Jimmy LaFave covers:
Dylan, Guthrie, Townes, Springsteen, Joe Ely & more!

Texas-born, Oklahoma bred singer-songwriter Jimmy LaFave is a regular on the Northeast festival circuit; I’ve managed to catch his act many times in the last two decades, on main stages and side sets, and I’ve never failed to be impressed. But that first time was a revelation, serving as a potent introduction to the crossover country/folk Red Dirt subgenre, and – more significantly – to the historically-grounded poetry and achingly vivid performance of a folk artist who remains one of the most respected songwriters and interpreters in his field.

LaFave isn’t a melodic performer: that inimitable voice is broken and pained, and that’s part of its charm and its power. Though his work includes several hard-driving, full-band albums that, stylistically, mix rock, folk, rockabilly, and country, in his most potent output he tends towards the countryfolk ballad, wringing emotion like water from every line through a unique combination of inflection, strum pulse, and nuance, even when covering songs that are predominantly metered or rock-rhythmic in the original.

But unlike many singer-songwriters who regularly incorporate other artists’ songs into their sets, LaFave’s coverage is narrowly defined, predominantly focused upon a small set of influential artists who, like him, address pain and loneliness through simple melody, wailing vocals, and stark, poetic dustbowl lyricism. In many ways, this makes him a sort of performing ethnomusicologist, one whose study of Dylan, Guthrie, and other early, seminal members of the folk revival and their influence is a natural extension of his own work. To steep in his original songcraft is to steep in the history of a region and its cultural influence; to listen to LaFave’s coverage in this context lends credence to and layers new potential onto how we understand his own songwriting.

LaFave lives this connection to history thoroughly, wearing his influences proudly, including covers on almost every album, and throughout his sets. Indeed, his coverage of Dylan is legendary: LaFave includes a Dylan song on almost every album, and released a full dozen on the powerful two-disc set Trail in 1999; I posted a six-song set of these back in the summer of 2010, claiming “the man covers Dylan better than anybody”, and after a year thick with Dylan coverage, I stand by that assessment.

Over a three-decade career, he’s taken on a range of artists, too, from Donovan to Freddie King, from Springsteen to Big Bill Broonzy. But LaFave claims Woody Guthrie as his musical hero, and, indeed, it is his deep work in and among the songs and songwriters of the Guthrie tradition, guiding the Guthrie legacy, which is perhaps most significant to understanding his particular craft. He has performed at every single Woody Guthrie Folk Festival since its inaugural in 1998 and now belongs to its board of directors, founded and produced the 2003 nation tour of tribute show Ribbon of Highway, Endless Skyway with fellow Red Dirt folk musicians such as Slaid Cleaves, Eliza Gilkyson, Sarah Lee Guthrie, and Kevin Welch, and no less than Nora Guthrie, daughter and guiding star behind the continued legacy of Woody, asked him to speak and perform at the ceremony inducting Woody into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.

This approach to coverage and to artistic connection is more intimate, more substantive, and arguably more genuine than the pop coverage we often feature here on this blog. It is worthy of respect, and of celebration, both for the music it generates in him, and for the way in which it ties LaFave to the larger folkstream, making his own work a continuation of the legacies of others, a guiding star for his peers in the modern movement, and a defining legacy in its own right. Here, take a listen to the result – just the tip of a huge iceberg of coverage, and a body of work that includes over a dozen albums of merit – and I think you’ll hear that Jimmy LaFave, more than most, represents the pinnacle of what Cover Lay Down promises.

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Category: Bob Dylan, Jimmy LaFave, Woody Guthrie 5 comments »

5 Responses to “Jimmy LaFave covers:
Dylan, Guthrie, Townes, Springsteen, Joe Ely & more!

  1. Tom Wood

    Jimmy LaFave did the greatest cover of Abba’s Dancing Queen I have ever heard. It was such a sad, elegiac tune when he did it. I have never been able to find it anywhere; he sang it in the studio live on some radio program. If you know of it and could post it I would be eternally in your debt.

  2. boyhowdy

    Wow! I’d certainly have posted that if I had it, Tom – and now I’m dying to hear it! Anyone got it out there?

    But I know LaFave can do pop. In fact, I just posted a bonus cover of John Waite’s Missing You, recorded just last year when LaFave was down in Austin, over on Facebook – head over to the Cover Lay Down Facebook page to check it out, and enjoy!

  3. E. Ayers

    I wonder if Tom might be thinking of Robbie Fulks’ cover of Dancing Queen, performed on Fresh Air (NPR) in 1998? That performance certainly fits Tom’s description otherwise.


  4. Leon

    Great choice to focus on Jimmy LaFave. I really like him and was eager to collect a few of his tunes here I didn’t have. Thanks!

  5. Chris

    Excellent selection, thanks. I would recommend two more – his takes on Bob’s “Emotionally Yours” and Jimmy Webb’s “The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress” will break the hardest heart.

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