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It’s still just past the turning of the year. And though we have been away a long, long time, our thoughts still turn to the coverage of it: that which has been on heavy rotation, and intrigued us, and wormed its way into our ears and hearts while we were gone; the things we should have said something about, and now can reconcile.

As always, we aim to celebrate the way artists performing in and around the traditional folk-and-roots categories wring the well-loved and familiar through the transformative urge. And, although this year’s entries blur the boundaries of those categories more than ever, as always, in our dip into the ether of a single sun’s rotation we find delights galore: in tasty and tasteful tributes aplenty, and in the loving call to the forebears and influencers that is the album-length coverset.

But to sift, we have learned, is also to relive the year: every heartache, every triumph, every contemplation. Our foray into the archives of one more suncircle gone by has a predictable effect far beyond that of mere archival rediscovery: the harvest of these seeds and fruit cleanses the landscape; the palate rejoices. And in its own inevitable way, the process is tinged, too, with sadness and loss, as we recall those various moments which were served by song, and say goodbye to them, to move on in the world.

In their way, covers albums are like the winter birds: familiar yet fleeting, hungry and heavy, beautiful and barren, surprising and often rare in the cold. We spend our days all year scouring the skies, and listening through the forest trees, and savoring them one by one as they winnow into our senses. And then, as the year comes to a close, we scatter the seeds, and praise the birds that come, calling each one both harbinger, and a symbol of the year gone by.

For the seventh year in a row, then: Cover Lay Down is proud and humbled to present our Best Of The Year, starting with our very favorite folk, indie, acoustic, roots, bluegrass and Americana tribute albums and covers compilations of 2018, and continuing later this week with a compendium of those single-shot tracks that sung the greatest delight to our deepest selves this year.

May it humble you, too, to remember that the world is ever turning, throwing off the light and heat that sustain and enervate, nurture and hold. And may we live in awe, our soundtrack the flights of a thousand birds we have heard before – though never like this, and never again, in this moment, simply here.


The Year’s Best Covers Album (Single Artist)

+ Laurie MacAllister, The Lies The Poets Tell
+ William Elliott Whitmore, Kilonova
+ Boom Forest, Wisconsin
+ Jack Carty, A Cover and Another
+ Eldin Drljevic, Acoustic Covers
+ John Wesley Harding, Other People’s Greatest Hits
+ Jennifer Warnes, Another Time, Another Place

As we noted way back in January, when folktrio Red Molly went on hiatus last year with the promise of solo product fueled by cohort crowdsourcing, the result was a delight: discs of original songs by Molly Venter duo project Goodnight Moonshine and dobro slinger Abbie Gardner, Laurie MacAllister’s tour de force of a covers album, and the promise of more to come from all incarnations. It’s the covers we’re concerned with here, though, and we’re happy to stand by our original assessment that – although its high production is glossy at times – overall, MacAllister’s The Lies The Poets Tell is a stellar exemplar of contemporary folk, diverse and “sumptuous” in its arrangement and instrumentation, rich with borrowed male-vox duets and stunning in its presentation, a “gorgeous, intensely intimate translation of favorite songs and deep cuts from a veritable who’s who of the songwriter’s songwriter’s scene” well worth its year-end crown.

William Elliott Whitmore‘s Kilonova, which ties for first among several in our (much larger) otherwise-unblogged pile, trends dissimilarly towards the rustic, grungy, alt-country side of folk. Like the deep-voiced Iowa farmer who made it, the album, complete with heavy guitar and a ragged way with voice and melody, aims to pay tribute to a broad collection of songs from a century of influential soundscape, and succeeds in spades; though fans of the mellow may be startled by a few heavier tracks on the covers collection, featuring that full-band country-and-twang Bloodshot Records sound, the majority run towards the sparse and hoarse – and in all cases, there’s something eminently direct, essential, and elegant about these well-rehearsed covers, most of which have featured in Whitmore’s live shows for years. Every cut reveals and revels in the power of coverage and tribute, and – at its best, such as his banjo take on Bad Religion – Whitmore’s adept ability to pull at the roots of punk and country and come up folk makes the record, and his own, shine like the sepia sun.

Other runners up this year trend towards the soft, the private, and the less polished. Wisconsin, a name-your-price session shared on Bandcamp early in the year by 2015 Cover Lay Down Christmas coverage celebrants Boom Forest, represents perhaps the lowest fidelity recording ever in this category, but it’s worth it: a gauzy fever dream recorded straight to hissing old-school cassette in the frozen Wisconsin winter, fragile and flushed with fleeting warmth and intimacy. Similarly, Jack Carty’s A Cover And Another series, released one by one as videographic living room recordings and subsequently streamed as a wholecloth collection, comes out raw but clear, at times unpolished but always clearly beloved, the face to face smallroom social media performance as servant to the folkways bringing forth joyful, honest renditions of both familiar and often overlooked songs from the ether of a mid-generation memory, with Springsteen, Elliott Smith, Joni and Gillian Welch tunes held against The Church, Radiohead, Death Cab For Cutie and more. Eldin Drljevic’s quiet late-night, one-take meditations on songs from Bon Iver to Depeche Mode to The Beatles are beautiful, primordial, and essential in their own way. And although John Wesley Harding‘s aptly-titled Greatest Other People’s Hits is a hybrid, with past recordings curated alongside previously unreleased interpretations of the likes of Lou Reed and George Harrison, the collection stands as a solid set, worth celebrating whole alongside the rest of them.

