Author: Campbell, Bruce

I've Got You Covered

When I played rock and roll, I played countless parties, doing cover versions. It was same playing high school dances Ė the audiences wanted to hear cover tunes, and thatís what your band had to do. In a lot of cases, to get the gig, you were expected to submit a song list of all the songs you did and by what artist. In the 70ís, weíre talking a lot of songs by the Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Rolling Stones, Beatles, Joe Walsh, Cream. Your bandís creativity was not desired Ė if you did one of these songs differently than the record, you wouldnít get hired back.

When I started playing clubs, the expectation was the opposite Ė you were supposed to be doing original material, or new twists on old hits, or (my favorite) obscure covers. I always enjoyed this type of music best, most likely because Iím lazy. I would rather just impose my feelings on the music than take the trouble to try and play like someone else. I could duplicate the sounds really well, I just wasnít into note-for-note duplication of someone elseís recording.

I have met many musicians over the years who are very, very adept at playing music just like it sounds on a record. They could effortlessly pick up the chords and the lead breaks. I felt like I was playing with oven mitts on, next to these people.

Then I took up bluegrass, which is, of course, 90% covers! Luckily for me, itís a folk music, so some personal interpretation is allowed as we play songs and tunes that are in the bluegrass canon. Naturally, there are people in bluegrass who can mimic with amazing accuracy the guitar, banjo, mandolin of fiddle playing on classic recordings of these songs, and these folks are much sought after. And they make me jealous, too!

I used to disdain those who concentrated on duplicating the sound of the old records, until I realized a couple of things. One, this is a sincere and heartfelt form of flattery. Second, in a lot of cases, we can no longer hear these songs performed by the musicians who wrote them, and the original recordings are often of a poor quality. So to hear this old music performed with exquisite attention to the details and nuances of the original renditions is a thrill. Donít you get goosebumps when a band just nails a Bill Monroe song? I know I do!

Talented artists will always want to veer from a path thatís too well marked, in most cases. In bluegrass, that can present a problem. Veer TOO much, and youíll see folks rising up from their lawn chairs to go get ice cream during your set. Veer a little further, and youíll be the subject of some heated discussions on the Message Board. Whatís an artist to do? An art form (and bluegrass IS an art form, make no mistake about it) has to be stretched, tested and probed to stay vital. You can blindly follow your muse, and risk alienating your fans, or carefully fold your originality into your set and songs and expand the audienceís consciousness by degrees, often without them even being aware of it. I like the stealth option..

Posted:  3/30/2011

Copyright © 2002 California Bluegrass Association. All rights reserved.
Comments? Questions? Please email