Cover Songs by Johnny Cash, Tori Amos, Ryan Adams, others: Gimme Five

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Singers and musicians often record or perform songs that were originally done by other artists. Reasons vary. Historically, it was sometimes done to ride the coattails of a popular trend. As that became a less accepted means of establishing one’s own artistic legitimacy, performing cover versions sometimes became simply a way to have some fun outside one’s own creative body of work.

However, on occasion, an artist recognizes certain undiscovered qualities in a song, revealing them through their own unique perspective. Here are only a few examples of cover versions that go somewhere quite unexpected …

WALL OF VOODOO, “RING OF FIRE” (WALL OF VOODOO EP, 1980): This Johnny Cash standard gets a low-fi electronic treatment, complete with deadpan vocal delivery by lead vocalist Stan Ridgway. The overall result is that lines like “Love is a burning thing” feel less metaphorical and more actual.

TORI AMOS, “SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT” (CRUCIFY EP, 1992): Nirvana’s breakthrough hit was the anthem for impatient rock fans just waiting for something powerful to wash away the bad taste (and tastemakers) of the 90s. Tori Amos’ version, however, focuses not on the power, but the mystery of discontent, and asks that all innovative musicians stand up and be counted, including those who’d rather play a Steinway than a Stratocaster.

PETRA HADEN, “I CAN SEE FOR MILES” (SINGS: THE WHO SELL OUT, 2005): The Who established a number of rock music milestones, one of which was The Who Sell Out. The album was formatted like a radio show, mixing songs, commercials, and even songs that turned out to be commercials. Nearly 40 years later, singer Petra Haden covered the entire album a cappella (i.e., using only the voice), bringing a whole different perspective to the entire concept.

RYAN ADAMS, “WONDERWALL” (LOVE IS HELL, 2004): The Oasis mega hit was omnipresent and even pretty cool, but it was still hard to make sense of its lyrical direction. Ryan Adams’ version doesn’t clear that up; instead, it further complicates it by adding such intense emotional depth that the listener really has to wonder what he’s singing about so passionately.

JOHNNY CASH, “HURT” (AMERICAN IV: THE MAN COMES AROUND, 2002): The Man in Black, no stranger to singing covers or having his songs covered by others, takes this Nine Inch Nails song and makes it all his own. Written by Trent Reznor, it’s a good song, but you can’t help but wonder how Cash himself felt about it as he sang it, armed with the knowledge that comes with age. Reznor himself said, “[I felt like] I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore… reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre [it] still retains sincerity and meaning – different, but every bit as pure.”

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