Those who, like I did, grew up on Jennifer Warnes‘ Famous Blue Raincoat, a gentle, loving interpretation of the Leonard Cohen canon, will also relish the way she tenderly takes on Pearl Jam, Mark Knopfler, Ray Bonneville, and others thirty years later on Another Time, Another Place, filling the room with the soft, full ringing production power of horn-based arrangements, swelling strings, and the precision of a crystal crooner’s voice mellowed and still mostly unmarred by time. It’s not for everyone, especially the indiefolk crowd – but as a coda throwback to the softer side of revival folk, where Linda Rondstadt and Joan Baez hold sway, and Lucy Kaplansky and Eliza Gilkyson still perform, it holds its own.



The Year’s Best Covers EP (Single Artist)

+ Andrew Combs, 5 Covers And A Song
+ Twisted Pine, Dreams
+ Harmless Sparks, Something Borrowed
+ Vanessa Carlton, 6 Covers (singles)
+ Ana Leorne, unreleased songs

Quite a strong showing in this category this year. But you’ll forgive us if we give our strongest kudos to a half-pint collection that admits, right up front, that it’s got an original in the mix.

Stylistically, Nashville singer-songwriter Andrew Combs claims to straddle “classic country and contemporary pop”. But notably, and as acknowledged by baseline tags on Bandcamp and elsewhere, his 2018 release 5 Covers and a Song fits neatly in the americana and folkworlds, where it stands out as a stellar exemplar of the modern relationship between folk song and folk sound. Combs has a fine string-and-horn arranger and producer in Jordan Lehning, and the ensemble he’s assembled here brings a rich sound to a wide diversity of influences and songcraft: The Strokes with a dab of high-fuzz Los Lobos horns and can-bang madness, a wash of pulsing indiefolk in the Blake Mills; the languid Nillsson-esque dreampop of Lucinda Williams ballad I Envy The Wind; above it all, a voice versatile and yearning, and covers worth collecting, and savoring for hours.

Still-rising New Englander band Twisted Pine‘s covers album Dreams, on the other hand, is imperfectly perfect: a robust but fractured approach, highly arranged yet with instrumentation just understated and rough enough, makes each track a light, lighthearted acoustic gem. Wisps of dancehall pop, rock, and disco hits flit like memory in these barebones yet eminently rhythmic bluegrass settings; it’s no secret we have a soft spot for the young, energetic acoustic quartet sound, but it’s been a long, long while since we heard a four piece so joyfully playful with the edges of formality, or enjoyed it half as much.

Meanwhile, though tiny at four total tracks, early EP-of-the-year contender Harmless Sparks, brought to us in February when we were still blogging semi-regularly, remains at the top of the list, thanks in no small part to gorgeous, spare, practically languid electro-dreampop settings of My Favorite Things and more as promised. Ana Leorne’s equally slight collection of unreleased songs, released in March to celebrate and support International Women’s Day, offers a beautiful voice ravaged by time and “electroclash” in previous band The Clits, now encased in a gentle setting that rings of a young Bonnie Raitt’s drunken and revealing Jabberwocky Club bootleg session. And although technically it’s not an album at all, we’d be nowhere without an honest nod to Vanessa Carlton, whose sextet of midyear singles would have been blogged if we were blogging. Spanning Robyn, Karen Dalton, Neil Young, Lucinda Williams, and more, as a cobbled-together collection, the set rings true and tried – a shimmery wash and gloss of plugged-in guitar, layered echo-chamber voices and long-held chords laid over tense heartbeats; popfolk, unresolved.



The Year’s Best Tribute Album (Single Artist)

+ Lights, Scorpion B Sides Covers
+ Lindsay Ell, The Continuum Project
+ Jake Armerding, Graceland Live

We’ve yawed wide with our definition of folk in considering this year’s best tribute albums. And we’ve split the category, too, the better to distinguish the single artist homage (which generally springs from a singular place of deep respect and kinship) from the curated tribute (more diverse in source and thus sentiment, with artists each pouring their heart into a song which may or may not have deep personal relevance to them). The result is a one-of-a-kind situation: here, three solo artists paying tribute not just to other artists, but specifically to individual records by those artists, offering deep yet restless intersections, moments in their particular time and space…and in our subsequent category, a wide range of well-curated artist rosters, many self-declared and known centrally in other genres, which blurs the line between mixed-genre collections and more narrow tributes aimed at a particular ear or range on the radio dial.

If there’s more electric echo than acoustic stringwork in our solo set, it’s because the fruit justifies the orchard boundary. Lindsay Ell‘s rework of John Mayer album Continuum serves as case in point: with prominent electric blues and a soulful voice crossing at Beale Street and Nashville, Canadian newcomer Ell won kudos and top end-of-year Billboard honors last year in the Country category for 2017 debut The Project, but the combination here on album number two is a percussive yet minimal delight equally comfortable in my father’s blues collection and on the folkshelves here at home. And although most of Jake Armerding‘s live and predominantly acoustic Graceland set, released as an exclusive bonus for those who donated to his Octave Mandolin album crowdsource campaign, was recorded pre-2018, and its tracks pulled from what seems to be audience recordings and muddy soundboards, as a project, it’s a delight all the same, showing love and chops, and featuring strong back-up work in live sessions from a variety of fellow Boston-and-beyond folkgrass players.

