My Kind of Country

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

Head to head: rival versions of the same song

LeAnn Rimes has elected to premier her upcoming covers album Lady And Gentlemen by releasing a ramped-up version of John Anderson’s 1983 smash hit ‘Swingin’’ as the lead single. Self-evidently, covering another artist’s signature song means you have to bear comparison with the original. Unfortunately for LeAnn, she also has to compete with a much better cover getting attention at the moment in the form of Chris Young’s fresh acoustic take on the same song on his excellent new EP Voices (reviewed here recently by Razor X). Admittedly Chris’s version is not being promoted as a single, but it’s certainly the version I would prefer to hear on the radio.

LeAnn has of course been in a similar position before. As a teenager she was at the center of a public rivalry, when her recording of ‘How Do I Live’, intended for the soundtrack of the 1997 action movie Con Air, was rejected by the producers in favor of a version by Trisha Yearwood. As well as its appearance in the film, Trisha’s version was a big country hit single, reaching #2 on Billboard, and won a Grammy. LeAnn arguably got the last laugh that time, as her rival cut was a massive international pop hit and sold three million copies.

In fact, rival versions of the same song competing for sales and airplay, are something of a tradition. In the singles-dominated 1950s and 60s it was commonplace for artists to cover current hits, either as direct competition or as easy choices of popular songs to fill out an album. In an era when country fans had less disposable income, it made sense for an artist to record the most popular songs out there, so that if someone liked a particular song they might choose to buy the version by their favorite singer. Successful artists who sold well were almost unbelievably prolific, typically releasing several 12-track albums a year – George Jones, for instance, recorded over 150 songs when he was signed to United Artists, over the period 1962-1964. There was thus great demand for good material, even by singer-songwriters who simply couldn’t write enough on their own.

Merrle Haggard, for instance, wrote much of his material, but also included covers of contemporary hits. His 1968 album Mama Tried supplemented his own classic title song with covers of recent hits ‘The Green, Green Grass Of Home’, ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, Dolly Parton’s ‘In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)’ , and the now-forgotten ‘Little Old Wine Drinker Me’. In turn, ‘Mama Tried’ and the previous year’s hit ‘Sing Me Back Home’ were covered by the Everly Brothers on their own 1968 release Roots.

It was also often common for singers in other genres to cover country hits, and vice versa. An early example is Hank Williams’ Cajun-styled ‘Jambalaya (On the Bayou)’. Hank’s original was a 14-week #1 in 1952; a cover by singer Jo Stafford saw top 10 success on the pop charts the same year. Stafford had quite an eye for country hits which could be brought to a new audience – she also covered Hank Snow’s 1952 country hit ‘A Fool Such As I’ in 1953, and had duetted with Frankie Laine on Hank Williams’ ‘Hey Good Lookin’. Laine also covered ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’, but the biggest pop version was by Joni James, who recorded it the day Hank died. Patti Page’s 1950 country-pop crossover smash ‘Tennessee Waltz’ was another to see off several rival versions.

A decade later, nothing had changed. John Hartford’s ‘Gentle On My Mind’ won him a folk Grammy in 1968; Glen Campbell’s cover of the same song won the country Grammy the same year. Patti Page charted a pop version that year, and Aretha Franklin gave it an R&B twist the following year, while Rat Packer Dean Martin had an easy listening international hit, and Elvis Presley also covered the tune on an album. The Kris Kristofferson classic ‘Me And Bobby McGee’ was a top 20 country hit for Roger Miller in 1969, who recorded it before the Statler Brothers (who had been offered the song) could get into the studio. The same year a rival version by Canadian Gordon Lightfoot was a pop hit, and it was also an album track for Kenny Rogers. A year later it was a rock smash for Janis Joplin. ‘Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town’ was a top 10 country hit for Johnny Darrell, and covered the same year by Waylon Jennings, Roger Miller and the Statler Brothers, before Kenny Rogers’ #1 a few years later displaced all previous versions.

Even as late as the 1990s, genre reinventions were bringing songs to new audiences. 90s country star Mark Wills saw his 1998 country hit ‘I Do (Cherish You)’ (written by Keith Stegall and Dan Hill) covered the following year by pop group 98 Degrees. He then covered R&B artist Brian McKnight’s 1999 pop hit ‘Back At One’, getting a country hit for himself in 2000. Weirdly, both versions of the latter got to #2 on their respective charts.

In more recent years, competing cuts tended to mean that one artist got the hit, and the other was forced to release another song instead. In some cases that changed the course of country music history.

1983 saw rival versions of the inspirational ‘The Wind Beneath My Wings’. The earliest cut was actually by English MOR singer Roger Whittaker in 1982, but in 1983 two pop-country stars went head to head. Actor-singer Gary Morris enjoyed a top 10 hit but it might easily have been Lee Greenwood, who included the song on his album Somebody’s Gonna Love You released the same year. In 1985 the fast-rising Reba McEntire’s recording of the lively ‘She’s Single Again’ was not released as a single – because Janie Fricke got there first, and enjoyed a #2 hit.

