Morgan Wallen is probably not a country music performer you need to be paying attention to, irrespective of this particular effort. The Big Loud-signed Sneedville, Tennessee native unleashed one of the most indolent songs in modern country history when he collaborated with Florida Georgia Line on the directionless and vapid “Up Down,” which was not much more than a poor rewrite of “Cruise” and a commercial for a peach and pecan-flavored whiskey called Old Camp, catchy melody notwithstanding.
Truth be told, Morgan Wallen’s debut album If I Know Me is not nearly as bad as “Up Down” would lead you to believe, but it’s passable mainstream pop country at best. Yet even with the initial bad taste Morgan Wallen left in the mouths of many country fans with “Up Down,” when he released an acoustic video performing Jason Isbell’s “Cover Me Up” (see below), it was difficult for even the most dug-in Morgan Wallen detractors to not nod in approval.
Spearheaded by the positively Wallen received for his “Cover Me Up” cover, he’s just released a studio version of the song, and surprisingly, it’s lossless in quality compared to the original acoustic version. Tastefully produced and arranged with sparse accompaniment, it’s arguably even better.
To be frank, it’s not Morgan Wallen which makes this song so compelling, even though his effort is quality, and admirable. No offense to Morgan Wallen whatsoever, because it was his choice to perform this song in the first place, and part of what has always made great country performers is the ability to see and hear a song worth singing, and putting it on a pedestal with a strong performance like Wallen does here. But the impact of the song is more due to the fact that Jason Isbell’s “Cover Me Up” is such a world-class song off arguably his best record, 2013’s Southeastern, that many could sing it and make it memorable. It just takes someone with a sizable platform that can get folks to pay attention, like Morgan Wallen has done.
In previous generations of country music, a song like “Cover Me Up” would be the beneficiary of a bidding war between major entertainers all wanting to be the first to cut it and watch it climb the charts. That’s how obscure songwriters such as Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Billy Joe Shaver, and Lucinda Williams scored massive mainstream hits, and sustained their own careers despite their under-the-radar status.
But over the last few years, estimates are that 90% of country’s professional songwriters have been eradicated from the marketplace, leaving us now with super songwriters like Shane McAnally and busbee, who also tend to be the producers of songs, narrowing the talent pool even further. This phenomenon is what has been at the heart of the constricting of creativity in mainstream country, as well as the sameness behind so many songs.
Of course “Cover Me Up” is an incredible song and ripe for the masses. Jason Isbell fans could have told you that six years ago, and they probably don’t even consider it his best song. Sure, there’s probably a place for songs like “Up Down” in mainstream country. But there should be a place for incredible compositions like “Cover Me Up” too. And when just given a chance by a bigger artist, they shine.
This isn’t a similar scenario to Darius Rucker singing “Wagon Wheel,” which had been well worn out by every cover band for a decade before he got his hands on it, or even Zac Brown Band making Isbell’s “Dress Blues” an album cut. With the resonance “Cover Me Up” has shown with just the least bit of energy and promotion behind it proves country music can find and promote quality songs if they’re only given a chance.
At the moment, Morgan Wallen’s version of “Cover Me Up” is just a digital exclusive. But if Big Loud had any smarts, they’d put some money behind it after Wallen’s mild single “Whiskey Glasses” and his mullet haircut run their course, and see if they can’t garner a “Song of the Year” nomination for “Cover Me Up” down the road, just like Darius Rucker did with “Wagon Wheel.” This is how the Music Row songwriting system is supposed to work, with the best songs finding a way to the top.
In many respects, Morgan Wallen is one of these many nameless, faceless major label male stars with a Top 5 hit that most would not even recognize on the street in Nashville. But perhaps with “Cover Me Up,” he can distinguish himself from the herd, and trace a path forward where fans from both the independent and mainstream country can enjoy a song equally.