Our top album of the year here, however, is not just a hybrid cross; it’s also forbidden fruit. Canadian popsinger Lights was forced by her label to take down all streaming incidence of her full-album take on Drake’s Scorpion B Sides; you can still some of it via YouTube, but most of it is gone from the ether. And what a loss: Lights’ 2015 live in-studio acoustic Hotline Bling was a mere harbinger of what she can do with Drake in the studio; her covers of Jaded and After Dark here are exquisite, and the rest equally sublime. You can certainly hear the production finesse, but this isn’t pop so much as the lightest touch on the acoustic dream-realm, delicate where the original was plaintive, lending a sheer of abstraction and resignedness to what otherwise would not reach nearly as far, or as well. Find it, with our blessing.



The Year’s Best Tribute Album (Multiple Artists)

+ I Only Listen To The Mountain Goats: All Hail West Texas
+ MOJO Presents Green Leaves: Nick Drake Covered
+ When The Wind Blows: Songs of Townes Van Zandt

We named I Only Listen To The Mountain Goats, a tribute to Mountain Goats album All Hail West Texas, a strong contender for Year’s Best Tribute Album back in January; though at that time less than half of this glorious collection had been released, it was already clear that a) it would be awesome, and b) not all of it would be folk by most stretches of the imagination. Completed in April after a long track-by-track season, the overall album does what it sets out to do and then some, showing just how versatile and wide-ranging in influence and flexibility John Darnielle’s songwriting can be, with Andrew Bird, Erin McKeown, Amanda Palmer, Craig Finn, and other altfolk faves in the mix. The last two entries in the series prove the rule: though the covers come from opposite ends of the Americana spectrum, the slow build into a Wilco-esque haze of Holy Sons’ Source Decay fades perfectly into the uplifting, masterful fingerpicking and sweet voice of Carrie Elkin at album’s end.

In other label-and-project news, MOJO magazine continued its long tradition of excellent coverage with a tribute to Nick Drake; if it’s second here, it’s only because the lesser tracks are just good. But the best tracks are amazing: beautiful, tender, as fractured and frail in their own way as the originals, with Vashti Bunyan, Judy Dyble, and more from the weird and delicate end of folk taking us through the painful, distant haze that represents the short but potent legacy of Nick Drake.

Finally, though sprawling at 32 tracks and – like so many other massive collections – not without its weak spots, When The Wind Blows, this year’s Townes tribute, is more solid than most, with stellar turns from a predominantly masculine set of red dirt and clay crooners and songwriters. Subgenre stalwarts Slaid Cleaves, Gurf Morlix and Joe Ely bring consistent, respectful performances; newer-comers, from Ben Bedford to Matt Harlan to The Orphan Brigade, are more playful as they pass the torch around.



The Year’s Best Tribute EP

+ Craig Cardiff, Upstream Fishing All The Words, He Is: A Birthday Tribute to Bob Dylan
+ Matt Nathanson, Pyromattia
+ A Fond Farewell: A Tribute to The Music of Elliott Smith

I’ve become a huge Craig Cardiff fan this year, mining his archives for a plethora of covers albums and b-sides, all the while bemoaning the data gap between Canadian and American folk which presumably kept me from discovering this one-time Juno winner..

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This week was a slammer: first week of school for both myself and the kids, late-night rehearsals for the play I am directing, which opens next weekend; the wife away for days, on retreat as she works towards certification in her late-in-life spiritual calling as a religious educator. With a heat wave in the middle of it, the air cavernous and close. And both children sick, in a house where hurt will always be.

But my classroom is outfitted in new white boards and stocked with a year’s worth of supplies, thanks to the world’s shortest crowdsource campaign at Donor’s Choose. This morning I came in late after a shorter-than-expected meeting with the smallerchild’s new teachers, and my intervention students were writing, quietly, building confidence as they grappled with their haphazard prompt without me. My AP class is eager and bright, engaged and having fun; the seniors, who I cared for over two years and then thought I had abandoned last Spring, come to visit with respectful grins, seeking their oracle as they look towards college. Last block, the girl who couldn’t stop chattering Monday asked if she could read her work to the class, and the kids settled in, respectful and sure, to see what they could praise, and found more than enough to satisfy us all.

The play is a stunner. My wife is home, and beautiful, and still smarter than me – tonight’s date at the new restaurant in town felt like renewal. The wee one – at thirteen a willowy, slim pale creature – pushes through her hours and days, and comes home babbling joyfully of friends and teachers she loves for the first time in years. The elderchild pushes, too – through a short dose of steroids that took her to the children’s hospital for the first time in almost two months; through the newest and deepest-so-far of loves, a quiet boy who holds our fancy, too, and stayed with us last weekend in Vermont, at summer’s last summerhome, where every year might be our last.

