My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Songwriters sound off

The recent minor Twitter storm elicited by Miranda Lambert’s hurt feelings over singer-songwriter Patty Griffin saying in Entertainment Weekly that she thought the latter’s cover of her song ‘Getting Ready’ on 2007’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was “loud”, has led me to think about the question of whether what writers say in public about covers of their songs is generally what they truly think.

In the original interview, Griffin was asked for her opinion of several covers of her songs:

”It doesn’t have to be loud,” she says of Lambert’s raucous ”Getting Ready.” ”To me, it’s tongue-in-cheek. When you’re younger, forces inside of you are telling you to stand on a table and scream and tell people to look at you.”

This is actually a rather more fundamental criticism than the initial impression that volume was the problem. Rather, this sounds like the writer of a song who feels an artist misinterpreted it, in this case by taking the lyric too much on face value.

I have some sympathy for both parties here; it seems perfectly reasonable for Miranda Lambert to be disappointed that her effort did not meet with the approval of Ms. Griffin, who is (or was) obviously someone whose work she admires, and I have no doubt that she approached her cover of the song with a genuine sense of respect. Yet to me it seems naive, and perhaps even disingenuous of any artist to assume that they have done such a favor to a writer by covering their song that it must be met by nothing but grateful plaudits, which is the impression given by Miranda’s follow-up Tweet, “Sad when your hero’s [sic] let you down”.

I believe an artist should have the freedom to interpret a song as they choose, and not necessarily follow the style or feel of the original. But I also believe that the writer is entitled not to like the results, and to say so if they choose to do so. Professional songwriters whose living depends on getting cuts must feel they should keep a tactful silence should they dislike any particular version of one of their songs. I am sure that many more left-field singer-songwriters are also grateful for the money and the name recognition which comes when a successful chart act covers a song – but that doesn’t mean they should feel obliged to say they love the recording whenever they’re asked.

Dolly Parton, on the other hand, stands on the opposite side of the spectrum. She is a very generous songwriter who has been very open to wildly different takes on her songs, for instance Whitney Houston’s pop-R&B reimagining of her ‘I Will Always Love You’ and the stylistic variety of the covers on the tribute album Just Because I’m A Woman. But she is in a different position to some degree given her own status; these covers, whether successful or otherwise, cannot detract from the success Dolly herself originally had with the song. She rarely speaks negatively about anyone in any case. Similarly, Randy Travis, who made his name reclaiming traditional country from pop influences in the 80s, was politely complimentary about current pop-country singer Carrie Underwood’s version of his 1988 hit ‘I Told You So’, and was rewarded by a cameo on the single.

Do you think songwriters should take the money and shut up, or say only nice things about covers of their songs?  Or should they be free to criticize a singer’s interpretation of their lyrics?

9 responses to “Songwriters sound off

  1. dudley February 18, 2010 at 9:25 am

    Randy Travis has been more than “politely complimentary” of Carrie Underwood’s version of “I Told You So.” He has gone as far as saying she did a better job with it than he ever could, complimenting both her vocal range and her sensitivity to the lyric (in his song and in general). I would say he has been downright effusive. He seemed admiring and appreciative when they sang together live on American Idol, as well. “Politely complimentary” would better describe his comments about “Cowboy Casanova,” which he said is “good” and “different.”

    I agree with Patty Griffin’s take on Miranda’s cover of “I’m Ready” and I think Miranda made the same mistake with her Buddy and Julie Miller and John Prine covers on her new album. Griffin is entitled to state her opinion, but I think she could have put it in a kinder way. She could have said that she intended the song to be tongue in cheek and Miranda took it in a brasher direction and it would’ve seemed like a more neutral — descriptive rather than judgmental.

    For me, Griffin’s comment read worse in context. If you read the Entertainment Weekly featurette, Griffin commented on Kelly Clarkson, the Dixie Chicks, Susan Boyle, Miranda Lambert, and Jessica Simpson. Simpson escaped criticism with Griffin pleading ignorance because she doesn’t follow pop culture. Susan Boyle got a compliment for nailing the song (personally, I think her rendering lacks soul). Kelly Clarkson got complimented for having a great voice. Then Miranda got criticized? Even though I don’t care for Miranda’s cover of “I’m Ready,” Griffin’s comments felt disproportionate and misplaced.

    I think the more gracious thing for Griffin to do would’ve been to be more neutral or to soften the criticism with a compliment. It’s not like there aren’t good things to say about Miranda as an artist, although I suppose it’s possible Griffin only knows her through her cover of ‘I’m Ready.”

    • Occasional Hope February 18, 2010 at 1:53 pm

      I think I agree with you that the comment was harsher in context, whereas normally things like this are less sensational when you read the original.

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  3. Razor X February 18, 2010 at 8:34 pm

    If more people were honest and offered constructive criticism when asked how they liked someone else’s interpretation of their work, not only would the recipient benefit, everyone would also know that when praise was offered that it was sincere and not just what the the person felt he or she had to say. That being said, I do sympathize with Miranda. It must be pretty devastating to cover someone’s work and get negative feedback from the original artist.

    • Leeann Ward February 19, 2010 at 8:37 am

      Bill and I were just talking about this yesterday and we even discussed Dolly as the counterpoint. Uncanny.:)

      I agree with Ocasional Hope on her take of the Griffin/Lambert situation. I can absolutely understand that Miranda is disappointed and maybe even embarrassed by Patty’s comment, but I think it’s good that she was honest. I also agree that songwriters should not be expected to pretend that they like everybody’s versions of their songs. It’s not all about the money, but rather, the artistry.

      As far as whether or not I agree, I don’t know. It wasn’t my favorite song on Miranda’s album.

      Dudly, I did like her crazy interpretations of the John Prine and Julie Miller songs though.

  4. Patti Meredith February 19, 2010 at 9:04 am

    If you don’t want the truth, don’t ask an honest person! HA! Patty Griffin’s songs get down to the absolute truth every time…I wouldn’t change a thing about a word she says!

    • Leeann Ward February 19, 2010 at 9:28 am

      I think there’s an important point in Patti Meredith’s comment.

      Patty Griffin strikes me as a person who says what she thinks, much like Miranda Lambert, which is likely one of the things that actually attracts Lambert to Griffin’s music. There’s no way that I could or should predict what Lambert would say about a cover of one of her songs that she didn’t love, but something tells me that she’d find a way to be honest about it and not gush over something that she didn’t truly endorse somehow.

      So, perhaps, there will come a time that Lambert will be able to take the criticism as a learning opportunity, since she could certainly benefit from toning things down at times. Griffin’s right that not everything has to be loud.

      Again, I can still understand how Miranda Lambert could feel hurt by the comment. She’s human.

  5. Blake February 19, 2010 at 10:32 pm

    I honestly don’t read the comment as being all that critical. I think she was just noting the interpretive differences; Griffin wrote it from a place of world-weary experience and Lambert took it in another, much-edgier direction. I don’t feel Miranda should be all that disappointed; Griffin’s quotes aren’t so rough.

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