Holler Country Music

Country Covers That Are Better Than The Originals

April 4, 2024 9:40 am GMT

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Let's be honest, some covers are better than others. Some, dare we say it, are even better than the original.

Most songs have a lifespan. They go through phases of creation and release, seeing moments of radio play and, if they’re lucky, chart success before falling into obscurity or being relegated to some throwback playlist.

However, there are some tunes that are afforded a second, third or even fourth chance through the art of the cover. When a song is reimagined by another artist, it's given the opportunity to be reborn under the tutelage of someone else, reintroducing it to new audiences, or in some cases, new generations.

Here at Holler, we've compiled a list of country cover songs that have trumped their prototype, redrawn the blueprint, and in the end, made standards out of mere songs. Some may be obvious, some controversial and others may just have you wondering, “Wait, that’s a cover?!”

Without further ado, here's Holler's list of Country Covers that were Better than the Original.

RCA Victor | 1978

'Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys' - Waylon Jennings & Willie Nelson

First recorded by Ed Bruce in the fall of 1975, ‘Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys’ appeared on Bruce’s self-titled album. It peaked at number 15 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart.

Chris LeDoux, a name you will become very familiar with throughout this list, cut ‘Mommas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys’ on January 20, 1976, just two months after it’s initial release. The track was featured on Songbook of the American West, flying under the radar of most country music enthusiasts.

Two years on, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson covered the song for their 1978 album, Waylon & Willie. Spending four weeks atop the country music charts, it defied genre and crossed over onto the Billboard Hot 100, as well as earning a Grammy for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.

Willie and Waylon took the song and made it an anthem, with Willie revisiting the song a number of times. In 1979, he cut a solo version of the track and in 2002, he recorded a version with Matchbox Twenty for Stars & Guitars. In 2017, Willie recorded a live version with Toby Keith for a tribute album, Outlaw - Celebrating the Music of Waylon Jennings. He continues to perform the song regularly.

In 2010, members of the Western Writers of America named ‘Mammas...’ number twenty five of the top 100 Western songs of all time - cementing its place in country music history.

- Laura Ord

Lyric Street Records | 2006

'Life Is A Highway' - Rascal Flatts

Originally released in 1991 by Canadian artist Tom Cochrane, 'Life Is A Highway' was a smash hit from the beginning, clinching the top spot on the Canadian charts and peaking at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100.

A few years later, Chris LeDoux (there he is again) released a cover of the tune for his 1998 record, One Road Man, only hitting No. 64 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. However, in 2005, Rascal Flatts gave the song an entirely new life when they were commissioned to cut a version for the beloved Pixar movie, Cars.

Where Cochrane's version was more toned down and simple, and LeDoux's take was more electrified and free flowing, Rascal Flatt's version perfectly marries the best parts of its predecessors, becoming a proud road trip and karaoke classic ever since.

With well over 3 million copies of the song sold in the U.S. alone over the last twenty years, 'Life Is A Highway' landed at No. 7 on the Hot 100, and even though it was never formally released to country radio, found its way to No. 18 on the Hot Country Songs chart, too.

- Lydia Farthing

La Honda | 2017

'Fraulein' - Colter Wall & Tyler Childers

The country standard ‘Fraulein’ has lived a long life, tumbling through the lungs of so many of the genre’s finest.

The Lawton Williams-penned tune was originally recorded by Bobby Helms, who released the song in 1957. His rendition, the template upon which the song has been reworked time and again, features those trademark warbling vocals and emotive phrasings that have made the tune so gripping and coverable for decades.

Over the years, ‘Fraulein’ has been retooled by the likes of Willie Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, David Allan Coe, Conway Twitty and more, but one of the most striking revisions to the tune came by way of Townes Van Zandt in 1972. He stripped the song of its jauntiness, his simple but stirring croon making the tune’s haunting lyrics even more evocative. Still, the best was yet to come.

The song would find a new life in the 21st century with Colter Wall’s 2017 rendition. His ‘Fraulein’, which featured the stark vocal flourishes of fellow favorite Tyler Childers, is the ultimate version, replete with unparalleled artistry from two of contemporary country’s most poignant storytellers.

- Alli Patton

Oh Boy | 2005

'Clay Pigeons' - John Prine

Dylan Earl, Luke Grimes and even Michael Cera have taken a stab at this Blaze Foley song, but it was John Prine’s version of it, from his 2005 album Fair and Square, that to our ears has somehow always felt like the definitive one.

The story of an unassuming, down on his luck drifter waiting for a greyhound bus to take him away so he can start his life over again could have easily come from the pen of Prine himself.

Lines like “I'm tired of runnin' 'round lookin' for answers to questions that I already know” and the playfulness of the clay pigeons line that gives the song its title sound so quintessentially Prine it’s often a surprise when you first find out it isn’t one of his own.

- Jof Owen

Bella Union | 2015

'Homecoming' - Karl Blau

As a member of the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, Tom T. Hall must have been used to people taking his songs and making them their own. Nicknamed "The Storyteller", he composed songs for everyone from Johnny Cash and George Jones to Loretta Lynn and Alan Jackson.