There is pain in our lives: in my student’s struggle to catch up and transcend the urban blight; in the workload and the weariness; in how little we see our spouses and parents, and the distances that yaw between us; in the prone existence my children live in the darkness as each day wanes, curled around their chronic aches. I come home with a voice hoarse and torn, too tired to care for the rest. Eventually, I think, something else, like this space, too, may have to give.

But there are blessings here, too, and pride – and not just for now: these, and a thousand other pieces of this imperfect world, its challenges met, its promises real.

Each night, as the sun sets behind the trees of a still-summer yard, something I cannot see or hear suddenly startles the turkeys and their babies, almost grown and only slightly smaller, that cross our driveway. And they fly into the low trees like my heart: heavy, in its way, yet weightless in another; winged and free, able to lift still from the earth.

And there is music there, of an origin deep in me and all of us: rustling and beautiful; rejuvenating; reassuring; real.

I am not often here, it’s true. But I love you as I love the world. Let us be here together, as the September world starts to spin again.


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It’s been ten years exactly since we last drilled down deep into the Neil Young songbook here on Cover Lay Down, in a short feature introducing the transformative all-female American Laundromat double-disc for-charity tribute Cinnamon Girl, accompanied by several exclusive label-approved tracks from that record and a delicious set of similar delights from The Wailin’ Jennys, The Indigo Girls, Emmylou Harris, Carrie Rodriguez, Elizabeth Mitchell, and more great folkwomen teetering on the well-traveled intersection of rock, pop, and folk.

A decade later, Cinnamon Girl remains a go-to exemplar in the world of coverage: a powerhouse indie collection, “a great and well-balanced listen from cover to cover”, and “the tribute album Neil Young has deserved for most of his long and prolific career.” Several of its covers, including Lori McKenna’s unadorned twangfolk The Needle And The Damage Done, The Watson Twins’ sweet Powderfinger, and Canadian duo Dala’s beautiful, wistful harmony takes on Ohio and A Man Needs A Maid, continue to stand out as true-blue favorites. And – since it is still available – we would be remiss in taking this opportunity to redirect you to it, that you, too, might revel in its femfolk-to-riot-grrl approach, and support Casting For Recovery, who aim to enhance the quality of life of women with breast cancer through a unique retreat program that combines breast cancer education and peer support with therapeutic fly fishing.

But just as the past must be celebrated, so, too, do our ears and hearts evolve. As listeners, our subjective evolution in that decade has brought us closer towards a subtle appreciation of the deconstructionist approach. As cultural explorers, we respect and recognize Young’s recent move to put his entire archive online for free – a move that will surely spark deep artistic exploration and new coverage going forward. As agents of discovery and spread, we celebrate the ongoing reclamation of the Canadian singer-songwriter’s prolific portfolio, even as we note its turn towards the trends and tropes of its next generation.

And so, today, we revisit the Neil Young songbook with a collection of covers recorded in the intervening decade that trend towards the broken and bent, and the mellow and melodic: an omnibus mix, coupling beloved recordings from folk, Americana, indie and roots artists with newfound delights from Bandcamp, YouTube, and other discovery spaces. May it stand as our solution for those who, like us, struggle to reconcile our distaste for the songwriter’s whine with our great respect and admiration for both the grit and elegance of his pen, and his vast catalog of poetic yet straightforward songs which continues to give voice “to the plight of the powerless and the disaffected in modern American culture.”


Neil Young, Covered In Folk (2008-2018)
* listen track-by-track, or download the whole mix here!




Always ad-free and artist-centered, Cover Lay Down has been exploring the ethnographic intersection of coverage and folk roots on the web since 2007 thanks to the kind support of readers like you. If you like what you hear, click through to purchase albums and support the artists we love, the better to keep the music going in an age of micro-transactions. And, as always, if you wish to help us in our ongoing mission, we hope you’ll consider a donation to Cover Lay Down.

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We’re generally cautious about celebrating Black History Month here at Cover Lay Down. Though the earliest roots of modern folk recording and song surely include both the African-American experience and, more murkily, the origin stories of several of the instruments (including the dulcimer and banjo) which form the core of its acoustic array, the world of folk performance itself skews heavily towards caucasian artists, making any address of these roots unfinished without exhaustive exploration of the ways in which these roots have been claimed and shaped by white folks – from Lomax and Seeger to Paul Simon’s infamous Graceland controversy, Jayme Stone’s recent exploration of Gullah and other Caribbean sounds, and beyond.

But there are other ways, too, to celebrate the influence of Black America in the folkways. Today, in our first Single Song Sunday since our 2015 deconstruction of popular live performance encore The Weight, we tug at the roots of a particular story found in a broad panoply of songs: that of John Henry, a larger-than-life African American whose pride and persistence in the face of power and progress have come to represent the American spirit both within and beyond our shores.



Ethnographic evidence compiled by Guy Johnson and Louis Chappel through interviews in the 1920s trace the particulars of well-known folksong hero John Henry to the 1870s, where workers in the West Virginia Mountains dug the biggest tunnel job attempted by man up to that date. And although more recent historians have proposed other digs as more plausible, all share a basic narrative: a single man, the best of many African-American convict laborers in a world still healing after the end of the Civil War, pits himself against the newly-introduced steam drill in a contest of strength and willpower…and wins in the end, though it takes his last breath.

