I think I’ll go back to the family

One of the lessons learned (or, more precisely, re-learned) during this extraordinarily challenging time has been “It’s all about family.”

Some of us lost loved ones to the Coronavirus. Some of us were quarantined in confined spaces for many months with family members, which was perhaps a combination of heartwarming and exasperating. Many of us were separated from family by travel restrictions and/or the inability to visit safely.

Now that many of us have been vaccinated and restrictions are being eased or lifted, we feel safer about hopping on an airplane for Ohio and finally reuniting with those we love most. Sad to say, my parents have both passed away, but my wife’s parents are still doing great, as are my wife’s siblings and their families, all living in Cleveland, our home town. My in-laws (affectionately known as “the out-laws”) are my family now, and have been for nearly 37 years.

There are a few missing faces, but here’s the gang of “out-laws” I call my extended family. (December 2018)

Sure, there is some degree of dysfunction, irritation and complexity to nearly every family relationship, but there is also love, wisdom, laughter and a trunkful of memories to unpack and share anew. And we’re so looking forward to that part of it all.

To honor the importance of families, I have assembled a playlist of 15 songs with lyrics that celebrate familial bonds. This being Father’s Day weekend, there are several Dad tunes in the mix but also a few about grandparents, sons, daughters, cousins and others who make up the patchwork quilt of the family unit. I’ve focused primarily on songs that offer a positive outlook, but I’ve snuck in a few with a more irreverent take on all this. Doesn’t every family have a crazy cousin?

***************************

“We Are Family,” Sister Sledge, 1979

This international #1 hit, one of the biggest tunes from the disco era, is the perfect song to kick off this playlist. Sister Sledge is a vocal group consisting of Debbie, Joni, Kim and Kathy Sledge, four sisters out of Philadelphia who received their vocal training from their grandmother Viola Williams, a lyric soprano opera singer. They flirted with success throughout the ’70s but had their breakthrough once paired with the great Niles Rodgers, who produced and wrote “We Are Family”: “All of the people around us, they say, ‘Can they be that close?’ /Just let me state for the record, we’re giving love in a family dose, /We are family, I got all my sisters with me…”

“Good Mother,” Jann Arden, 1994

Arden has one of those puzzling singer-songwriter stories about being very successful in her native Canada but barely making a dent among U.S. listeners. Since 1994, every one of Arden’s 11 albums has reached the Top Ten in Canada, and she has won several Juno Awards (Canada’s Grammys), but her excellent “Living Under June” LP is the only one to chart in the US, peaking at only #76. On that album is “Insensitive,” which reached #12 in the US, but there are also six other big singles that were curiously ignored here, including the heartfelt “Good Mother,” which speaks to the importance of having caring parents: “I’ve got a good mother, and her voice is what keeps me here, /Feet on ground, heart in hand, facing forward, be yourself…”

“Father and Son,” Cat Stevens, 1970

From the breakthrough LP “Tea For the Tillerman,” this poignant track helped establish Stevens as a songwriter to be reckoned with. Its lyrics frame a testy exchange between a father not understanding a son’s desire to break away and shape a new life, and the son who cannot really explain himself but knows that it is time for him to seek his own destiny. Said Stevens/Yusef: “Some people think that I was taking the son’s side, but how could I have sung the father’s side if I couldn’t have understood it, too?” Father: “It’s not time to make a change, just relax, take it easy, /You’re still young, that’s your fault, there’s so much you have to know…” Son: “From the moment I could talk, I was ordered to listen, now there’s a way and I know that I have to go away…”

“Grandma’s Hands,” Bill Withers, 1971

Withers, who had a stuttering problem and got picked on a lot as a kid, said, “Grandmothers tend to gravitate toward the weak kid. I learned how to be kind and really just love somebody from a nice old lady. My favorite song that I’ve written has to be about this favorite old lady of mine.” His record company didn’t care for it, but he insisted, and it has gone on to be covered by multiple artists, from Barbra Streisand and Al Jarreau to Keb’ Mo’ and Livingston Taylor: “Grandma’s hands used to hand me piece of candy, Grandma’s hands picked me up each time I fell, Grandma’s hands, boy, they really came in handy…”

