their music as derivative.
Padgett: I sympathize to the extent that the vast majority of tribute bands are attempting to recreate the originals. Don’t get me wrong—they can be super fun to see in concert. A few years ago I wandered into a Weezer tribute band’s show and had a blast. That said, I wouldn’t listen to a record by a Weezer tribute band because to Chuck’s point, most are slavishly copying Weezer. There are a few exceptions to this, though. One of the better-known is a group called Hayseed Dixie. They do bluegrass covers of AC/DC—they’re a tribute band but they’re doing something very different.
Rumpus: Aside from Adele, who covered Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” in 2008, and Johnny Cash, who covered Nine Inch Nails’s “Hurt” in 2002, I notice that the songs you chose for the book are from the 50s through the 90s. Do you think there’s a golden age of covers?
Padgett: I think now is the golden age of covers. In recent years there haven’t been as many massive covers that I was excited to write about for the book, but in terms of chart position the biggest cover in recent years has been Disturbed doing “The Sound of Silence.” A lot of the songs I’m writing about in the book are from when doing a “cover song” was still something of a taboo. You know, after Bob Dylan and the Beatles, many people thought that a singer should write his own songs—and singer/songwriter became more of a single job title than a two job title. As a result, if you were singing someone else’s songs, a lot of times you’d hide that fact—and for good reason if you think about that classic criticism about a pop star, “Oh, she doesn’t even write her own songs!” I think people now realize there is artistry to taking a song and making it your own. Every great band I can think of, the coolest bands in the world, now do covers all the time—like Arcade Fire, Vampire Weekend, and The National, just to name a few. In the era of YouTube and Spotify, you don’t have to decide if your next single is going to be a cover or an original. Putting out a cover doesn’t necessarily mean you’re replacing an original song. Thirty years ago covers weren’t considered cool but today they are.
Rumpus: Is there any song that’s so perfect, or so definitive, that no one should attempt to cover it?
Padgett: Absolutely not. Some songs are easier or harder to cover. It can be difficult to cover the Beatles, for example. But that’s the flip of someone like Bob Dylan where people love to hear his songs but not necessarily his voice. Then again, even with the Beatles you have people like Joe Cocker that have put out fantastic covers. It can be done for any song.
Read Padgett’s essay about DEVO’s cover of The Rolling Stones’s “Satisfaction” in the New Yorker.
Here’s Padgett’s argument that “Weird Al” isn’t just a parody artist.
Check out this really cool twenty-five track tribute to the cover song itself, which Cover Me compiled to celebrate its tenth year!
Feature photograph © Lesley Stephen. All photographs provided courtesy of Ray Padgett.
This interview has been edited and condensed. If you’d like to recommend someone for “Sound & Vision,” drop Allyson a line here.