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Bluegrass Music

Bluegrass Covers of Pop Music

I received an email press release a few days ago that I deleted after a quick read-through. A bluegrass artist (the name escapes me) was releasing a new single that was a cover of a mainstream pop-rock song (again, the name escapes me). I do remember that the song, in my mind, did not seem like something that would sound good as a bluegrass tune.

Now I am all for pushing to boundaries a bit when it comes to songs in bluegrass. I really do not like hearing bands covering the same 20-30 established bluegrass standards. Some bands are able to write their own songs to varying degrees of palpability. Other artists like to secure the talents of established songwriters to provide a hit. Then there are some artists that listen to songs outside of the bluegrass realm, especially in the country, pop, and rock categories, and try to interpret hits from those formats into a bluegrass sound.

(Note that this will not discuss the “Pickin’ On” series of bluegrass albums performing songs from various rock bands, released by CMH Records. See my previous post on this at https://luegra.design.blog/2020/11/26/bluegrass-is-in-the-ear-of-the-beholder/)

This of course is not a new thing. Bill Monroe had done this throughout his entire career with the Blue Grass Boys (then again, Bill Monroe could do whatever he wanted when it came to bluegrass). In the 1960s, King Records out of Cincinnati had both bluegrass and R&B acts on its roster, so the execs would try to cash in on royalties by having bands record songs from the other format. The best example was the Stanley Brothers recording a version of Hank Ballard’s “Finger Poppin’ Time.” Ballard’s version was a hit, the Stanley’s version never made it to the charts.

Jim and Jesse McReynolds recorded a whole album of Chuck Berry classics. Flatt & Scruggs recorded a number of Bob Dylan songs. The Country Gentlemen and Seldom Scene were known for finding great pop songs and converting them to a more progressive bluegrass sound. The New Grass Revival also made use of covering pop songs (I still say that NGR’s version of Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar” is one of the best covers EVER!). I wouldn’t even begin to count the number of times a Beatles song was covered by a bluegrass band. Then there is Tony Rice, who was a big fan of Gordon Lightfoot and recorded a number of the folksinger’s tunes.

In more recent times, there has been a resurgence in this action. Dale Ann Bradley has recorded a number of songs originally performed by Tom Petty, U2, and others. Of course, one fantastic bluegrass cover is Del McCoury’s version of “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” written and performed originally by English folksinger Richard Thompson.

There are a number of younger bands in the bluegrass fold that are also going to the pop music folder to pull out a gem. The one thing that I have noticed, though, is that there is not much thought into making the song “feel” like a bluegrass tune. Instead, it sound more like an attempt at playing the pop song as a pop song, only with acoustic instruments.

Again, I am all for bluegrass bands trying to find new material to perform, whether it is self-penned or searching for unique covers. However, bands also need to truly listen to the song and decide if it can become a good bluegrass tune. There are a lot of non-bluegrass songs that I love, be it pop, rock, metal, R&B, country, polka, or folk. And there are a lot of times that I listen to those songs and think if they would make good bluegrass tunes. Well, 99% of the time, they do not.

I am not saying that bands should not try, but they also need to be discerning. I have a lot of friends in bluegrass band with national prominence. Some of these band have recorded covers of pop songs and attempted to put a bluegrass slant to them. I have to be honest, I haven’t heard one lately that has been a treat to which to listen. I can understand that many of these bands are trying to get a wider audience, but at what cost? I like to think about the Beatles and their cover of “Mr. Moonlight.” The band was on top of the world, and was doing a lot of other covers along with some fantastic original material. However, that particular cover, with the tacky B3 organ and drum slap after each verse, just did not cut it, and has always been an inside guffaw to many fans.

Established bluegrass bands love to jam, and with that jamming comes creativity. With creativity also comes intelligence. Be smart enough when something creative sounds hokey or sounds like a hit.

Chew on it and comment.

By Matt Merta/Mitch Matthews

Musician and writer (both song and print) for over 30 years. Primarily interested in roots music (Americana, bluegrass, blues, folk). Current contributing writer for Fiddler Magazine, previous work with Metro Times (Detroit), Ann Arbor Paper and Real Detroit Weekly, as well as other various music and military publications. As songwriter, won the 2015 Chris Austin Songwriting Contest (Bluegrass Category, "Something About A Train," co-written with Dawn Kenney and David Morris) as well as having work performed on NPR and nominated for numerous Detroit Music Awards.

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