"Hey, Andy, do me a favor. Move the phone away from the speaker, turn it down a little bit, and play it for me one more time."
Daryl Brown sits quietly as I re-cue "Lost Someone" on my iTunes. The 48-year-old son of James Brown (his mother was former Brown backup singer Bea Ford) and leader of the Soul Generals, the Godfather of Soul's last backing band before his death in December 2006, was just a year old when his father cut the love ballad with his Famous Flames in 1961. But the original slab of soul isn't on the digital turntable this afternoon. In its place is a new version recorded by Cat Power for Jukebox, a January release that finds the Southern-bred indie siren covering artists from Hank Williams to Lil' Wayne.
"Wow, that was great, man," Brown gushes as the tune fades out. "I was listening for that little guitar riff during the change. That's my favorite part of the song and they got it. That song will always remind me of my mother. I always thought it was a song for her; at least, that's what I was led to believe. I remember hearing it a lot as a little kid.
"I think [Cat Power] did a really good job with her version. It sounded like it was recorded in mono, it was that authentic to me."
This isn't the first time that Cat Power, the stage name of the 36-year-old singer-songwriter Chan Marshall, has trod on the often-slippery artistic ground of covering other people's songs. In 2000, she released The Covers Record, a 13-track effort that garnered critical acclaim for her refashioning of songs by Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, and the Rolling Stones in her own image.
"Covers can sometimes be the most difficult things for musicians to do," says Spooner Oldham, the legendary session player whose keyboards have graced albums by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan, among many others. "You've got the original song in your mind and you want to stay true to it, but on the other hand you want to bring something from yourself to the song."
Oldham should know. On Jukebox, he joins Marshall for "A Woman Left Lonely," a song he began in 1970 with writing partner Dan Penn and only finished after producer Paul Rothchild insisted that it would be perfect for his next project.
"He wanted it for Janis," Oldham recalls, referencing Rothchild's work on Janis Joplin's posthumous 1971 album, Pearl. "So Dan and I finished it up and recorded a rough demo. A few days after I got back to L.A, I got a call from someone at Sunset Sound inviting me down to the session they were having the next night. I went to the studio with my tape of the demo, and I remember that when I walked in the door, Janis was in the middle of doing 'Me and Bobby McGee.' After she finished the song, she came into the control room. I remember telling her that I thought she had a great career going. She looked up at me with this hurt look in her eye and said, 'Thank you, Spooner, but I don't think it's gonna last very long.' I don't know if it was exactly that night, but within a day or two, she died. That haunts me to this day, and so her version of 'A Woman Left Lonely' will always be special to me. But I was really moved by Cat Power's performance of the song. I find it real interesting that both she and Janis gravitated to that one particular song."
Many of the artists covered on Jukebox were unaware that Marshall had done them the honor. "I didn't know anything about it until after it came out," says Lee Clayton, the Alabama-born, Nashville-bred songwriter whose "Ladies Love Outlaws," recorded by Waylon Jennings in 1972, is largely considered the birth of outlaw country. "John Prine actually called me up and told me about it."
Inspired by a straight stretch of highway he encountered after leaving Nashville in 1975 for the deserts of Joshua Tree, California, "Silver Stallion" was released on Clayton's 1977 album Border Affair before becoming a Top 40 radio hit for country supergroup the Highwaymen in 1990. Clayton said that being in the studio with Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings while they recorded his song was a highlight of his musical career. The 67-year-old songwriter — who is currently working on a new album — says he likes Marshall's new spin on "Silver Stallion," though.
"I like the laid-back feel of her version and how she turned the song from a man's perspective into a woman's," he says. "And she captured the spirit of the song really well — the wistfulness in her voice is just right. It's really nice."
"Silver Stallion" isn't the only Nashville cover on Jukebox. On "Ramblin' (Wo)man," Marshall reworks the Hank Williams classic while still doing it justice, according to the country music icon's grandson, Hank Williams III. "She's definitely made it her own," he says. "It's interesting to see how she brought the slow, jazz-type phrasing to it. She even changed some lyrics and pronunciations a bit. Most people who hear it — even some hard-core Hank Williams fans — might not even recognize it at first. You've gotta listen really close, but hopefully some people will look at the notes and discover Hank Williams' music because of it."
Marshall even employed musicians from one of the song's original recording sessions in search of sonic authenticity. Teenie Hodges, the guitarist for Memphis' Hi Records Rhythm Section, which served as the backing band on George Jackson's "Aretha, Sing One for Me" in 1972, joined Marshall in the studio for her take on the soul gem.
"It's got a really different feel from my version," Jackson says. "She stuck to the basic melody of the song that I recorded, but I noticed that she added a Bonnie Raitt–style guitar lick on her version. On my version, I mostly used the piano for the melody and the solos, but she uses the guitar on hers, which I thought was really interesting. I'm thrilled that she decided to cover it. I've always liked that song, but I think it's great that she liked it enough to do it herself."