Paste Magazine: 10 of the Best Tom Waits Covers

Tom Waits  is not an easy artist to cover, but he sure is a popular one for others to try to interpret. Best known for his gravelly voice, dramatic persona and very peculiar style of poetic storytelling, his theatrics have created a certain distance between his fame and his actual self. As a prime example, he sings in “Tango Till They’re Sore,” “I’ll tell you all my secrets, but I lie about my past.”

It’s these details paired with such disconnect that makes Waits’ work seem so personal, yet so universal. No one can copy that voice of his, but it creates an opportunity for other artists to showcase his words and tone in their own ways. As a result, here are 10 of the best covers of Tom Waits songs.

Carolina Chocolate Drops, “Trampled Rose”

The Carolina Chocolate Drops offer a much faster take on this tune, turning a mumbled lament into a song out of the folk tradition. The fiddle brings a jaunty anxiety to the tune and the banjo notes are a sharp addition. Singer Dom Flemons’ voice is stark and clear, as he holds notes forcefully, but in a controlled manner. The cover maintains the same devotion to an ambiguous loss that Waits conveys, but when Flemons sings, “what I’ve done to you, I’ve done to me,” it is a more declarative statement.

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The Prejudice Against Jug Band Music

Jug band music began as street-corner busking, where performers soon learned that the novelty of blowing on a ceramic jug, kazoo or harmonica grew larger crowds than the more sophisticated picking on banjos, mandolins and acoustic guitars by their more dignified blues colleagues.

But even within the African-American music community of the Jim Crow South, jazz musicians looked down on the blues musicians who looked down on the jug-band buskers.

As often happens, the folks at the bottom of the totem pole played with more spirit and freedom than those at the top. The same need to draw a crowd encouraged not only novelty instruments but also ear-grabbing tunes and theatrical lyrics. You can hear that free spirit in the Memphis Jug Band’s 1928 On the Road Again, featuring the guitar and lead vocal of Will Shade.

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