When I hear someone refer to a band as a “cover band,” I instantly think of Adam Sandler in the movie “The Wedding Singer” covering Flock of Seagulls. Or the raucous all-female AC/DC tribute band Hell’s Belles who seem to perform almost yearly at Marlinitini’s. Sing-along, fun, sometimes cheesy, cover bands are the hard-working go-to of weddings and rock’n’roll bar gigs.
But I’ve met plenty of musicians who get snobbish about cover bands. If it’s not original, they don’t want to hear it. Let’s get real, if you play in a band and want to start playing gigs, bar or party, you’re going to need a lot of music. And not just any music, it’s got to be something that gets people on their feet. How many musicians performing original music have that much material? Don’t get me wrong, I have huge respect for song-writers. It’s one of the hardest gigs out there. But that’s exactly what I’m saying — writing original music that will pump up a crowd is a very unique skill. One of the few performances I can think of that really knocked it out of the park with original music in Juneau in the past couple of years was Tim Easton at the Red Dog Saloon during 2012’s Folk Fest. Tim, playing solo, managed to keep the bar crowd jumping for a solid four hours.
That same snobbish dismissal of cover songs flies out the window when you’re dealing with American roots music. This is music that was built to be social party music. If you’re already familiar with playing bluegrass, old-timey, or Cajun you can usually jump in on a new song after only a few moments of listening. Like jazz and blues, these songs are all built from a basic frame, knowing the standard structure means that you can predict where the song is going and if you’ve got the talent, riff on it.
So why aren’t these bands considered cover bands? A big part of it is that they’re mostly playing traditional songs, meaning that you’re rarely going to hear them play a tune that is easily identifiable as being “so-and-so’s” song. Another is that within some of these forms, particularly bluegrass, there’s an emphasis on improvisation. Like jazz, the idea is that you’ll never hear a musician play exactly the same break on the same song twice.
The American roots music scene is relatively small, but every once in a while a song comes along that escapes out into the general public. The two biggest songs in the last decade have been “Man of Constant Sorrow“ from the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou” and “Wagon Wheel” from the band Old Crow Medicine Show. Ask any bluegrass or old-timey musician you know about the requests they get for these songs and you’ll be met with a stink eye and a groan. Personally, I think these are both great songs, but they cross that line. If you play “Wagon Wheel” at a bar gig, somehow you’ve instantly transformed into a cover band — it’s no longer about how well you’re playing or harmonizing, it’s now about the fact that every person on the dance floor is screaming along with the words. Guaranteed good time? Yes. Fulfilling musical experience for the performers? Not so much. Unless that’s what you’re going for.
Twice a year, veteran all-star Alaska old-timey band Raisin’ Holy Hell plays the Rendezvous Bar in Juneau, usually once in October and once during the Folk Festival. Every time they play feels like the old-timey music equivalent of a Holy Roller revival. They’re a band that seamlessly moves between traditional fiddle tunes and old-timey covers of Afroman, and yes, “Wagon Wheel.” By the end of their show, the bar is packed wall to wall, the people are dancing, and usually half the crowd is singing along with every tune. After my Cajun band played our first dance, I ran into Raisin’ Holy Hell’s front man, Bob Bell, and told him how surprised I was at how much I loved playing dances. His answer? “Well why do you think we play? To make the people dance! There’s nothing better.”