Bobby Bare had a crack at ‘Homecoming’ in 1969, the same year that Tom T. Hall released his own version, and although both were charming enough countrypolitan takes on the song, it was Karl Blau’s version, released nearly fifty years later, that finally brought the song to life in a wholly new way.

Produced by Tucker Martine, the breezy mandolin and Blau’s gruff baritone seem such a perfect fit for the song. Sung from the one-sided perspective of a struggling singer who takes a trip back to see his father, Blau nudges for his approval as he awkwardly apologises for missing his mother’s funeral, telling him about the shows he’s been playing while doing his best to explain the random girl sleeping out in his car.

- JO

Columbia | 1987

'Tennessee Flat Top Box' - Roseanne Cash

Originally a No. 11 hit written and sung by Johnny Cash in 1962 – when his daughter Rosanne was just six years old – ‘Tennessee Flat Top Box’ tells the story of a little boy aspiring to be a country singer, who starts his career at a local cabaret in a South Texas border town. He has no particular life skills apart from being a proficient steel-stringed acoustic guitarist, which has "all the girls from nine to ninety” pawning their jewellery, snapping their fingers, tapping their toes and begging him to never stop playing.

If the song was autobiographical, then there’s a fun twist in the tale when the six-year-old Roseanne grows up to rerecord the song in her early thirties and has an even bigger hit with it. Cash took it all the way to No. 1 on the Hot Country Songs chart, 25 years after her dad failed to crack the Top 10 with it.

- JO

Decca | 1961

'Crazy' - Patsy Cline

Penned by a young Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline’s version of ‘Crazy’ has blossomed into a timeless country classic, with Cline’s lithe, atmospheric vocals meandering emphatically over a deliberate instrumental.

Nelson recorded a demo in the late 1950s, but didn’t officially release his rendition until 1962. By that point, Cline’s version had surged to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, and was en route to becoming Cline’s biggest hit – and indeed, one of the brightest jewels in country music’s shimmering crown. In 1988, ‘Crazy’ earned the title of the most played track on jukeboxes across the US.

Nelson's take on ‘Crazy’ carries the Texan’s signature gravitas, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who could outmuscle Cline when it comes to vocals.

‘Crazy’ was lit up by Cline’s star-power, and cemented the Virginia trailblazer’s immovable place in the history books.

- Maxim Mower

1990 | MCA

'Fancy' - Reba McEntire

I remember it all very well looking back / It was the summer I turned eighteen…

With the opening lines of the smoldering Southern gothic standard, listeners know they’ll soon be transported to the hardscrabble world of ‘Fancy’.

Either arriving by way of Bobbie Gentry’s sensual croon or coming through the attitude-tinted twang of Reba McEntire, it’s a song and a story that has become well-loved in the country canon.

With the Gentry original, which dropped in 1970, listeners became acquainted with the titular character, a young woman-turned-sex worker who makes her way from a “one-room, rundown shack” to the lap of luxury. Then came McEntire’s ‘Fancy’ two decades later, a rendition that saw the song’s once cool composition fired up. This slight alteration would give the tune the fuel it needed to endure decades later.

The two versions of the classic are the worthiest of opponents, but one barely trumps the other. Ultimately, Reba’s, with its amped up melody and fearsome inflections, wins out.

- AP


'The Devil Always Made Me Think Twice' - Hailey Whitters

This one is still technically a cover, so bear with us.

Originally written by Al Anderson and Chris Stapleton, 'The Devil Always Made Me Think Twice' was technically first cut and released by Whitters, as part of the deluxe edition of her supreme sophomore record, The Dream.

Eight months later, Stapleton released it himself, as part of his much anticipated fourth record, Starting Over. The song would be a central part of the promotion behind the album and a frequent inclusion on Stapleton's setlist moving forwards, including a breathtaking performance during the winter lockdown for The late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Releasing her bluesy take on February 28, 2020, Whitters actually takes home the prize for the best version, slowing the groove down to a sultry stomp and letting loose with her huge vocal range. While Stapleton's version is sharp and lustful, Whitters' performance is pure honky tonk blues - you can practically taste the desire that fills the room.

- Ross Jones

Sony | 1967

'Guitar Man' - Elvis Presley

You may not necessarily class this particular Elvis take as country, but once again, stay with us.

Originally written by Jerry Reed, 'Guitar Man' was a small hit for the songwriter, reaching No. 53 on the Country Music charts in July 1967. Two months later, when The King returned to Nashville to record with RCA Victor producer Felton Jarvis, he wanted to cut a take of Reed's guitar-wrangling number, but struggled to get the right sound for the recording.

With Presley unhappy with how the session was going, Jarvis called in the man himself, hiring Reed to play guitar on the track. It would find slightly larger success on the charts that year, before finally finding No.1 on the country charts nearly twenty years later with a new, more electric arrangement.

It's easy to see why Presley's version found more success - the combination of Reed's chameleonic, eccentric finger picking style of guitar playing matched with Presley's loose goosey, spoken word burl gave it that dynamic and intoxicating energy it needed to be a hit.