Keith Whitley saw his big breakthrough delayed when he was unable to release the two best tracks on his 1986 album LA To Miami as singles, due to rival versions getting to radio first. He might have had a big hit with Dean Dillon’s ‘Nobody In His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her’, but George Strait‘s cut went to #1 instead, and is one of Strait’s most fondly remembered singles. ‘On The Other Hand’ was to become the signature hit for Randy Travis in 1986 – but it might so easily have served that function for Keith instead. Incidentally, a third recording of the song was also made by veteran Charley Pride on After All This Time, his 1987 album for independent label 16th Avenue. All three versions are good enough to have been hits.

George Strait also potentially stymied the chances of his favorite songwriter when his choice of Dean Dillon’s ‘Easy Come, Easy Go’ as a single in 1993 – a song Dillon had earmarked for his own next shot at the charts. Even our current Spotlight Artist Mark Chesnutt has drawn the short straw a couple of times. As Razor X mentioned in yesterday’s review of Too Cold At Home, that album featured a version of ‘Friends In Low Places’ – only to be forestalled when Garth Brooks had a smash hit with his version of the song. More recently, Joe Nichols recorded ‘Don’t Ruin It For The Rest Of Us’ on his Revelation album in 2004, the same year Mark recorded the song on his first independent release Savin’ the Honky Tonk, although in this case neither artist selected the song as a single.

I’ve only scratched the surface here – what rival versions can you think of? Did the best cut always win the chart battle?

19 responses to “Head to head: rival versions of the same song

  1. Erik June 9, 2010 at 10:01 am

    I thought Young’s cover of “Swingin'” lacked both the passion and energy that LeAnn brought to the table.

  2. plain_jo June 9, 2010 at 10:25 am

    I felt respect for the song in Young’s version and complete disrespect in Rimes’.

  3. Michael June 9, 2010 at 10:59 am

    A couple more examples that come to mind are John Michael Montgomery and pop group All 4 One’s recordings of “I Swear” and “I Can Love You Like That” and Mark Wills and Rascal Flatts versions of “What Hurts the Most”. Surprisingly, I think the Rascal Flatts song is the only one of these songs that I like.

  4. highwayman3 June 9, 2010 at 11:48 am

    ‘You Can’t Tell Me Nothin’ appeared on Travis Tritts ‘Strong Enough’ and Tim McGraws ‘Live Like You Were Dryin’ Albums, none were released as singles but I find Tritts version far superior. He adds more emotion and soul to the song, while Tim just sings it without much emotion. I dont listen to his version because all I notice is what it’s lacking.

  5. Razor X June 9, 2010 at 12:14 pm

    Eddie Rabbitt and Juice Newton had a duet — “Both To Each Other (Friends & Lovers)” back in the late 80s. A pop version was on the charts at the exact same time (I forget who the artists were) under the title “Friends and Lovers.”

  6. J.R. Journey June 9, 2010 at 12:45 pm

    This is a neat topic … and I wish more artists still recorded the same songs, if only so we can compare them vocally.

    I’ll add a few that were first recorded by Shelby Lynne. None of these were singles, so there’s no chart battle to compare, Lynne’s early albums are full of cuts that were later re-recorded by other, bigger names – Tammy Wynette did several: ‘Alive and Well’, ‘Talkin’ To Myself Again’. ‘This Time I Almost Made It’ was first recorded by Barbara Mandrell, but Shelby Lynne put it on her debut album, and then recorded it again with Willie Nelson for the Mandrell tribute CD in 2006. Lynne also sang the first version of ‘Lighter Shade of Blue’, which Reba put on her own It’s Your Call album a year later.

    Likewise, Tanya Tucker recorded ‘Everything That You Want’, a song Reba sang so much better. On her 2002 album Tanya, she also included her take on two songs Patty Loveless had previously recorded – ‘Over My Shoulder’ and ‘Old Weakness (Coming On Strong)’. Tanya also first recorded Garth Brooks’ ‘The Thunder Rolls’ – and her version contains the third verse only found on Garth’s live recordings. Perhaps because they were label mates or because Capitol didn’t think it was a song for a woman, Tucker’s was never even put on an album and wasn’t released until her box set came out in 1994.

    There are lots and lots more that weren’t singles … As far as songs that were hits more than once, and for more than one artist, I’ve thought for a while now that Dolly Parton’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ is due for a revival. Actually, I think several of Dolly’s hits could and should be re-recorded by a capable contemporary singer and introduced to a new audience.

