FROM THE EDITOR: COVER SONGS CAN SAY SO MUCH
I often get requests from bands to listen to their music, come watch a show, and let them know what I think. Trashing people, based on my personal taste or opinion, serves no purpose, and God knows social media is already saturated with it. Based on a recent experience with such a request, I thought I’d offer an alternative to the negative and throw something more positive into the arena.
A Nashville-based band sent me a video recently and asked if I would watch it and give them feedback. In it, they were performing a cover of a Randy Houser song. When a band is first getting started and doesn’t have a catalog of original music to draw from, cover songs are a staple of the trade. Depending on how you approach a cover song, it can expose your potential or your weaknesses. Being a fan of someone’s music doesn’t necessarily make you a good fit to perform it. While you may want to pay tribute to that artist, your good intention may be lost in translation. Know your strengths, and be selective in who you cover.
Randy Houser has a big, solid voice, and many of his songs require a powerful delivery to add weight to the lyrics. In this video, the singer couldn’t match Randy’s power, and a female voice was added to harmonize. It didn’t fit the song and only further weakened the vocal. Tone-wise, both of these vocalists have potential, but they needed to select a song that fit their range and style. Anyone in the audience who is familiar with the original will be expecting the powerhouse version. If you put a unique spin on it that suits your wheelhouse, you might be able to win over the crowd. This just sounded like an ill-advised imitation. Don’t undermine what you have to offer by trying to be something you’re not.
The other issue with covering modern country songs is taking on the backing band of the artist. There is a disconnect in Nashville between the musicians who play on the album and the band that backs up the artist on tour. Most of the time, the guys on tour can match the strength of the guys in the studio, so in this case, not only was the band tasked with Randy’s vocal, but it was taking on an exceptional road band. Chances are, the audience has heard the radio version and seen the artist on tour, so the bar is already set pretty high before you’ve played a note.
Randy Houser’s tour band has played together for several years, and there’s not a weak link among them. The only warning you’re going to get as to what’s about to hit you is the drummer counting off the start of the song. Consider it lights flashing, bells ringing, and the gates coming down at a railroad crossing. The freight train is about to come through, and there is zero chance of you stopping it. They are as tight and solid a band as you will find backing up a country artist, so think twice before boarding that train. If your guys have played together for awhile and have the musical chops to assume that role, go for it. If not, don’t. The band in the video played the song like they were afraid of it, and you cannot play a Randy Houser song timidly. Even his ballads aren’t softly delivered. Know what your band is capable of and play something that will make them shine. Don’t play what you think the audience wants to hear. Play songs that will make them want to hear more of you.
In every failed attempt, there’s a lesson that can be learned. Playing cover songs shouldn’t be just a time filler in a long set. With every cover, there’s an opportunity to be original, and/or show the capabilities of the musicians and vocalists on stage. At any level on the hierarchy of performing artists, an unconventional cover song can have far reaching effects. If you’re going to take a risk, choose wisely and make the most of the effort. The best I’ve seen was from a headlining set by Old Dominion. Not only was their song choice completely unexpected, but its placement in the set list was as gutsy as it gets. Old Dominion’s original music is likely classified as pop country, but don’t make the mistake of pigeonholing their band members as such. Most bands choose to end their show with one of their biggest hits, thereby leaving the audience with a strong impression. Old Dominion chose a cover that won a Grammy in 1972 for Best R&B Song. They ended the show with a performance of Bill Withers’ classic, “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Had Bill been in the audience, he would have conceded the song. Both the vocal, and the musicianship, brought the audience to their feet. It was as stunningly delivered as it was shocking in its choice and placement. It showcased the talent and versatility of this band, and left everyone wanting to hear more from them. That is how you make the most of a cover song.
The other lesson to take from watching a poorly chosen cover is the importance of the backing band. With solo artists outweighing full bands in country music, we tend to overlook the significance of the musicians behind the voice. When they’re good, we take them for granted, as does the industry. Throw a weak link into the mix and their value becomes more clear. Randy Houser has a fantastic voice, but throw a mediocre band behind it and it may seem less so. If he hits the notes and his band can’t, he sounds off key and is generally less appealing. A strong band will boost the confidence of the artist, and that translates to a better stage performance overall. When I watch a video of a young band doing a cover song, it’s like holding the Nashville music scene under a microscope. As with this one, I ended up comparing the guys on tour with Randy to the ones covering their parts in this video. There are professionals and there are players. Many can play, but fewer have earned their professional ranking. It doesn’t take a trained ear to hear the difference. If I posted this video alongside the real deal, you would never pay for a Randy Houser concert if he were backed by this cover band.
Cover songs are a great way to test a band’s mettle. Making good decisions off stage is the start of a good live show. Whether you’re a complete unknown or Zac Brown, there is a method and a strategy to choosing a good cover. If you’re an up and coming band, know who you are and set the bar high. Put your personal stamp on the song, and don’t overshoot the abilities of the band. If you don’t have an above average guitar player, avoid songs that require one. If Zac Brown does a cover song, he’s gonna nail it. He knows who he is and what his band can do. Surrounded by professional musicians, you can pull off a spectacular cover that brings the fans to their feet. If you need inspiration, buy a ticket to a Zac Brown Band show. They’ve made the cover song an art form. Take the time to develop your talent as a singer, musician, or band before you try to become someone else, even for one song. And just like training for a prize fight, know your competition. If you’re planning to cover a Randy Houser song, go see him in concert first. Then, if you still think it’s a good decision to cover one of his songs, be prepared to play it like you mean it.
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