- RJ

Capitol Nashville | 2013

'Wagon Wheel' - Darius Rucker

If you’ve ever been to a country-themed club night (and if you haven’t, it’s about darn time), the chances are you heard Darius Rucker’s ‘Wagon Wheel’ at least three times before leaving.

‘Wagon Wheel’, with its wonderfully jaunty fiddle, breezy vocals and lyrical levity, is the archetypal feel-good country song, tailor-made for summer bonfires and boat days. It was originally released by Old Crow Medicine Show in 2004 and penned by their frontman, Ketch Secor, who added verses to Bob Dylan’s 1973 chorus.

Both Old Crow Medicine Show and Rucker’s versions are incredibly infectious, but the latter rendition features heavier production and an additional injection of vigour, which accentuates the fun, rose-tinted ambience of the track.

There’s a good-natured playfulness permeating his vocals, as Rucker brought an easygoing swagger that propelled ‘Wagon Wheel’ to new audiences and new heights, with his version becoming a two-week No. 1 at country radio.

- MM

Sony BMG Music Entertainment | 2007

'Dry Town' - Miranda Lambert

The second song on Miranda Lambert’s 2007 album, Crazy-Ex Girlfriend, ‘Dry Town’ is so classic Miranda it’s almost unbelievable to think it isn’t one of her own.

As she wraps her broad Texan twang around the tale of a zero-alcohol road trip pit-stop, rhyming “Miller” with “spill 'er”, singing about a road that was “hot and flat as a ruler” with a “good hundred miles between me and Mazula” and generally singing the absolute shit out of it.

Originally written in 1994 by David Rawlings and Gillian Welch when the two were putting together material for Welch’s debut album, Revival, their demo version wouldn’t surface until 2016 on Boots No. 1: The Official Revival Bootleg, but by then it was too late to be anything but a much loved Miranda Lambert deep cut.

- JO

Warner Records | 2001

'Ol' Red' - Blake Shelton

"Come on somebody, why don't you run? / Ol' Red's itchin' to have a little fun / Get my lantern, get my gun / Red'll have you treed 'fore the mornin' comes."

Practically a part of the country music cannon, Blake Shelton has successfully built a career – and a brand – off of his cover of 'Ol' Red'.

That's right! The beloved yet eery standard was originally recorded by country legend George Jones in 1990. What's more, another icon, Kenny Rogers, also cut the tune in 1993. Neither ever really materialized in the way of chart success, but all that changed after Shelton's 2002 version dropped as part of his hugely successful self-titled debut album.

Peaking at No. 14 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, Shelton's rendition undoubtedly has the most striking and convincing delivery. Though all three mostly stick to the same sound and structure, Shelton just had the special touch to make it a bonafide hit.

- LF

Mercury Nashville | 2015

'Tennessee Whiskey' - Chris Stapleton

Dean Dillon and Linda Hargrove wrote ‘Tennessee Whiskey,’ first pitching it to George Strait, who turned it down.

David Allan Coe became the first country singer to cut the song for his album of the same name released in 1981. While his version peaked at number 77 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart, George Jones’ 1983 rendition fared better, reaching all the way to number two. Both artists executions of the song are steeped in traditional country flair - upon listening, you can picture the couples two-stepping in a Honky Tonk, cutting through the smoke filled room as a steel guitar whines.

In 2015, Chris Stapleton cut a bluesier, grittier Southern Rock version for his 2015 debut solo album, Traveller and, on November 4 2015, performed the song at the CMA Awards as a duet with Justin Timberlake. Based solely on two days’ sales after the awards show broadcast, it reached number one on the Hot Country Songs chart, and number 23 on the Billboard Hot 100. As of 2021, it has become one of the 129 songs in history to be been certified diamond.

Chris Stapleton’s take on ‘Tennessee Whiskey’ breathed new life into a song that, while it was still performed by Coe on tour, had largely been forgotten - bringing it into new households by bending the genre.

- LO


'Cover Me Up' - Morgan Wallen

Although Jason Isbell’s 2013 version is still revered by alt-country faithfuls, Morgan Wallen’s soulful 2021 rendition has soared past Isbell’s original both in popularity and status.

The sparseness of Isbell’s gives it a more intricate feel, but the edge and charisma of Wallen’s drawl elevates the intensity of the song, transforming it from a cult favourite into the global powerhouse it is today. During his live show, every time Wallen steps away from the microphone and strums the opening chords, it receives the loudest reception of the night.

The tender vulnerability of Isbell’s take is eschewed in favour of the gritty, simmering angst of Wallen’s. The numbers don’t lie: Isbell’s version is Gold, Wallen’s is 4x Platinum; Isbell’s rendition has 69 million Spotify streams to its name, Wallen’s has a staggering 438 million.

Fans still grumble about the common misconception that Wallen wrote the song, and while Isbell’s beautiful lyricism will always be the foundation of ‘Cover Me Up’, it’s hard to argue against the fact that Wallen has now made it his own.

- MM


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Written by Alli Patton
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