But the story above is no more or less true when Lomax places the the Old John trickster slave narrative at the heart of the song’s perpetual motion, nor when he notes, correctly, the melodic and lyrical similarities to tradtune The Lass Of Roch Royal in many versions of the song performed during his time. And it is certainly no more true than the abstract purpose of the song: to show the triumph of the underdog, of body and spirit through perseverance, and in doing so, iterate and reclaim those values which stir at the core of our identity as Americans.

Our myth comes to us wrapped around truth, in other words. And in the end, what matters isn’t whether it’s real, but whether it’s true. Like Johnny Appleseed and Paul Bunyan, the legend of John Henry lives in our hearts and bones: grounded in the real history of real human beings just a hair larger in life than their peers, conflated to serve the cultural need for heroes symbolic of the particular sort of stubborn pride and determination that moves mountains in the rich panoply of American mythology. Man vs. nature, man vs. technology, man vs. self, and man vs. society collapse into a single story. An American myth, if ever there was one.

And this is how, today, the song serves: as cultural approbation and fatalist’s morality tale, in which we may lose to our machines both political and real, but the indomitable human spirit prevails.

And as long as we are still in struggle, so must the song be sung.


A plethora of songs recast the myth of John Henry. The Ballad of John Henry, for example – a standard in its own right – turns the morality of Henry’s death into a cautionary tale, pushing listeners to guard their life against the urge to spend it for foreman and fate; a “hammer song”, it is generally slow, but not always.

Not all recastings are covers, either. Modern troubadours from Songs:Ohia and Cuff The Duke to Drive-By Truckers and Driftwood Soldier have built from the ground up, applying the storyline to new tunes and lyrics, moving history into their own more immediate surroundings.

But do a simple search online of “John Henry”, and it’s clear that despite the mutability of over a dozen verses and perhaps ten times as many lyrical variants, one tune – paced and performed rhythmically, heavy on bravado and dialogue, that celebrates the man as myth for his determination even in death – remains dominant, even flush in the various byways of the folkworld. It drifts up to us from the earliest folk recordings, where it stands as a fieldhand blues number howled out in slackstring scratchy voices, filtered and reformed in a myriad of subgenres, from Leadbelly to Bill Monroe, through Doc Watson and The Stanley Brothers, John Renbourne and John Fahey, via John Jackson, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, Van Ronk and Guthrie and back again. (It is even familiar as an instrumental, especially with banjo and fiddle a la John Hartford or dulcimer a la Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, though we’ll stick to the lyrical conceit today.)

Some favorites versions, then, of an old song, easy to play and sing, its renewed relevance ever on our tongues as we continue our fight against the machine. Join us as we flesh out a vast and varied set of and beyond the American range, from the high-intensity Appalachian bounce of The Mammals to The Downtown Shimmy’s harmonica-driven blues, from Snakefarm’s psychedelic funk to the frenetic energy of Del McCoury’s high tenor wail, from Chris Jones’ gospelgrass to French duo Lonesome Day’s slow walking blues, from Thomas Hellman’s chug-along Quebecois trainsong to the hoot and holler of new primitive Appalachian interpreter Lebo Jenkins, plus the neo-traditional feminist turn of Elizabeth LaPrelle, a deconstructed atmosphere from Daniel Dutton, and the regionally diverse and differentiated grit of American-and-beyond singer-songwriters and cultural ambassadors Eric Bibb, Willie Watson, Andrew Calhoun, Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, Tim O’Brien, and David Broad.



John Henry, Covered In Folk
A Single Song Sunday Mix
[zip!]



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And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the music flowing? Please, consider a contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all donors receive undying praise, and a special blogger-curated gift mixtape of over 50 well-loved but otherwise unshared covers from 2016-2017, including exclusive live covers from our very own Unity House Concert series.

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So much wonderful new music has hit the radar screen since the turning of the year, it’s hard to know just where to begin. But another snow day here in New England offers a great opportunity to pass along the good stuff ringing in our ears, making for a lovely mix to accompany the soft quiet of falling flakes.

So join us by the fire as we run down some of our favorite new covertracks and their rising star sources – a global smorgasbord of tasty treats and treatments from the wide, wide spectrum of modern folk and acoustic music. Life has never sounded as good as it does here, now, today.

Thanks to Aussie folkblog Timber & Steel for celebrating fellow down-under harmony singing folk duo The Ahern Brothers and their smashing self-titled 2017 debut in their end-of-year wrap-up – and apologies for taking so long to get to their delightful cover of Ryan Adams’ Prisoner, a video-sourced ballad that simply soars with pure, atmospheric harmonies a la The Milk Carton Kids and The Everly Brothers. It’s hard to decide which we like best: the sparse sound of this and other acoustic duo performances typical of an album that Rolling Stone called “A mesmerising contemporary folk recording: restrained, pithy, and pure”, or the crisp, lighthearted Simon-and-Garfunkel-esque studio production that typifies catchy new singles “There’s A Light” and “Passing Through”. Lucky for us, we get both.



