unscripted guitar player

What goes into creating a great performance of a cover song?

Performing another artist’s song is aptly called a “cover”: The artist’s voice and style are draped over a familiar tune, transforming it into a new entity.

A cover band performs nothing but a certain famous band’s songs, and their name is unapologetic in its derivation from that band. How do you like Nearly Dan for a Steely Dan cover band?

Artists often scoff at cover bands, even as they admire their talent. There’s a point of pride in being part of a band that plays original music.

According to blues rocker Johnny Winter, Sam Hopkins was performing when some fans asked him to play some Jimmy Reed.

“I am Lightnin’ Hopkins,” he replied. “I don’t play nuttin’ else.”

My husband, Steve, is a songwriter, and he and I have played in bands throughout the ’90s and aughts. Our longest-running band is The Mudcats. Although we had plenty of original material, we covered some songs to appeal to the audience. After a show, a musician friend said that we do our best when playing our own stuff — our hearts are in it.

But great artists have covered the songs of others and made them their own. Coming quickly to mind are Jimi Hendrix’s version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower;” The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout,” which was an earlier cover by the Isley Brothers; and Nirvana’s cover of David Bowie’s “Man Who Sold the World.”

There are covers of cover songs. Jeff Buckley’s sacred rendition of the John Cale version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which was brought into the mainstream by the 2001 film “Shrek,” gets the most acclaim of any recording of this song.

Devo’s refreshing version of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” is as close as you’ll get to a cover by an android.

What makes a good cover song?

What does it take to do a really good cover song? You’ve got to put your heart into it. Never confuse singing along on karaoke night with covering a song. There’s so much more to it.

A great artist can show you what a song’s framework can support. The candy-sweet melody of “Someday My Prince Will Come,” from Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” was infused with hipster cool by Miles Davis. Miles stretches the notes and riffs on them. His trumpet paints a mood, whispering, touching down lightly, now a forceful squeaky phrasing which envelops you in warmth and joy.

The Brazilian musicians Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil (two masters who deserve wider recognition in this country) recorded a samba version of Hendrix’s “Wait Until Tomorrow” on their 1993 collaborative album “Tropicalia 2” that will knock your socks off. The song is taken out of its original timing, and the exuberant percussion is like objects falling off a shelf as a carnival passes by. We are left to catch them or get up and dance.

Patti Smith’s biggest hit is “Because the Night,” a song co-written with Bruce Springsteen. When Smith finally listened to the tape of Springsteen’s chorus, she wrote the verses that night. It’s not a cover song. Springsteen gave it to Smith and trusted her to finish the verses. Yet, with that couplet “Because the night / Belongs to lovers” already set up, Smith admits, “It’s truly a Bruce song, but I infused myself into it.”

Smith recorded an entire album of cover songs in 2017 titled “Twelve” for the twelve songs on the album. When I sing “Soul Kitchen” by the Doors, it’s her version that I’m doing. It’s not that I’m trying. She and I are both singing with Jim Morrison’s inflections, but we are women with a similar vocal timbre. Our instrument is going to sound differently. We are snarling, we are nailing the phrasing on “warm myself near your gentle fire” just like Morrison, but it comes out fresh in our higher register.

But gender works both ways. When I first heard jazz singer Cassandra Wilson sing “When Doves Cry,” it took a while to recognize it as a Prince song. Her smoldering version drastically alters the melody and her throaty alto is such a contrast to Prince’s tenor.

We can thank producer Rick Rubin for Johnny Cash’s late-in-life covers of diverse material. Cash on Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage” is a delight. Cash drops the irony from Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” and the song becomes a sincere prayer. (Plus, we get to hear him growl that low note on “flesh and BONE.”)

Which brings us to one of the greatest cover songs of all time: Cash on the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt.” The pace is a slow grind with the piano drone building to the climax and along the way Cash is dropping lines that seem like they were written for him: “But I remember everything,” and “Everyone I know goes away in the end.” The pain is palpable.

Of course, there are songs that cannot be covered. Aretha Franklin’s version of Otis Redding’s “Respect” took that song out of the cover market.

That won’t stop me from singing along, and maybe even attempting it on karaoke night.

"Unscripted" is a weekly entertainment column produced by a rotating team of writers.

What to Read Next