10 great Americana Beatles’ covers

As most of our regular readers will know, AUK Towers is based in Liverpool, and while we have a pool of internationally based writers from all corners of the UK and beyond, Liverpool and its culture does seep into AUK from time to time. It seems only right then that we celebrate that city’s most famous musical export and our love of americana music. Country music was never far away from John, Paul, George and Ringo in their early days as they cut their musical teeth in the skiffle boom of the ’50s. One of Paul McCartney’s earliest songs ‘In Spite Of All The Danger’, co-written with George when they were members of The Quarrymen, is a country song. The Beatles’ cover of Buck Owen’s ‘Act Naturally’, with Ringo on vocals, was a feature of their live shows when they actually played live.

The Beatle’s catalogue has been covered by various country artists over the years starting with Willie Nelson’s contemporary cover of ‘Yesterday’, on his 1966 live album ‘Country Music Concert’, and including Kris Kristofferson, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Sweethearts of the Rodeo, Rosanne Cash and Johnny Rodriguez. This list avoids these more obvious entries and takes the opportunity to explore the bluegrass and folk aspects of americana as well as revisiting one of the great songbooks of the second half of the twentieth century. I hope you all enjoy the music and, as always, feedback, would be welcomed on the tracks and artists.

‘I Have Just Seen A Face’ (1968) The Dillards included their version of this acoustic 1965 McCartney track on their ground-breaking ‘Wheatstraw Suite’ album. Herb Pedersen had replaced Doug Dillard on banjo and brought added vocal strength to the music which is still bluegrass based but includes orchestration, electric instrumentation and contemporary covers. Following the Dillards cover of the track, it became something of a standard among progressive bluegrass and country-rock acts with Leon Russell, backed by New Grass Revival, releasing his live version in 1981.

‘Don’t Let Me Down (1969) The second Dillard and Clark album ‘Through the Morning, Through the Night’ suffered at the time of its release because it included significantly more cover versions than ‘The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark’ and therefore fewer Gene Clark originals. However, this is still an excellent progressive bluegrass album with a great version of this late Beatles John Lennon love song to Yoko Ono. At the time, it was said that Doug Dillard left The Dillards because he was not happy with their move away from a more pure form of bluegrass and therefore there is some irony in the fact that the work he did with Dillard and Clark was very similar to the work his ex-band did with his replacement Herb Pedersen.

‘Yesterday’ (1970) The Country Gentlemen recorded their version of this 1965 solo Beatle track written by McCartney on their ‘Live In Japan’ album. The Country Gentlemen have legendary status among bluegrass fans being one of the very first progressive bluegrass bands formed in the late ‘50s. This album was recorded by the second great Country Gentleman’s line-up with Doyle Lawson replacing founding member John Duffy on mandolin. John Duffy subsequently founded the equally legendary The Seldom Scene in the same Washington area that nurtured Emmylou Harris before she was spotted by Chris Hillman and brought to the attention of Gram Parsons. Their version of ‘Yesterday’ is an instrumental showcasing the skills of banjoist Bill Emerson and mandolinist Doyle Lawson who are still revered to this day in bluegrass circles.

‘What Goes On’ (1988) This song was originally written by John Lennon in the days of The Quarrymen but was finally released in 1965 as a Lennon, McCartney and Starr co-write. It clearly shows the early country influences of the Beatles and this is the influence that The Seldom Scene picked up on when they covered it on their ‘A Change of Scenery’ album. The Seldom Scene are another progressive bluegrass band that was not afraid to cover contemporary and non-bluegrass songs and introduce varied instrumental sounds to the basic bluegrass mix.

‘I’m Down’ (1989) New Grass Revival brought a rock’n’roll attitude and look to the progressive bluegrass of the early ‘70s,  building on the groundbreaking work of The Country Gentlemen. Their version of the Paul McCartney non-album homage to Little Richard, released as the B-side to ‘Help’ in 1965’, brought their career full circle, appearing as it did on their final album, ‘Friday Night In America’, mirroring the inclusion of Jerry Lee Lewis’s ‘Great Balls Of Fire’ on their 1972 debut album. In between, they had toured with Leon Russell and played bluegrass to non-bluegrass audiences. While it is true they were never popular with the more traditional bluegrass audience, Bill Monroe, the founding father of bluegrass, was a big personal fan of their take on the music he had originated.

‘I Will’ (1992) This version of the ‘White Album’ track was recorded by Tony Furtado and Alison Krauss and, while the track was written by McCartney in India,  it adapted well to a more roots-based approach. Alison took bluegrass to unimaginable levels of commercial success, even without the help of Robert Plant and T-Bone Burnett. This success was built on the progressive bluegrass of the ‘70s with Tony Rice being a particular influence. That film didn’t hurt her career either. As always, Jerry Douglas’s dobro is featured prominently on the track.

‘I’m Looking Through You’ (1995) Steve Earle’s ‘Train a Comin’’ was his first album after beating his drug addiction in 1993. It had a folk bluegrass sound that was, at the time,  a new departure for Earle. This Beatles track from 1965’s ‘Rubber Soul’ was quite at home with Earle’s self-penned songs and covers of Townes Van Zandt. The album picked up a Grammy Nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Album and predated Earle’s bluegrass collaboration with Del McCoury, 1999’s ‘The Mountain’. Supporting musicians on ‘Train a Comin” include respected bluegrass musicians Peter Rowan and  Norman Blake enhancing the authenticity of the Appalachian sound.

‘Norwegian Wood’ (1996) Tim O’Brien is an A-list bluegrass, country and folk session musician who is also a founding member of progressive bluegrass band Hot Rize and who has also had a lengthy solo career. He will also be well known to fans of the ‘Transatlantic Sessions’. ‘Norwegian Wood’ is sometimes called the first world music track with its use of sitar and Tim included it on his ‘Two Journeys’ album where he explores Irish immigration to America with American, Irish and British musicians.

‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ (1999) Though released on 1967’s ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, this was written by McCartney when he was just 16. David Grisman, John Hartford and Mike Seeger are beyond legendary folk and bluegrass musicians who recorded the ‘Retrograss‘ album where they took 20th-century music classics and arranged and played them as old-time tunes with all the good humour that that implies. This is an album that has to be heard to be believed. It also provides a glimpse into the eccentric soul of John Hartford.

‘Things We Said Today’ (2001) This was one of the better songs on the Beatle’s ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ album and was about the challenges of McCartney’s relationship with Jane Asher. Rice, Rice, Hillman and Pedersen were seen by some as a supergroup including as they did Chris Hillman, from the Byrds,  Tony Rice, at the time the greatest bluegrass guitarist and one of the genre’s best singers, ace session musician and ex-Dillard Herb Pedersen and respected mandolinist, and brother of Tony, Larry Rice. However, they were really a bunch of friends steeped in west coast folk and bluegrass traditions who recorded three well thought of albums of which ‘Running Wild’ was their last. They deliver an excellent version of the track that Bob Dylan subsequently covered on ‘The Art Of McCartney’ tribute album in 2014.

Author: Martin Johnson

I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

8 thoughts on “10 great Americana Beatles’ covers”

  1. Great list, but missing the one album where several of these tracks got their first bluegrass makeovers, the Charles River Valley Boys’ classic “Beatle Country”, from 1967.

  2. Some good choices here certainly but where’s Dwight Yoakam’s ‘Things We Said Today’ ?
    It’s on his ‘Under the Covers’ album.

    1. I made the call to keep it more bluegrass hence the Tony Rice cover of Things We Said Today. However that doesn’t detract from the quality of Dwight’s version

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