When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week The Secret Sisters take on Johnny Cash’s “Big River.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!
“Big River,” one of 10 singles from Johnny Cash’s second album, 1958’s Sings The Songs That Made Him Famous, is a forlorn tale of losing a woman with an irresistible Southern drawl to the mighty hand of the Mississippi. Cash knows he’s doomed from the start, teaching a “weeping willow how to cry … tears that are going to flood” the iconic body of water before we’ve even left the first stanza. But he’s far from delusional: When we learn that Cash “met her accidentally in St. Paul, Minn.,” we don’t get the sense that he really ever had a chance. Instead, he follows his “dream” southward to Davenport, St. Louis, Memphis and elsewhere to no avail. His failure is a good thing, of course, because country tunes rarely win us over when the protagonist obtains his prize.
Perhaps the most notable cover of “Big River” came to us from the Grateful Dead, whose version only strayed slightly from the original in its many live performances of the song, drawing it out a few minutes longer to make room for some obligatory guitar and piano noodling. But, it’s the gritty, lawless cover from newcomers Secret Sisters, who collaborated with Jack White, that ultimately pushes Cash’s Southern tale into exciting, untouched reaches. Indeed, the Alabama-born Lydia and Laura Rogers harmonize over White’s blues thrashing with a ballsy, sexy swagger, manifesting a reverence for Cash and their shared environs in a manner that’s pretty surprising given the more toned down, ’50s revivalist qualities of the sisters’ eponymous debut, which was produced by T-Bone Burnett. As he was always at home with a vast array of styles and sounds, it strikes me that Cash would’ve loved this cover, content that the rock/country foundation he helped lay could be built upon so tirelessly for decades to come.
Cast your vote wisely.