Musgaves (right) and her mother

“Family is Family,” Kacey Musgraves, 2015

Most of my readers know I’m not much of a fan of country music, and Kacey Musgraves debuted in 2013 with “Same Trailer, Different Park,” which won Country Album of the Year. But country music isn’t anywhere near as cornpone and excruciating as it once was, and Musgraves is a wonderful singer and whimsical songwriter who I’ve grown to admire. On her “Pageant Material” LP is a marvelous “tell it like it is” tune about the yin and yang of family relationships: “You might look just like ’em, that don’t mean you’re like ’em, but you love ’em, /Family is family, in church or in prison, you get what you get, and you don’t get to pick ’em, /They might smoke like chimneys, but give you their kidneys, /Yeah, friends come in handy, but family is family…”

“Daughters,” John Mayer, 2003

Although Mayer was pegged early in his career as a singer-songwriter, he always wanted to pursue his passion for blues rock as a very fine electric guitarist. When it came time to release another single from his 2003 LP “Heavier Things,” he resisted selecting the mellow “Daughters,” but it ended up being a #19 hit, and won the Song of the Year Grammy. In his acceptance speech, he dedicated the award to his grandmother, who he said had raised wonderful daughters. He said the lyrics were inspired by an ex-flame who hadn’t had a loving relationship with her father, and it had lasting negative effects: “Fathers, be good to your daughters, daughters will love like you do, /Girls become lovers who turn into mothers, so mothers, be good to your daughters too…”

Urban and his father

“Song For Dad,” Keith Urban, 2002

Urban is another artist who leans mostly country, but his brand also includes plenty of rock and folk elements that make his music appealing to me. On his fourth LP, 2002’s “Golden Road,” there’s a really touching song called “Song For Dad” that tugs at all the heartstrings, especially from the point of view of a son who now has a family of his own and, as he ages, he sees his father in his own mannerisms, habits and behaviors: “In everything he ever did, he always did with love, and I’m proud today to say I’m his son, /When somebody says ‘I hope I get to meet your dad,’ I just smile and say ‘You already have’…”

“Mother and Child Reunion,” Paul Simon, 1972

On his debut solo LP, Simon took a stab at bringing reggae rhythms to the US Top 40 when he made “Mother and Child Reunion” his first single, and it worked, reaching #4. Simon recalls, “I was eating in a Chinese restaurant one night and on the menu was a dish they called ‘Mother and Child Reunion.’ It was chicken and eggs. I thought, ‘Oh, I gotta use that one.'” He had a friend who had recently lost his mother, and it occurred to Simon how fleeting life could be, and how the two could be reunited in the blink of an eye: “I would not give you false hope on this strange and mournful day, /But the mother and child reunion is only a motion away…only a moment away…”

“Back to the Family,” Jethro Tull, 1969

In Tull’s early years, the band struggled, playing small towns or cheap clubs while living on the road, away from home and loved ones. Songwriter Ian Anderson turned that into a song for their successful second album, “Stand Up,” which gave an honest assessment of how returning to see the family can have its good and bad points, but it begins with that homesick feeling: “Living this life has its problems, so I think that I’ll give it a break, /Oh, I’m going back to the family,`cause I’ve had about all I can take…”

“My Father’s Eyes,” Eric Clapton, 1998

Clapton never knew his father, a Canadian soldier who got Clapton’s British mother pregnant and then disappeared. He later received word the man had died in 1985, and has always wished he had had the chance to meet him at least once. Clapton’s four-year-old son died in an accident in 1991, and at that point, he wrote “My Father’s Eyes,” in which he “tried to describe the parallel between looking in the eyes of my son, and the eyes of the father that I never met, through the chain of our blood”: “As my soul slides down to die, how could I lose him? What did I try? /Bit by bit, I’ve realized that he was here with me, I looked into my father’s eyes…”

“Grandpa Was a Carpenter,” John Prine, 1971

Prine, who died last year at 73, was best known for his songwriting skills, particularly the way he fashioned a beautifully descriptive lyric with just a few phrases. One such song, “Grandpa Was a Carpenter,” appeared on his third album, “Sweet Revenge,” in 1973. It’s an affectionate tribute to his grandfather, “a simple man full of wisdom and honest values,” as Prine once put it. The lyrics provided hints that allowed the listener to piece together a picture of the man: “He built houses, stores and banks, chain-smoked Camel cigarettes and hammered nails in planks, /He was level on the level and shaved even every door, and voted for Eisenhower ’cause Lincoln won the war…”

“Teach Your Children,” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, 1970

