Ten Country Covers That Top The Pop Originals

Our copy must still be in the mail, but Rocks Off figures we have heard enough songs from Jamey Johnson's new album The Guitar Song on Sirius/XM's Outlaw Country to know that we like it a whole lot. But none that we've heard so far are our favorite new Johnson song.

It's close. No flies on Guitar's "Lonely at the Top" ("...but it's a bitch down at the bottom") or Johnson's cover of Vern Gosdin's "Set 'Em Up, Joe," that's for sure. But for the moment - at least until Mercury Nashville finally sends us the damn record - our favorite new Johnson song is "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad," which appears on The Imus Ranch Record II, just released on semi-Houston label New West Records.

Yes, that "Two Out of Three" - the Jim Steinman-penned, Meat Loaf-sung ode to operatic overindulgence, which Johnson compresses into a first-rate honky-tonk ballad with an upper lip stiff enough to iron a shirt on. Some men would rather die than cry. (Sorry, Craig.)

So Rocks Off got to wondering, as we often do, how many other country covers out there improved on their pop/rock originals. It turned out to be quite a few. And we mean improved - so no matter how much we like Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris' "Save the Last Dance for Me" or Dwight Yoakam's "Train In Vain," they didn't make the list because they could never eclipse the Drifters and the Clash, respectively. Not so for the following ten songs...

10. Sugarland, "Life In a Northern Town" (Dream Academy):

Seriously. Rocks Off always liked Dream Academy's droopy synth ballad about their Northern England origins well enough, and the freshly announced 2011 RodeoHouston entertainers certainly don't screw it up. Managed to get nominated for a Grammy even though Sugarland's record company declined to release it as a single.

9. Dolly Parton, "Stairway to Heaven" (Led Zeppelin):

No disrespect to Led Zep, but something about the way Dolly gets inside this classic-rock eternal says she's a lady who knows. And the bluegrass breakdown at the end would straighten Jimmy Page's hair.

8. The Rolling Stones, "Country Honk" (The Rolling Stones):

Hey, Rocks Off never said it couldn't be someone covering their own song. The scratchy fiddle and acoustic guitar pushed way up in the mix sound a lot more gin-soaked and barroom-ready to us than the electric version the Stones released as a 45 between Beggar's Banquet and Let It Bleed.

7. Whiskeytown, "Dreams" (Fleetwood Mac):

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Sometime Rocks Offer Pete Vonder Haar chimed in on Facebook that Whiskeytown once covered Black Flag's "Nervous Breakdown." That's all well and good, but Rocks Off Jr. is the real punk in the family. It did make us remember Ryan Adams' moody meditation on the weather and his possible probable mother issues with Stevie Nicks, though. It fits.

6. The Pigs, "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)" (Beyonce):

Australian bluegrass band tackles Beyonce's hot-footed meme to line-dancing accompaniment. Just watch.

5. Conway Twitty, "Slow Hand" (Pointer Sisters):

For some reason Rocks Off thought the late Mr. Jenkins had recorded this first, but it's actually the other way around. It really doesn't matter once the lights are out anyway.

4. Johnny Cash, "Hurt" (Nine Inch Nails):

Trent Reznor knows when he'd been licked. "Hearing it was like someone kissing your girlfriend," he told UK newspaper The Sun in 2008. "It felt invasive." Cash's version also helped the troubled NIN mastermind finally sober up, he added.

3. Randy Travis, "It's Just a Matter of Time" (Brook Benton): All class, from start to finish. Rocks Off has always especially loved the baritone vocal counterpoint. Bom-bom-bom-bom...

2. Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, "Black Star" (Radiohead):

"Black Star" has always been one of our favorite Radiohead songs, and here Rocks Off came perilously close to breaking our own rule. Especially since a friend just tipped us off to this cover today. (Thanks, Blake.) Two spins through Welch's heart-wrenching vocals and Rawlings' heartfelt Appalachian accompaniment later, and here it is. Sorry, Thom.

1. The Gourds, "Gin & Juice":

Simply off the hizzle, and endorsed by the D-O-double-jizzle himself. Nuff said.

Once we started doing research and hit up our friends on Facebook, this list was a lot easier to make than Rocks Off really thought it would be. Still, we had to sort through a lot of chaff. (Rascal Flatts' "Life Is a Highway"? Pass.) Click to the next page to see one cover that nearly made us abandon this whole project.

We're not even going to tell you what it is. Just see how long you can stand it.

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