If you are a musician there is a really good possibility, almost a certainty, that you have learned, played, replayed, and even come to hate some cover songs. I will admit that learning to play covers is greatly responsible for me getting into playing music live, and had also contributed to my songwriting and desire to perform more original material. Most of the shows I play are around 3 hours long, and I don’t have enough original material (yet) to fill that time, so covers fill the rest.
There are a LOT of schools of thought on cover songs. In some markets a musician can make a decent living playing cover after cover. I’ve been in groups that have done this. There are also markets that put a way bigger emphasis on original works by the artist, and even frown on someone playing cover songs.
However, covers are usually intertwined with original works in most settings, so they are really a fact of musician’s lives, whether we play them or not. As a gigging musician I am often approached by people during my performances about playing their favorite song.
These are a few of the most asked for cover songs that I have experienced, and my story behind their respective “nope” factors.
Wagon WheelLast weekend I played a show in the Argenta District of North Little Rock, AR with my psychobilly/rockabilly band, Billy D and the First Time Offenders. After setup I walked across the street with a friend to another bar, and I saw this sign. I fell in love, and really wanted to take it with me, but the bartender wouldn’t let me. Wagon Wheel is not a bad song. Not at all. It’s just waaaayyyy overplayed. I was at a biker event for a show earlier this year and was talking to a good friend of mine, who is also a musician, and he mentioned playing Wagon Wheel. I made a very sarcastic comment, and he seemed to get his feelings hurt. “That’s my daughter’s favorite song.” I had to explain the reasons I don’t like that song. Of course, he played it later in the evening during our concert on the front porch of the saloon. It holds a special place for him, and that’s fine. Just don’t ask me to play it and expect it to happen.
Free BirdThere is always that person in the audience hollering “FREE BIRD” during a quite spot between songs, most of the time as a joke. But this song really does get requested from time to time. I have played this in groups before, usually milking the solo sections for everything we could to eat up 10 minutes or so of the setlist. I haven’t played this song in years, and don’t remember all the words. Am I going to refresh my memory? Probably not. Not a bad song, just worn out.
Sweet Home AlabamaThis still happens. A few years ago a rather inebriated young lady really wanted to hear this song. The singer for our group kept nicely saying no. At one point she is at the edge of the stage, almost in tears, crying out for us to “play Alabama” anytime we could hear between songs. We still didn’t do it. I don't mind listening to the song, even though there is a lot of other music out there, but I just don't want to play it again. If someone reeeaalllyy want to here "Alabama", and they understand that I don't know it well anymore, including lyrics, and they drop a substantial amount of cash in the tip bucket, then it is a possibility. Sometimes while working we have to seize opportunities, even if we really don't want to.
I don’t see anything wrong with playing cover songs, as long as the person playing doesn’t try to take credit for its creation.
I still play cover songs during my shows. I try to pick covers of songs that most people may not have heard, or change the arrangement to where sometimes the audience doesn’t recognize what I’m playing until I get to the hook. We do a Paula Abdul song, with a bluegrass twist, and people usually don’t know what’s going on until it’s leading into the chorus of “Straight up now tell me”, and then they are all singing along. I also try to make sure to differentiate covers from originals, especially for some of the more obscure cover songs.
Last weekend with the psychobilly band we closed our show, as we always do, with Ace of Spades by Motorhead. It’s one of those that we dump every last bit of energy we have into, because it’s the last song, so it tends to be extremely energetic. So covers definitely still hold a place in my musical repertoire. If Wagon Wheel is your favorite song, sing it at the top of your lungs. If you want to hear a band “play Alabama”, fell free to ask them. Just please don’t get your feelings hurt if they say no.