  7. Leeann Ward June 9, 2010 at 2:12 pm

    I like both Young’s and Rimes’ versions of “Swingin'” for different reasons, since they’re incredibly different. Rimes’ version has the edge for me though. I like rompers though. I didn’t feel any “disrespect” from Rimes version at all. I think she and Vince had fun with it. Not that “Swingin'” is a song that requires “respect” anyway.:) That’s not exactly the emotion that I’d ascribe to it.

  8. Paul W Dennis June 9, 2010 at 2:14 pm

    In 1968 three acts split the Eddie Rabbit song “Sounds of Goodbye, preventing any version from becoming a big hit. Folks in the midwest might remember Tommy Cash’s version of the song. In the southeast and mid-Atlantic areas George Morgan’s version went to #1 in several regional markets. Over on the west coast , the Gosdin Brothers (Vern & Rex) released a version that did well locally. Both the Cash and Morgan versions cracked Billboard, whereas the Gosdin version didn”t

  9. bob June 9, 2010 at 5:24 pm

    Very interesting article. Thanks. Can’t think of any “rival” covers which I take to mean that they came out at approximately the same time. I much preferred Trisha’s “How do I live” to LeAnn’s and I’ll take Delbert McClinton’s “Old Weakness Coming on Strong” over the Patty Loveless version that J.R.mentioned. I always like Glen Cambell’s “Gentle on My Mind” and while I knew that John Hartford wrote the song, I didn’t know that he had also recorded it himself.

  10. Roger June 21, 2010 at 8:41 pm

    Jamey Johnson has said that Trace Adkins had already recorded “In Color” when he called him and asked if he could have it back and release as a single and I believe Trace also cut “Break Down Here” that Julie Roberts took to the top 20. And in a funny one Todd Snider says in concert that he didn’t know that Mark Chesnutt had even recorded his song “Trouble” until he heard in on the radio and he thought it was himself until the vocal started!

  11. Ben Foster June 22, 2010 at 11:44 am

    I think I’m going to take LeAnn’s side here. Her version of “Swingin'” is much more peppy and lively than Chris’s version. Such characteristics are well-suited to the song. She and producer Vince Gill also display more creativity in putting their own spin on the song while still retaining the flavor of the original. Don’t get me wrong, Chris does a good job on it, but his cover still can’t hold a candle to LeAnn’s showstopping version.

    Here’s my review of LeAnn’s version:

  12. Jessica June 22, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    I am not a huge fan of LeAnn, but i surprisingly like her version a little bit better. I agree with you Ben, the “peppy-ness” is what helps it claim the title in my book.

  13. Kevin Coyne August 27, 2010 at 5:52 am

    Emmylou Harris’ hit version of “Easy From Now On” far exceeds all other takes on it in my mind, including Terri Clark’s, Miranda Lambert’s, and co-writer Carlene Carter’s.

  14. AtlantaFan September 7, 2010 at 6:26 pm

    You can’t compare LeAnn’s version of Swingin’ to the original or Chris Young’s version. LeAnn completely changed the song, and her cut was a big production. Chris Young’s version was an acoustic version and much closer to the original.

    I thought LeAnn’s version was horrible until I understood her concept when I saw it on the CMT Awards show. I still don’t like it as much as the original or Chris Young’s version, but it is OK for a dance song. However, LeAnn’s version would not be something that I would request on radio.

    The Zac Brown Band released “Chicken Fried” in 2003 for his Home Grown album and then The Lost Trailers released it in 2006. ZBB then re-recorded it for their 2008 album The Foundation and the song became a number 1 hit.

  15. Erin September 8, 2010 at 10:16 am

    I prefer Chris Young’s version over LeAnn Rimes version anyday.

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  17. Jman Burnett October 21, 2018 at 1:33 am

    Why am I always late to these threads?

    Unbeknownst to many, “You Look So Good in Love” was once a victim of this. Two versions were out at the same time: The George Strait recording, and a cover by Mickey Gilley. I don’t have the Gilley album his version is on (YOU’VE REALLY GOT A HOLD ON ME), but I have listened to his version of “…Love”, and it’s a good thing George’s take was not only a single, but a #1. By taking all the charm out of that recording (it even eliminates the third verse) and replacing it with Nashville Sound dreck (strings, backing vocals), Mickey turns in what has to go down in country music history as one of the most godawful covers of all time. Thankfully, there’s only one YouTube posting of the spectacle at this time, linked below.

    • Paul W Dennis October 21, 2018 at 9:34 am

      I am not sure which version was recorded first – Gilley’s album was released in November 1983 and Strait’s in October 1983, both versions were recorded in the summer of 1983 within a few days of each other. I don’t think Gilley’s version was intended as anything more than an album cut

      While I like the arrangement on Strait’s recording better, Strait was a pretty bland vocalist so I prefer Gilley’s vocals. I’ve heard many terrible covers but i wouldn’t regard Gilley’s version as one of them

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