Frequent forays into the world of musical theater have me running hot for any version of a song originally written for the stage – as long as it isn’t dripping with schmaltz, that is. But where many of the folk covers we featured in our 2013 feature on showtune covers stick to the ballad-or-bombast model which so typifies the average musical theater performance, bluegrass rising star Gina Clowes’ album-closing take on Beautiful Land, a curtain-opener from mid-sixties class-consciousness musical The Roar of the Greasepaint…The Smell of the Crowd made mildly popular by Nina Simone, is a true transformation, turning what had been a b-side into a complex yet truly American neo-traditional delight that fits perfectly among the originals on September 2017 debut album True Colors, a solid survey of what’s new at the progressive crossroads of acoustic swing, gypsy jazz, and bluegrass, featuring performances from fellow members of the “absurdly talented” Furtado family and more.


Celtic crossroads artist Kyle Carey‘s brand new recording is no debut – the honor belongs to 2011 release Monongah, recorded in western Ireland and produced by Donogh Hennesy of the acoustic super-group Lùnasa. But The Art of Forgetting, her third outing and her first recorded on American soil, nonetheless represents something new: a fully realized work that combines her deep reclamation of her Gaelic roots with the rich panoply of sound that typifies the contemporary integration of pan-regional folkways, supported by Dirk Powell’s stunning production and cajun-flavored studio work, Louisiana’s Sam Broussard on guitar, Scotland’s John McCusker on fiddle, Nashville’s Kai Welch on trumpet, and the warm harmonies of crossover superstar Rhiannon Giddens on a reinvented Irish tradtune. Heavenly, and highly recommended.



In his introductory email, Breton-based “Japanese music specialist” Pol Huellou calls his new album The Lost Agenda “kind of a musical UFO”, and that’s not so far off: his French acoustic boogie-woogie big band take on Just A Gigolo, to take just one example, is unexpected every time it comes around, as is the gentle instrumental harp-and-flute traditional that follows it; though the latter is a closer exemplar of what happens when you mix the genre-straddling Celtic, Breton, and Asian influences that typify Huellou’s panoptic ouvre, there’s little here that could truly be called typical of anything, really.

It’s complex, and often challenging, but the mix works, thanks to a dazzling and diverse set of songs, sources, and artists featuring everything from oud, sanza, and banjo on instrumental Irish tradtune-turned-arabic-melody The Star of Co. Down to his jazz-fueled chanson-style rendition of a Marlene Dietrich standard to the funky world-beat of album-closing Armenian traditional song Let’s Blues It. We actually included Huellou’s mostly-Celtic Serge Gainsboro cover on our 56-track end-of-year bonus mix, an exclusive for donors who give to support the continued existence of Cover Lay Down, but everyone should hear it; here’s a pair of the aforementioned, more Bela Fleck meets Morocco than anything, for those who, like us, just can’t get enough.



If we’ve got a lot less to say about Harmless Sparks – a Tel Aviv amateur side project presumably named after the David Bazan song – it’s because all we’ve got so far is one admittedly stunning cover. But according to Israeli musician Omri Levy, whose previous covers and originals date back over a decade, and who sent it to us exclusively “since I really love your blog”, their dreamy take on Alphaville’s Big In Japan, a mournful, electro-atmospheric lullaby that leaves us breathless and wanting for more, will join three others on a soon-to-be-released EP; watch their Bandcamp page for upcoming covers of The Cure, Cyndi Lauper, and My Favorite Things.



We’re not above touting music before official release here at Cover Lay Down, especially when it comes from Hearth Music, one of our very favorite sources for authentic Americana, Cajun, old-timey, countryfolk, and other decidedly regional subgenres. This month’s case in point: Time Is Everything, a Pledgemusic-driven debut from surprisingly young Lexington, VA roots artist Vivian Leva, won’t drop until early March, but we’ve spent the last several weeks reveling in the deeply masterful set it presents, and now we just can’t help but pass it along, with kudos for its maturity, the rich-and-tender countryfolk-to-contemporary production that forces Leva’s heady voice and potent songwriting forward, and a sweet way with a vocal that wrings hope and heartache from a stunning survey of sentiment deeply rooted in land, loneliness, and languid country life.


UK-based singer-songwriter Sarah McQuaid‘s fifth outing If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous, its title sparked by a warning uttered to her son as he excavated an enormous hole in their backyard, offers an appropriate whirlwind of languid musings on mortality and hubris, with a thick and well-trained alto reminiscent of Annie Lennox astride ringing electric guitar and piano from McQuaid and legendary musician Michael Chapman, who lends both studio flourishes and producing credits to the effort. In the end, it’s a powerful album that simply shimmers with nuance, observational depth, and despair, just out and already named one of the top ten of the week by The Alternate Root magazine, and sure to please fans of The Unthanks, Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell, and Tom Waits equally.



LA-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumental vocalist Kristen Lynn is joined by The Foxgloves, a full fourpiece gypsy-jazz folk Americana band, on her second foray into the world of Kickstarter-funded projects, making Lonely Girl an easy fit for our diverse set today, with a haunting, sparse arrangement of Wild Mountain Thyme and a number of solid originals that romp and stomp. But it’s our very favorite cut so far that demands sharing today, an interesting experiment that really works: listen as You Are My Sunshine moves from the sweet and gentle to the dark and heady hullabaloo of a high-octane drumkick funeral rag, neatly nestling the true sentiment of the song in the shift from major to minor…and then head back in time to her 2012 debut LALA to hear it again, all sweetness and light.