It always seemed to be Graham Nash whose songs were selected to be the singles from the many gems written by David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Neil Young during their relatively brief time together. “Marrakesh Express, “Our House” and “Just a Song Before I Go,” all written by Nash, did well on the charts, but the one that really captures the tender side of this iconic trio/quartet is “Teach Your Children,” with Jerry Garcia’s sweet pedal steel guitar and those trademark harmonies. Its lyrics remind us all to treat our children and parents alike with love and kindness: “Teach your children well, their father’s hell did slowly go by… Teach your parents well, their children’s hell will slowly go by… So just look at them and sigh, and know they love you…”

“Family Man,” Hall and Oates, 1982

Mike Oldfield, the British musician known chiefly for his 1973 tour de force “Tubular Bells,” wrote this tune in 1981 with help from three others and had some chart success in the UK with his own recording of it. Daryl Hall and John Oates recorded a more aggressive cover version that peaked at #6 in the US in the summer of 1983. The lyrics describe a man in a bar who’s approached by a hooker, but he turns her down because he’s a family man. By song’s end, he’s thinking about accepting her offer, but she’s gone: “She had sultry eyes, she made it perfectly plain that she was his for a price, /But he said, ‘leave me alone, I’m a family man, and my bark is much worse than my bite…”

“Cousin Dupree,” Steely Dan, 2000

Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the brilliant songwriting duo behind Steely Dan’s catalog, were known for creating edgy, sometimes creepy characters to inhabit their songs, from drug dealers (“Kid Charlemagne”) to porn stars (“Peg”). On their 2000 reunion album, “Two Against Nature,” they came up with a classic called “Cousin Dupree,” which focuses on a sketchy relative who lusts after his pretty cousin he hasn’t seen since they were young kids: “When I see my little cousin Janine walk in, all I could say was ouch, /Honey how you’ve grown, like a rose, /Well, we used to play when we were three, how about a kiss for your cousin Dupree… What’s so strange about a down-home family romance?…

“Granny Got a Boob Job,” Rowdy Cousin, 2010

Using the moniker Rowdy Cousin, an informal group of fun-loving Oklahoma rednecks started writing, performing and eventually recording original music and comedy in the country rock vein around 2010. Their success has been limited to the Plains region, but I ran across their repertoire on YouTube and Spotify and decided it would be fun to wrap up this “family playlist” with this bawdy, funny tune about what happened in Grandma’s life once cheapskate Grandpa passed away: “Granny got a boob job, Granny got a face lift, Granny not a new Corvette, the frame around her license plate says ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet!”, /Granny got her teeth fixed, Granny got a belly ring, Granny got a new water bed, when somebody asked her why, she said, ‘Cause I ain’t the one that’s dead!”…

***********************

Honorable mention:

Hey Big Brother,” Rare Earth, 1972; “Sweet Li’l Sister,” Bad Company 1976; “Son Of Your Father,” Elton John, 1970; “Somebody’s Daughter,” Tasmin Archer, 1992: “Cousin Kevin,” The Who, 1969; “Uncle Salty,” Aerosmith, 1975; “Your Auntie Grizelda,” The Monkees, 1967; “Me and My Uncle,” The Grateful Dead, 1971; “Cousin of Mine,” Sam Cooke, 1961; “Dance With My Father,” Luther Vandross, 2003; “Daughters of the Sea,” The Doobie Brothers, 1974.

My immediate family: Rachel, Judy, Bruce and Emily. (April 2021)

***********************

Come on, baby, cover me

Let’s get something straight about this subject of cover versions of other artists’ songs.

When I was a teenager, I hated them. Once I heard and loved a song, I recoiled in disgust at anyone else’s interpretation of it. Jose Feliciano doing a Flamenco guitar version of The Doors’ “Light My Fire”? Puh-leeeze. My thinking back then was, Why record a song someone else already did when you can record something new?

But then I started discovering that, in some cases, the version of a song I heard first was, in fact, a cover of a song recorded earlier. I loved James Taylor’s “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” but it turned out to be a cover of Marvin Gaye’s original version. Same goes with The Beatles’ awesome “Roll Over Beethoven,” which, lo and behold, had been a Chuck Berry hit years earlier.

I eventually developed a liking for alternate versions of songs I knew if they were really different — different arrangements, tempos, instrumentation, vocals — and were well executed. The Bangles’ “Hazy Shade of Winter” barely resembles Simon & Garfunkel’s original, but it appeals to me anyway. Ditto Earth Wind and Fire’s killer 1976 version of “Got to Get You Into My Life,” a Beatles tune from their 1966 “Revolver” LP. They’re both valid.

