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.