Last but not at all least: we’re hereby declaring Old Freight, a fine debut from flatpicking singer-songwriter Alan Barnosky released last November, nothing less than a new folk essential – one that doesn’t so much gather in the various influences which make modern singer-songwriter folk work as it reduces and transcends them, laying claim to the one-man, one-song center of the tent with little more than six sharp strings and warm, twangy voice, offering fair comparison to both Norman Blake and Townes Van Zandt. Barnosky also plays in a bluegrass five piece and an acoustic trio in and around his native Durham, North Carolina, and he’s played stages at Merlefest, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and the IBMA’s Bluegrass Ramble. But as the timeless originals and sole traditional cover on this record amply demonstrate, sometimes, simple IS best.



Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been digging deep at the ethnographic intersection of folkways and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, like, donate, and follow us on Facebook for bonus tracks – including our Jan. 31 track-by-track covered-in-folk mix of Paul Simon’s Graceland album – and instant notice of new features, like a brand new Single Song Sunday feature due to drop this weekend. And above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

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The sparrow: a symbol of fragility, and a semaphore for desperation and despair. In our case, though, the term is literal: the elderchild’s been rehabilitating one in a small cage in her room after finding it trapped in a coal grate in one of the coldest days of winter, its tailfeathers mostly missing, its mate picking at it in a vain attempt to startle it into freedom. It’s been there a month, and sometimes, I forget she has it.

But Saturday night, in a rare moment of hubris, she brought it downstairs to show our dinner guests, and suddenly, it sprang free. What followed was more reality television show than sitcom: two and a half hours of climbing up furniture and taking apart Ikea bookshelves, punctuated by frantic minutes chasing a tiny, terrified bird as it skimmed the ceiling from room to room, occasionally touching down on window dressings too high to reach, or diving into piles of boxes and wrapping paper, inviting us to uncover it time and again through intense intervention and careful disarray.

Eventually, we managed to chase it into the elderchild’s room, where the door could be closed, and the still-wobbly flier coaxed into its rehabilitative cage. And because we are who we are – easily exhausted, generally busy, prone to procrastination – today, the place remains a disaster: childhood photo albums piled high on the playroom daybed, the pantry undone, half the bookcase disassembled, pink screwdrivers and boxcutters scattered around it.

Our house is often messy. Our inner lives are, too. We are too easily goaded into self-celebration, and risk the sanctity of our service in the name of pride. But if this fragility is made of our own foibles, then we are wise to attend to it, indeed.

And so we turn to the songs of the sparrow. In the name of our children, and the fears we harbor within.


Little Sparrow: A Cover Lay Down Mix



Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been digging deep at the ethnographic intersection of folkways and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, like, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the music flowing? Please, consider a contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all donors receive undying praise, and a special blogger-curated gift mixtape of over 50 well-loved but otherwise unshared covers from 2016-2017, including exclusive live covers from our very own Unity House Concert series.

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One of the great joys and privileges of being a music blogger is the access it grants us to pre-release content, usually via promoters and artists, months or weeks before it can be celebrated officially and out loud. But add this to our increased support of Kickstarter, Pledge Music, and other crowdsourcing platforms where rewards for supporting a pending release often include exclusive early access to that music in hardcopy, download, or stream, and we’ve got a conundrum: sometimes, the best of what we’re listening to can’t be shared yet.

It was hard not to spill the beans on these early 2018 releases before the new year turned over, in other words. But we’re thrilled to be here, today, to tout and celebrate that which has been pleasuring our hearts and ears for weeks. Join us as we foray into a set of new and impending coverage from artists we love, and have shared work from here before.

Disclaimer: I once spent a hot, humid Sunday afternoon in a shady folk-festival tent hosting Red Molly co-founder Laurie MacAllister, drinking beer and brainstorming songs for the band to cover on their next album. None of them made the cut, but I’m still pushing for the trio – now gearing up for a Spring tour as the band promotes a set of new Pledgemusic-driven solo works from each member – to take on Marc Cohn’s second album, and some deeper cuts from Patty Griffin’s debut.

But MacAllister gets high honors for her own solo disc, an all-covers affair titled The Lies The Poets Tell, a Pledgemusic reward that arrived mid-December but does not officially drop for another week or two. Sumptuous in its arrangement and instrumentation, it’s high-production contemporary folk, and as such, it takes some songs, like Lucy Kaplansky’s Ten Year Night, a bit farther than I would have thought they needed to be taken – but in the end, every track counts, and that’s a rarity we’re thrilled to welcome. Overall, The Lies The Poets Tell is a gorgeous, intensely intimate translation of favorite songs and deep cuts from a veritable who’s who of the songwriter’s songwriter’s scene, including duets with the late great Jimmy LaFave, Mark Erelli, Ellis Paul, and Richard Shindell on a Richard Shindell song. Look for it in our Best of 2018, and find it as soon as you can.



