Take Cover! Gillian Welch Vs. The Byrds

When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week Gillian Welch takes on the Byrds’ “Hickory Wind.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!

Punk-rock gestures come in many forms, often entirely divorced from the image we have of punk-rock style exhibited over the years by any number of bands playing fast and furiously. One such case is when, on March 15, 1968, Gram Parsons led the Byrds in “Hickory Wind” instead of a planned cover of Merle Haggard’s “Life In Prison,” during the band’s now legendary Grand Ole’ Opry performance in Nashville. The ultra-traditionalist crowd was already wary of long-haired “hippies” co-opting country ‘n’ western music for their own aims—something the Byrds had just done admirably on Sweetheart Of The Rodeo under Parsons’ influence—so the mid-set change of course only inflamed them even more. To a degree, this was the equivalent of Sinéad O’Connor shredding a picture of the pope decades later on Saturday Night Live.

And yet now “Hickory Wind” is considered a country classic, the dawning of a new age in which C&W would begin to impress upon a whole generation of rockers. Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, though not the first collection of country-tinged rock (the Byrds themselves had already experimented with twang on Turn! Turn! Turn!), is now thought of by many as the first landmark country-rock album. Considering how far that union has come over the years via the Wilcos of the world, this is not inconsequential. “Hickory Wind,” in particular, showed that a romance for Southern climes and ideals could be shared by anyone with enough sense to slow down long enough to appreciate its unmistakeable charm.

No stranger to American roots music herself, Gillian Welch contributed a disarming version of “Hickory Wind” to Return Of The Grievous Angel: A Tribute To Gram Parsons in 1999. Assisted by little more than the warm glow of a reverberating synth pad and a plodding acoustic guitar, the bluegrass songstress stretches the song out slowly, allowing us to appreciate Parsons’ paean to an idealized Southern childhood in vivid detail.

The Cover:

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The Original:

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12 Comments

  1. Piperh Pierson
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    maybe I’m just too much a die hard fan of Grams,but the Byrds version is superior and Emmylou Harris version packs a punch with emotion abounding,this is so bland

  2. Marc Clements
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Are you serious? There is only one version, and it’s on side two of ‘Grievous Angel’.

  3. Marie
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    Nobody can sing like Gram, but Emmylou’s version can make me cry it’s so full of feeling. I didn’t even finish listening to Gillian’s version because it’s so boring it almost put me to sleep.

  4. Posted August 24, 2011 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    I love Gillian but there’s no comparison here to debate. Gram was and still is the best.

  5. Rick A
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    I’m with Marc Clements.

    Nothing beats Gram’s version on Grievous Angel. Nothing!

    You should’ve provided that version to vote for also

  6. Hoodie
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    Gram’s solo is the best, Alt take on sweetheart is great. Then Emmylou and then Gillian. I am a huge fan of Gillian and Dave and I like this version.

  7. amyblanford
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    had to vote for gram but gillian did one hell of a job

  8. Scott
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    There is absolutley no better version the Grvious Angel cut. Why even go down the road? Love Gillian and anything she sings though…..

  9. Wayne
    Posted August 25, 2011 at 1:25 am | Permalink

    The Byrds groundbreaking version is tops. You throw that whining pedal steel in (JayDee Maness?) and that along with Gram’s vocals, Chris Hillman’s backing vocals, it’s no contest.

  10. Laura
    Posted August 25, 2011 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Definitely Gram’s my fav.

  11. Joseph Michael West
    Posted August 26, 2011 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    God Bless Gillian but The Byrds version is pure country soul!

  12. Donald Shearer
    Posted September 20, 2011 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    GP’s version is only slightly better than ELH’s. Gillian Welch’s is a solid #3. I feel that of all the passed away musicans Gram Parsons would have done so very much more for us to enjoy.