Country Stars Continue to Cover John

Tony, our keenly observant web master, recently pointed out how many country singers have covered John’s songs—either in concert or on record.

Sure enough, the list would include Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney, Keith Urban, Trisha Yearwood, and of course, Little Big Town, just to name a few.

And then there’s Travis Tritt, who in 2004 enlisted John to join in on “What Say You.” A bold expression of tolerance of opposing viewpoints--Tritt politically balancing lefty John on the right--the song was a country hit, and a perfect meeting of music styles, if not of the political minds.

“First, I'm a big fan of John's music,” Tritt told USA Today at the time. “I also respect his integrity, that he does things the way he thinks they should be done, which is the way I run my career. And I thought our voices would work well together.”

Younger country act Little Big Town, which has recorded and performed live with John, obviously feels the same. Toby Keith, the latest in the line of rugged country outlaw individuals (following Tritt, who followed Hank Williams, Jr.), understandably took a liking to “Authority Song”—which, incidentally, has a bit of a resemblance to the Bobby Fuller Four’s classic garage rocker “I Fought the Law,” which Williams covered.

Like Tritt, country superstar Kenny Chesney has a history with John, having partnered with him on a “CMT Crossroads” installment (John even has a page on the country video channel’s web site). So it makes sense that he has done “Jack & Diane” and “Hurts So Good” live. Making more sense is Trisha Yearwood’s choice of “Small Town” as a concert showpiece, since this song is among John’s most country-friendly pop hits. At least Keith Urban also sings a small-town song—with a car theme—in “Rumbleseat.”

But “Hurts So Good” is probably John’s most-performed song among country singers. Julie Roberts and Gretchen Wilson have sung it in concert (Wilson sang it with Chesney when they toured together), and Lady Antebellum has sung it in concert, too, along with “ROCK In the USA.” And despite that it’s essentially a standard, classic rocker, it should come as no surprise.

Chesney is almost 42, and “Hurts So Good” is almost 28. This means that when Chesney first heard it, he was 14. In other words, it was a big hit for Chesney—and other artists of his generation--when he was growing up and clearly listening to Top 40 radio.

Tim McGraw, who is nearing 43, actually goes one deeper by doing “Ain’t Even Done With The Night”—John’s Top 20 hit that preceded “Hurts So Good” by 14 months—in concert. The point is, these artists, while making it big in country music and sometimes even crossing over to pop (unlike John, who has gone from pop to country), were just as influenced—if not more so—by pop artists than country.

It should also be noted, though, that country artists have been covering songs by pop artists—and vice versa—since forever. Indeed, Tony Bennett loves to tell how Hank Williams (senior, that is) called him after his early 1950s cover of “Cold, Cold Heart” went to No. 1 on the pop chart and complained—seriously—“Hey, Tony! Why did you ruin my song?”

I remember seeing Ronnie Milsap—who started out as an r&b singer, by the way—do a great country version of the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” in concert, not knowing that the Stones had done their own version, “Country Honk,” on the “Let It Bleed” album. And Alison Krauss has done beautiful country versions of the Beatles (“I Will”), The Foundations (“Baby, Now That I’ve Found You”) and even Bad Company (“Oh, Atlanta”).

And let’s not leave out the biggest country star ever, Garth Brooks, who has performed with two of his biggest idols—Billy Joel and Kiss.

Alison and Garth grew up with the rock artists they covered, as did most of the country artists who have covered John. The big difference is that not only has John kept current and visible, but that his music has always been relevant for country music traditionalists and those of a more pop persuasion—as evidenced by the range of country artists who have covered him.

--jim bessman