Tracy Grammer‘s newest record is being touted as her first true-blue solo set, and technically, that’s right, as her ten previous works were either collaborations with Dave Carter, or posthumous recordings of his work. In many ways, it’s also clearly about time: Low Tide, now available and streaming in full at Folk Alley, represents a strong next step for Grammer’s independent voice as a songwriter, with potent songcraft that reflects the tender and stubborn heart that got her here, and a way with words and images that doesn’t so much transcend the legacy of her earlier work as it marks the beginning of a new path to glory. A bold and beautiful collection, the album is equally high-production, thanks to strong Kickstarter support, Signature Sounds stalwart Mark Thayer’s strong hand in play as engineer, and Lorne Entress and Jim Henry as studio sidemen; its single cover, a reinvention of Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting, is both a perfect fit for the disc, and an essential teaser for a career blooming anew.



We last saw local hero Heather Maloney on these pages alongside Darlingside, thanks to a split-bill EP that saw them matching wits and voices on Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock and more. The New England native’s newest EP has been listed on Bandcamp for a while, but the tracks just dropped yesterday, and we’re glad: the originals here, including straight-to-single album-opener Let Me Stay, are warm and delightful, with smart, sincere, and sassy lyrics; the closing cover is sparse and straightforward, emotionally rich and acoustically intimate, a coda for something wonderful and new.



Looking farther ahead is a risk, of sorts – run the buzz out too early, and by the time a record hits, you may have forgotten about it. But although Low Lily’s newest album 10,000 Days Like These won’t hit the streets for a while yet, as Indiegogo supporters, we found the tracks in our mailbag earlier this week, and we’ve had the album on replay every day since, thanks to catchy, complex melodies, lovely harmonies, and some of the best fiddle-and-strum on the folkscene today. As coverhounds, we’re especially excited by two tracks in particular: covers of a Gillian Welch barnburner and a Dire Straits ballad which bring studio prowess and the precision of three masterful multi-instrumentalists to songs we’ve heard before in live session in our very own Unity House Concerts, and would cherish in any venue or medium. Preorder now, and hear the glory for yourself.



Finally, Cover Me picked one of the earliest tracks off new Mountain Goats curated covers album I Only Listen To The Mountain Goats for it’s honorable mentions list at the end of 2017. But the one-per-podcast, track-by-track trickle-down tribute to Mountain Goats album All Hail West Texas isn’t finished, and the hits keep coming, even as we wait for the album to officially release upon completion in April. It’s been a long time since we heard from Erin McKeown, but this is a great indicator that she’s still got it, with a little more indiepop flair and all the usual swing. Eliza Rickman and Jherek Bischoff’s sharp chamberpop are worth the earworm. Even unfinished, with Carrie Elkin and Andrew Bird still waiting in the wings, the collection is already a strong contender for best mixed-genre tribute album of 2018.



Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been digging deep at the ethnographic intersection of folkways and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, like, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the music flowing? Please, consider a contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all donors receive undying praise, and a special blogger-curated gift mixtape of over 50 well-loved but otherwise unshared covers from 2016-2017, including the live versions of Low Lily covers mentioned above, and more exclusive live covers from our very own Unity House Concert series.

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We’re later that usual this year with our annual singles mix, but it’s not for lack of trying. For several weeks, behind the scenes, we’ve been involved in the process of sifting and surveying, mining bookmarks, tags, and the archives for this year’s best coverfolk.

It’s a joyful process. Heartbreaking, sometimes, but always joyful, too. And if we’ve rediscovered anything, it’s that great music demands listening to.

Through Christmas and the long, slow days afterwards, the conversation among us – future and past – that the resurrected and reformulated song represents served its purpose, leaving us breathless at the scope of it all, and the sheer diversity. And in the end, we emerged refreshed, reinvigorated, and triumphant with yet another 52 track mix – one for every week gone by, and as last year, a whisper in the wings of what wonders are to come.

Now it’s snowing here, and the hiss of the falling snow and the whine of the pellet stove mask the tinnitus perfectly. The children are sleeping, and will be for hours; in the corner, the tree slowly settles as it dries, branch and bauble slowly bending towards the floor. Those of us on the East Coast, at least, hunker down against a growing storm, the first of a new year, taking comfort in the fact that we are here, together, safe and ready, and sure of reinforcements.

So, take a long afternoon and shuffle through the mix with us. Savor the delight and despair, the raucous and the resonant: our subjective best of the realm that is folk, and the vast diversity of sources reinvented for our pleasure; each reinvention a gem, borne up against the world-that-is like a torch; each burning performance exquisite, and beautiful in its own way.

Download it all, that the songs might linger, and bear repeating. And if you like what you hear, follow the links, as always, to purchase and share your own favorites, the better to keep the music and the music-making going for our children, and theirs.



The Year’s Best Coverfolk Singles (2017)
A Cover Lay Down mixtape




Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been digging deep at the ethnographic intersection of folkways and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, like, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the music flowing? Please, consider a year’s end contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all donors receive undying praise, and a special blogger-curated gift mixtape of well-loved but otherwise unshared covers from 2016-2017, including exclusive live covers from our very own Unity House Concert series.

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