Hey, fellow country music fans: I’ll bet you have never heard of Artie Hemphill and the Iron Horse Band.
It’s a bet I automatically lose, since I just told you about them. But you get my point.
I had never heard of them either until recently, when I was foraging on YouTube for “Highway Don’t Care,” the top-rated single in which megastars Tim McGraw and Taylor Swift team up on vocals while Keith Urban plays guitar. Somewhat to my surprise, I couldn’t find the legitimate music video or authorized version of the song on YouTube at the time, probably because it was still clogging the airwaves and climbing the charts.
Instead, I found the duet that Hemphill recorded with another country music unknown, Maddie Wilson. It’s a cover (what people who hang out at Starbucks, and according to my wife therefore know such things, call a musical remake) of “Highway Don’t Care,” and I liked it - maybe more than I liked the original, in fact. (This may outrage my friend’s teenage daughter Lizzy, who is a fierce Taylor Swift fan, but I have to call ‘em like I hear ‘em.)
Hemphill has a pleasing voice and creates a purer country sound than McGraw does in his version of the song, which struck me as geared for the inevitable pop crossover. Wilson’s vocals at least hold their own against Swift’s. I really liked the musicianship of the band and the simple in-studio video of the performance, with hand-held cameras and good sound quality. It lent the atmosphere of seeing a talented garage band actually performing in the garage. It was not like watching wannabe stars; it was like watching friends making music for the sheer joy of making music.
This was all by design, of course. Hemphill and Wilson both have their own YouTube channels to direct viewers to a variety of their videos, mostly covers but also some original music. Having discovered them on YouTube or social networking sites, fans can then buy their music online via the iTunes store or on Amazon.com.
The video that I enjoyed so much was produced by Drew Williams, who also played keyboards and provided backup vocals. The recording was made at Williams’ Sapphire Studios in Provo, Utah. Such excellent work is not likely to go unnoticed, nor should it.
All of these artists - Wilson, Hemphill, Williams and the Iron Horse Band - put their product on the Internet so we can discover them. But since we do not know to look for them, we need a little help. Piggybacking on the fame of established performers by covering their work is smart marketing, and more of a tribute than an insult to the original act.
The Beatles’ first British album Please Please Me, released in 1963, contained six covers among its 14 songs. Among them were “Chains,” written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin and first recorded by the Cookies; “Anna,” written and originally performed by Arthur Alexander; and “Boys,” by Luther Dixon and Wes Farrell, which was originally released as the B side of the Shirelles’ single “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.”
The album also included “Baby It’s You,” which was a hit for the Shirelles before it became a Beatles standard, and was written by a team including Burt Bacharach. “Twist and Shout,” another Beatles standard from their first album, was a cover of an Isley Brothers cover, originally performed by the Top Notes. And the early Paul McCartney ballad “A Taste of Honey” was written as an instrumental theme for the Broadway version of a British play by the same name; the vocal version was first recorded in 1962 by Lenny Welch.
Another dive into YouTube, this time in search of the early-1970s British rock band Badfinger, led me to their 1970 original recording of “Without You.” I don’t remember ever hearing Badfinger’s version of the tune, though Harry Nilsson’s version became famous a year later. Mariah Carey reintroduced it, to a new generation of admirers, in 1994.
We all build on the work of those who came before us. It is not plagiarism when we credit the sources of our work, and it is not theft when we re-interpret the ideas or performances of others, as long as we have the grace and humility to acknowledge the originators.
Success is not a zero-sum game. Art is not a sports competition that creates winners and losers. If Maddie Wilson and Artie Hemphill become well known, their future popularity will not diminish the work or the renown of Taylor Swift or Tim McGraw, just as Swift and McGraw did not take away from predecessors like Martina McBride and Garth Brooks. I am happy to see any young person make good, and I am always delighted when serendipity leads me to new talents I can enjoy.
As Lizzy is surely aware, Taylor Swift herself borrowed the fame of a well-known star with her first single, written when she was a high school freshman and released when she was only 16 in 2006. Its title was “Tim McGraw.”