5 Songs John Prine Covered But Didn’t Write

For the most part, John Prine’s albums were light on cover songs, but he recorded enough of them over his storied career to create a quality playlist. He would often record songs written by the giants of country music, such as Kris Kristofferson, Hank Williams, and Tom T. Hall, and Prine had a knack for making these covers his own. The touches that Prine put on each of the five songs included here were sometimes subtle, but in each case, the versions are unmistakably his.

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1. “Clay Pigeons

Prine covered this song by Blaze Foley for his 2005 album Fair & Square, which won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. The lyrics recount the tale of someone who is at a transitional point in life and decides to ride a Greyhound bus for a few days to figure out which direction to take. Given that there is a line about going back to Texas, it could have been an autobiographical song for Foley. Prine gives this slow acoustic song the flat vocal delivery it needs to fully convey the sadness its protagonist feels.

“Clay Pigeons” ranks as one of Prine’s most streamed songs. Foley’s original was recorded live for his 1999 album Live at the Austin Outhouse, so it’s only fitting that Prine’s most popular version on YouTube is his 2005 performance on PBS’ Austin City Limits.

2. “So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)

In 1960, The Everly Brothers had a Top 10 hit with this song, and 39 years later, Prine and Connie Smith covered it on his In Spite of Ourselves album, which features duets with female vocalists on every track but one. Prine and Smith’s version puts a different spin on the tune, with the piano higher up in the mix and the song beginning with a series of ascending notes—as opposed to the descending notes in the Everlys’ version.

The Don Everly-penned song has been recorded by numerous other artists, including by Smith on her 1976 album I Don’t Wanna Talk It Over Anymore. Emmylou Harris charted with the song, peaking at No. 28 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles rankings in 1983, and Jeff Lynne included a version on his 2012 solo album Long Wave.

3. “You Never Can Tell

The best-known cover of this Chuck Berry song was recorded by Harris for her Luxury Liner album in 1976 (which she called “[Never Can Tell] C’est la Vie”). One year earlier, Prine included it on his fourth album, Common Sense. Prine’s version is faithful to the original’s rock and roll roots, but it moves along at a faster tempo and with a more prominent placement of the saxophone. This arrangement serves the song’s upbeat account of a teenaged married couple well. Berry’s original regained popularity in 1994, as it was used for a memorable dance scene with Uma Thurman and John Travolta in Pulp Fiction.

[RELATED: 5 Artists Who Covered John Prine Songs and Made Them Their Own]

4. “Killing the Blues

This track written by Rowland Salley (a bassist and vocalist in Chris Isaak’s band) is one of five covers that appear on Prine’s 1979 album, Pink Cadillac. Unlike the many rockers on the album, “Killing the Blues” is a sad mid-tempo song about a love lost. With heart-wrenching lyrics such as Now you ask me just to leave you / To go out on my own and get what I need to / You want me to find what I’ve already had, “Killing the Blues” provides Pink Cadillac with a change of pace. The backing vocals on Prine’s cover makes it distinct from Salley’s own version. It’s also been covered by numerous other artists, including Shawn Colvin and Robert Plant and Allison Krauss.

5. “I Love You So Much It Hurts

Prine finishes off his 1995 album, Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings, with this cover of a 1948 folk hit by Floyd Tillman. While Tillman is accompanied by guitar, strings, and drums on his original version, Prine scales the instrumentation back to just his vocals and a piano. The spare arrangement highlights the song’s straightforward lyrics about someone who is insecure about losing their relationship with their loved one. The track also provides a stark contrast to the fuller and brighter sound of most of the rest of the album, which was produced by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ bassist Howie Epstein. Several other artists have covered the song, from Jimmy Wakely and The Mills Brothers in the ‘40s to Patsy Cline and Ray Charles in the ‘60s to Merle Haggard in 2002.

Photo by David Redfern/Redferns

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