VERSIONS: “Killing the Blues”

Versions: Killing the Blues

Towns and venues across the Highlands of Scotland are not often listed in an artist’s tour itinerary. Last month, it came as a pleasant surprise to find out that Robert Vincent was playing a venue in Kyle of Lochalsh. Skye Bridge Studio 123 is on the mainland and provided a small and intimate space for the audience to enjoy some excellent live music. Before heading West to the gig, I played a fair bit of Vincent’s back catalogue and discovered his version of ‘Killing the Blues’. Then I was off down another rabbit hole.

There are some notable artists who have covered this song. Notably Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, that earned them a Grammy award for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals in 2009. A deserved Grammy too for the songwriter Rowland ‘Roly‘ Salley. He’s the bassist for Chris Isaak’s band Silvertone. Aye, I dug out ‘Heart Shaped World’. I’d forgotten how good Isaak’s own songs were. Remember, if it had not been for David Lynch’s film, perhaps a scantily clad Helena Christensen, we might never have heard James Wilsey’s wicked guitar work. Salley wrote ‘Killing the Blues’ in the seventies but didn’t get to release his own version until 2003. It was first recorded by Woodstock Mountains Revue in 1977. Before being posthumously name-checked by just about everyone who knows how to tune a guitar, John Prine covered the song on his sixth album ‘Pink Cadillac’ in 1979. His version is often assumed to be the original but the track was one of four covers on the album. There’s no doubt Prine does the definitive version.

Third guess, people might credit Shawn Colvin. Larry Campbell, past member of Woodstock Mountains Revue and friend of Roly Salley told his bandmate Colvin about the song in 1981. In 1994 Colvin said: “Just when you think there’s no new way to say anything, you hear a song like this and think, that’s as good as anything before or since.”  Colvin’s beautiful voice is as good as anythings before or since.

My next version might be controversial. I own this version on white vinyl. It is by Billy Ray Cyrus with Shooter Jennings. Forget that awful song that made Cyrus $40 million in 1992. This version released in 2016 was a tribute to Waylon Snr. If you can get around your prejudices you’ll find a heartfelt version. Produced by Shooter Jennings it deserves some kudos.

Returning to Robert Vincent. There’s something about this version on his 2022 EP ‘Undercover’ that justifies the inclusion here. He didn’t sing it at the gig. Lots of luscious strings and a worthy vocal collaboration with fellow Liverpudlian Anna Cocoron. There’s a couple of videos out there of them playing in recording studios but the track on the EP is beautiful. Maybe you have to be driving West, bouncing under some white clouds and singing your heart out to feel it. Remembering when we swung the world by its tail.

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Roly Salley actually sang the Woodstock Mountains version


Malcolm Holcombe also did a belter of a version. I found it on the soundtrack to The Slaughter Rule that Jay Farrar put together.