The point is this: There were cover versions of popular songs, a ton of them, on the charts at the same time back in the ’40s and ’50s. It was a time-honored tradition back then, and it still is today. A great song is a great song, and it can usually withstand, and be fortified by, multiple interpretations by multiple artists.

For this post, I have gathered 15 relatively recent recorded cover versions of some of my favorite classic rock songs. Several of them I found on a Spotify playlist called “Acoustic Covers,” which features promising young talent, both little-known and more established. These are really great renditions that you likely haven’t heard before, but I think they’re certainly worthy of your attention.

Enjoy!

***************************

Glen Hansard

“Coyote,” Glen Hansard, 2018 (Original by Joni Mitchell, 1976)

In November 2018, a multitude of artists convened in L.A. for a tribute concert honoring Joni Mitchell’s 75th birthday. The superb album of the concert includes some astonishing cover versions of classic Mitchell tunes — Seal doing “Both Sides Now,” Brandi Carlile nailing “Down to You” and Norah Jones perfecting “Court and Spark” — but I’m partial to Irish singer Glen Hansard covering “Coyote,” originally from Mitchell’s “Hejira” album.

****************

ortoPilot

“Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” ortoPilot, 2012 (Original by The Eurythmics, 1983)

There’s a somewhat mysterious artist who goes by the name ortoPilot who has a ton of followers on Twitter and other social media. He’s from Manchester, England, plays multiple instruments, sings and writes original songs but seems to prefer recording covers. I was taken by his rendition of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” the #1 single that got the ball rolling for Annie Lennox and The Eurythmics back in 1983.

********************

Paul Carrack

“Girl,” Paul Carrack, 2013 (Original by The Beatles, 1965)

Carrack, one of my favorite rock vocalists, got his start as front man for the British group Ace, who had a huge hit in 1975 with “How Long.” He went on to make prominent guest vocal appearances with Squeeze on the hit “Tempted” in 1981, and with Mike + The Mechanics on the hits “Silent Running” (1985) and “The Living Years” (1989). For the 2013 tribute album “Lennon Bermuda,” Carrack did a masterful version of Lennon’s “Girl,” which first appeared on The Beatles’ “Rubber Soul” LP in 1965.

**********************

Maren Morris

“Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” Maren Morris, 2018 (Original by Elton John, 1972)

Morris is one of the most successful country/pop crossover artists in recent years, with “Hero” (2016) and “Girl” (2019) each spawning major hits. Morris co-writes her original material (including two songs co-written with my son-in-law Mikey Reaves!) but she also participated with other country artists on compilation LPs like “Restoration: The Songs of Elton John,” where she put her own stamp on the wonderful minor classic, “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” from John’s 1972 “Honky Chateau” LP.

************************

Iron & Wine (Sam Beam)

“Time After Time,” Iron and Wine, 2016 (Original by Cyndi Lauper, 1983)

Sam Beam, raised in South Carolina in the ’70s and ’80s, adopted the stage name Iron & Wine when he made his debut in 2002. He has released nearly a dozen full albums and EPs of original and cover songs since then, including “Kiss Each Other Clean,” which peaked at #2 on US album charts in 2011. In 2016, he released a sensitive cover of the fabulous Cyndi Lauper hit “Time After Time” as a single, with just voice and acoustic guitar.

************************

Gavin Mikhail

“In Your Eyes,” Gavin Mikhail, 2021 (Original by Peter Gabriel, 1986)

Much like Beam (above), Mikhail debuted in 2002 and has been releasing new music independently ever since. Based in Nashville, he prefers piano as his accompanying instrument as he has sung and recorded a wide variety of low-key covers, from Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” and Oasis’s “Champagne Supernova” to Cat Stevens’ “Wild World” and The Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” Here, he offers a stark arrangement of Peter Gabriel’s iconic “In Your Eyes.”

***********************

Catey Shaw

“Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl),” Catey Shaw, 2021 (Original by Looking Glass, 1972)

Shaw, a Virginia Beach native now in New York City, made a name for herself with a 2014 single called “Brooklyn Girls” that went viral for its vicious putdown of the borough and its denizens. Since then, her output has been sporadic with just a few EPs and a single or two. She has covered Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” Robbie Dupree’s “Steal Away” and, perhaps most startlingly, a compelling barebones version of “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl),” the Looking Glass #1 hit from 1972.

