Are we still talking about covers? I hope so, because I’ve been singing “He’ll Have to Go” all morning. And I think that listening to these three versions really shows you what artists bring to a song.
First up is Jim Reeves’ version, which is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful songs in the history of country music, if not music in general. There are two things I think you should listen for. One is how, even though Reeves is closely associated with “The Nashville Sound” (which is typified by these lush arrangements and lots of ooo-ing back-up singers, what you might call “more violin/less fiddle”), listen to how quickly the background music does just that, recedes into the background.
It just gets quickly out of the way of Reeves’ voice, which is, argh, so smooth and rich and just listen to how he hits that “low.” It makes me shiver every time. And listen to that “Darlin’.” I’m sorry. I might need some alone time.
But the genius of this song is that it gets quieter as it goes. Pay attention to where your body is before you hit play and then where it is when the song ends. I bet you’ll find you’ve leaned in. It’s just genius, folks, just genius. The more emotional the song gets, the more invested you get in whether she’ll answer yes or no, the more you hope she’ll tell her friend he has to go, the quieter it gets.
In short, it goes from just being a song you’re listening to, to a grown-up lullaby being sung right to you.
Whew. God, it’s just amazing.
Anyway, let’s move on to Elvis and his version. There are a couple interesting things about this take on the song. One is that, though Elvis was a huge rock and roll star when he recorded this–it’s from Moody Blue, his last pre-humous album (I just made that word up. I don’t actually know what the opposite of posthumous is)–it sounds more conventionally country than Reeves’ version. You’ve got the twangy guitar and I think I hear a steal guitar in there. And there’s a kind of gospel thing going on with it, too.
I like that about Elvis. He’s just not afraid to let his roots show and not afraid to love songs. That, to me, is what really sticks with me–this is a song sung by a guy who loves this song. He’s not singing his song or making this song his own. He’s just singing a song he loves.
And the position of the listener is different, too. I mean, here’s just the opposite of Reeves’ approach. Elvis gets louder as the song goes on. But, I think we all know why. Elvis isn’t talking to any girl on the phone begging her to choose talking to him over getting some from some other dude. You just know, from that first Elvis-y “ooo ooo ooo” that he’s got his eye on some woman right there in the first couple of rows there with her date or her husband and he’s seducing her right there, in front of everyone.
This isn’t “let’s pretend we’re together, all alone” two people separated by a bar full of people on one end and a “friend” on the other. This is a “let’s pretend we’re together, all alone” in front of thousands of people. The implicit promise in Elvis’s voice (and his delivery) is that all she has to do is say “yes” and all that Elvis magic will turn on her, full force, and the rest of the world will disappear.
Whew. I know we’re all supposed to believe Elvis became a shitty joke of himself before he died, but damn if you don’t hear some amazing stuff going on in this song. Old Elvis is completely under-appreciated, I tell you.
Okay, last version. This is also from ’76, off of Ry Cooder’s Chicken Skin Music. I’ll just tell you up front that it prominently features the accordian stylings of Flaco Jiménez. If that doesn’t excite you, it probably means you have no soul and I’m sorry for you. But I hear that there are some folks who don’t like that stuff.
Anyway, I mention Jiménez, because it’s his presense on the song that shows the main difference between Reeves & Elvis v. Cooder. In the two earlier versions, we heard versions in which the singers’ voices were the central musical performance in the song–that’s where your ear is supposed to go.
But in this case, this is really about Jiménez’s performance, which is just exquisit. Who knew an accordian could sound so light and graceful?
Let’s just assume that this is also a song about seduction. I think what’s interesting in this version is that it’s clearly Jiménez’s accordion which is meant to be the means of seduction. Cooder is just translating into English for us what we’re hearing from the accordion–that beautiful, heartbreaking, but also joyful longing.
I think it’s the mark of a genius song that it can so easily hold the weight of three very different deliveries. I think this is one of Joe Allison’s song (though, in fairness, I was also convinced before I started writing this, that it was originally sung by Ray Price, so keep that in mind), and I think you can see from that why he’s so highly regarded as a song-writer.