The cliché when talking about a good cover song is that the artist or band “made it their own.” When it comes to The Mavericks, they have no choice but to make a song their own. Not many songs—country or otherwise—come with the built-in capacity for accordion, horns, Latin rhythms, ska beats, and the other flavors that have made The Mavericks one of the coolest, and most eclectic bands to be welcomed lovingly under the country music umbrella for a full 30 years now. You think that country music needs to loosen its tie and be more inclusive? Then you’ve probably never been to a Mavericks show.
There is a reason that compilations, live records, EP’s, and covers albums usually get regulated to the 2nd tier of “also-ran” releases when you navigate to a band’s Wikipedia page. It’s because they tend to include about half the entertainment value as original studio recordings. But this is The Mavericks we’re taking about—meaning one of the best bands to ever grace any genre of music, so all bets are off. And most importantly, it means Raul Malo is involved, which is the man that you can puff your chest out and declare with a straight face free from any embellishment and hyperbole as one of the best singers of our generation, and few if anyone with knowledge of The Mavericks will challenge you.
The Mavericks are celebrating three decades of making music in 2019 by embarking on a massive tour, and as concert goers can attest (including this one), there is no rust or wear on these steel radials. But instead of putting out an album of original material to commemorate this milestone, they decided to shake it up a bit with this covers record. And no, they’re not scouring for the deepest cuts from iconic artists to attempt to feed you something you haven’t heard before. Play The Hits is just that. It’s some of the biggest selections from the American songbook done by one of the most talented bands in music.
Any frustration you might have experienced with the band for not releasing an original album this year is chased pretty quickly when they light into their version of “Swingin'” made popular by John Anderson, and then “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” written and recorded by Waylon Waymore Watasha Jennings, which loops in “Feelin’ Alright” at the end. These are renditions you never knew you wanted, but now feel like you’ve needed all your life. Same goes for the Patty Loveless classic “Blame It On Your Heart” (written by Harlan Howard and Kostas) with its iconically elongated earworm of a chorus that you can’t get enough of.
These openings songs are fun and all, but the real impetus behind Play The Hits is for Raul Malo to tee off on some of the greatest songs ever released in country and beyond. His 5-minute performance of the Hank Cochran-penned Ray Price hit “Don’t You Ever Get Tired (Of Hurting Me)” is a thing of striking beauty. We talk about singers having “moments” in songs when the combination of mood, lyrics, tone, and performance all conspire to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. You lose count of how many of these “moments” Mr. Malo has in some of these songs.
The issue with many cover songs is that your music brain just doesn’t want to hear a new version of an old favorite. Raul Malo and The Mavericks ruin that predisposed bias against covers with their passion and approach to these songs. Nobody will ever do “Before The Next Teardrop Falls” better than Freddy Fender, not even The Mavericks. But they do it in a different enough way to where it feels like you’re hearing the song anew all over again, and understanding the story like never before. Then Raul Malo sings “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” accompanied by a single acoustic guitar, and you think you’ve arrived in country music heaven.
And though this may sound a like an unusual observation, Play The Hits works really well for this time of year as we’re heading into the Holiday season. Don’t worry, there’s no sleigh bells. Yet serving up renditions of familiar songs with the type of warmth that only Raul Malo and The Mavericks can conjure is strangely comforting, and works well for when the weather gets cold and the sun sets early early, and you want to listen to something hearthy that everyone can enjoy together.
Your particular take on Play The Hits may depend on your musical sensibilities. The covers of The Boss’s “Hungry Heart” or “Elvis’s “Don’t Be Cruel” may be too obvious for some. For country fans, the middle of the record may feel a little light. But for others, it might include their favorite moments. Either way, it’s fair to say you might cherry pick your way through Play The Hits, and you shouldn’t feel guilty about that. The Mavericks really hit some of these songs out of the park, but a few will be too fey or too slow for some ears.
We tend to forget about The Mavericks since they don’t fit snugly in country music or anywhere else. But the brilliance of this band is undeniable when you’re attentive and listening. It’s one thing to keep your relevance and freshness 30 years into your career and counting. It’s another to tackle the often bungled effort of releasing a covers record of popular songs and not have it feel like a mailed-in effort or a cash grab. The Mavericks play it just about perfectly in Play The Hits.
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