************************

Brandi Carlile

“Take Me Home, Country Roads,” Brandi Carlile, 2021 (Original by John Denver, 1971)

Carlile has been around since 2004, but it was in 2018 that the world finally caught on to her incredible voice and songwriting. She won all three major awards at the 2019 Grammys, for Album of the Year (“By the Way, I Forgive You”) and Song and Record of the Year (“The Joke”). She is also an integral part of the collaborative group The Highwomen with Maren Morris, Amanda Shire and Natalie Hembry. Carlile rarely performs covers, but this reflective rendition of the popular John Denver nugget “Take Me Home, Country Roads” shines as a stand-alone single.

************************

Sarah Jarosz

“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” Sarah Jarosz, 2021 (Original by U2, 1987)

Texas-born Jarosz has won Grammys in Folk and American Roots genre categories during her decade-long career. Her recorded work includes original instrumental and vocal material as well as unusual cover choices like Prince’s “When Doves Cry” and Radiohead’s “The Tourist.” I really enjoy the spin she put on U2’s #1 hit “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” from their 1987 multiplatinum album, “The Joshua Tree.”

************************

The Staves

“I’m On Fire,” The Staves, 2014 (Original by Bruce Springsteen, 1984)

Three sisters — Jessica, Emily and Camilla Staveley-Taylor — promoted themselves as The Staves, an indie folk trio out of Watford, Hertfordshire in the UK. They began recording albums, EPs and singles in 2010 and touring in support of The Civil Wars, Bon Iver and Florence + The Machine in the UK and the US. On their most successful LP, 2014’s “If I Was,” you’ll find this gorgeous cover of Bruce Springsteen’s harrowing song of passion, “I’m On Fire,” from his “Born in the USA” album.

************************

The Brook & The Bluff

“Don’t Worry Baby,” The Brook & The Bluff, 2020 (Original by The Beach Boys, 1964)

Originally a two-man acoustic act out of Auburn University, The Brook and The Bluff is now a four-man group of self-professed “choir nerds” who place heavy emphasis on vocal harmonies for both original tunes and covers. Not surprising, then, that they would choose to do their own version of Brian Wilson’s tender ballad, “Don’t Worry Baby,” one of The Beach Boys’ most popular early songs.

**********************

Phoebe Bridgers

“Friday I’m In Love,” Phoebe Bridgers, 2018 (Original by The Cure, 1992)

One of the Grammy nominees for best new artist in 2020, Bridgers has recorded on her own as well as with the groups The 1975, boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Center. Three years ago, the L.A. native turned heads with this radically different arrangement of The Cure’s 1992 commercial pop hit “Friday I’m in Love.” She’s currently among the most popular artists, with ten different songs receiving 10 million or more hits on Spotify.

*********************

Ed Sheeran

“Candle in the Wind,” Ed Sheeran, 2018 (Original by Elton John, 1973)

Sheeran has been wildly successful in the UK since 2011 and in the US since 2014, with multiplatinum albums and original singles including “Thinking Out Loud,” “Castle on the Hill,” “Shape of You” and “Perfect.” He is also fond of collaborating with other popular artists and recording covers, including this classic Elton John tune from the 2018 compilation “Revamp: Reimagining the Songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin.”

**********************

Shawn Colvin

“Baker Street,” Shawn Colvin, 2015 (Original by Gerry Rafferty, 1978)

Colvin has been a major singer-songwriter since her 1989 debut “Steady On,” and won a Song of the Year Grammy in 1996 for “Sunny Came Home.” She enjoys recording covers as well, doing songs by artists like Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Warren Zevon and Bruce Springsteen. On her 2015 album “Uncovered,” she dares to try Gerry Rafferty’s huge 1978 hit “Baker Street” without the signature sax riff, and makes the song her own. Listen closely and you’ll hear David Crosby doing harmonies.

***********************

Michael Stanley

“Romeo and Juliet,” Michael Stanley, 2016 (Original by Dire Straits, 1980)

Stanley was a hometown musical hero in Cleveland who passed away a few months ago but left a huge recorded legacy, not only with the Michael Stanley Band (1975-1987) but as a prolific solo artist in the ensuing years. He preferred recording originals, but he has done convincing covers of The Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody” and Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane”. On his 2016 LP “The Hang,” he did a magnificent job on one of Dire Straits’ finest tunes, “Romeo and Juliet,” from their 1980 LP “Making Movies.”

********************