“If a song was ever good, it’s still good.” — Willie Nelson
When you’ve been around in the music scene for as long as Willie Nelson has, there’s a good chance that you’ve established your style. The weed-smoking country legend has defined his own unique brand of fumigated folkie tales of love, loss and living with a charm and candour that has endeared him to millions of fans. Another mesmerising string to his bow is his unusually comfortable command of a cover.
Now, we’re not talking about the songs Nelson picked up out of obscurity to make his own, tracks like ‘Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys’ or ‘Whiskey River’, we’re talking about how Nelson can lift a song from the world around him, pay homage to the artist and yet make the piece completely his own. It’s a way of performance that few can pull off as authentically as the long-haired nomad, and, as such, he’s never truly turned his attention away from music.
Nelson may now be one of America’s biggest weed farmers, but he’s still the songsmith he always was. But, more than being a gifted songwriter, Nelson is a wonderful storyteller. Like most narrators, not every story he shares has come from his own pen. Nelson, more than most, is capable of unfurling the narrative of every ditty with a calm and collected command of a gnarled demi-god, providing both empathy and enthusiasm wherever needed. It’s likely derived from his upbringing.
Growing up in Texas, Nelson had few options as a youngster; instead of pursuing academia, he worked in the cotton fields, something that would inform his work throughout his career. “I used to work in the cotton fields a lot when I was young. There were a lot of African Americans working out there. A lot of Mexicans – the blacks and the whites and the Mexicans, all out there singing, and it was like an opera in the cotton fields, and I can still hear it in the music that I write and play today.”
It also gave Nelson an uncanny ability to work as a storyteller, using the songs of others as his text; he always effortlessly delivered renditions that would leave the audience nourished and enriched.
So, are you sitting comfortably? Below we’ve got eight of Willie Nelson’s best covers.
Willie Nelson’s best covers of all time:
‘Hallelujah’ – Leonard Cohen
It’s not unusual for someone to have a crack at mastering Leonard Cohen’s undying anthem from 1984;s Various Positions. The song has become an anthem for musicians everywhere, from Velvet Underground John Cale (who arguably did more for it than Cohen himself) or, indeed, the most iconic version of the song from Jeff Buckley. Somehow, despite the continuous cover of the song, Nelson makes it feel original and bold.
Featuring on his 2006 record Songbird, Nelson’s gnarled vocal is the perfect salt to the caramel country tones that he uses. Flexing on the side of poetry, Nelson hardly sings, instead, letting the power of the lyrics at hand do the hard work.
‘Songbird’ – Fleetwood Mac
A simply gorgeous track from the mind of Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie as she delicately sings about her love for another. The awkward moment on Rumours comes when you remember that she was singing this about a man other than her recently divorced husband, who just so happens to be playing bass across from her.
McVie avoids being too soppy and, instead, nails the juxtaposing feeling of the loneliness of love; it’s an impassioned piece that Nelson can give some credence to. A skilled artist at balancing light and dark, Nelson’s version beams with authenticity and became the title track of his 2006 LP.
‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ – Bob Dylan
Not many can dwarf the likes of Bob Dylan with his stature, but Willie Nelson comes close. The two songsmiths have shared plenty of whiskies and stages along the way, and he does a fine job of chaperoning ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ to a new funky town.
Horns and a bombastic bassline provide Nelson with all the backing he needs to allow his gravelly vocal to bounce off the airwaves. Featuring on his 2008 record Moment of Forever, there’s a genuine attachment to the rebellious lyrics that makes this cover perhaps even more enjoyable than the original.
‘Heart of Gold’ – Neil Young
Taken from his 1986 record Partners, Nelson pays homage to an artist who would likely have never truly found the success and welcoming market he did without Nelson’s own influence. Though Neil Young always operated in his own lane, there’s more than enough similarities between the two to draw comparisons. With this cover, Nelson makes it clearer than ever.
It’s one of Young’s most widely-adored songs, and Nelson’s cover of ‘Heart of Gold’ suggests the country legend was always a fan. Expect to hear Nelson’s harmonica reign supreme and the laconic country charm of old push through to the foreground alongside Nelson’s unique vocal.
‘Dead Flowers’ – The Rolling Stones
As a showing of their determination to make America their homeland, The Rolling Stones paid tribute to perhaps the most sincere genre of Americana there is — country. ‘Dead Flowers’ sees the band flirt with the very dirt upon which the land was founded.
A classic honky-tonk progression upheld throughout the original makes it a free-hit for a star as esteemed and established as Willie Nelson. Guitarist Keith Richards clearly knew this and swapped out Mick Jagger’s twangy vocals for the real deal in 2002 as part of this all-star jam.
‘Time after Time’ – Cyndi Lauper
Too often maligned as a pure pop star, many people forget just how powerful Cyndi Lauper can be. Of course, the finest example of her unique style is the heartbreaking classic, ‘Time After Time’. It’s an anthemic song that benefitted from bolshy production upon its first release. Under Nelson’s guidance, the track takes on a brand new voice.
Using his guitar and little else, Nelson doesn’t need the vocal range of Lauper to grasp the essence of the tune. His delivery is always as usual and beautiful as the sun breaking through the clouds. Of course, there’s more than a hint of country in the 2002 rendition, but it still feels hopeful and captivating in equal measure. And, no, he doesn’t hit the high note.
‘Just Breathe’ – Pearl Jam
Released as part of Heroes in 2015, Nelson turned his attention to a new master of Americana when he picked up Pearl Jam’s song ‘Just Breathe’. While many of the songs featured see Nelson turn a song on its head and make it his own, but ‘Just Breathe’ is, without doubt, the best vision of this notion.
Gentle and soulful, Nelson takes his role as a wise voice among the noise to new heights. Accompanied by Lukas Nelson, there is a holistic sound that radiates from every single note. It’s pure joy, whether you’re a country fan or not.
‘Something’ – The Beatles
“The greatest live song written in the last 50 years” is how Frank Sinatra described The Beatles song ‘Something’. While George Harrison, the song’s creator, would call it “another song written around the D chord,” its ubiquitous appearance in every list of greatest Beatles songs suggests he was maybe a little shy. Nelson, naturally, takes the song into a new sphere.
Shared as part of his 1986 album Partners, Nelson approaches the song with sincerity and unique vocal talent. He somehow transcends the genre boundaries and creates an ample tribute and fortified homage to a classic tune. Harrison, we’re sure, would have enjoyed the cover, even if he wouldn’t tell you himself.