10 Essential ‘Pickin’ On’ Tracks
Words By: Ryan Dembinsky
I’ve spent probably more time in my life listening to the Pickin’ On Series of albums than any rational human should. For the uninitiated, the project pits bluegrass session musicians or cover bands together to record faceless/nameless tribute albums for all types of popular music including classic rock, pop, and even metal with a heavy leaning to the 1970s and 1980s. These comps are equal parts enjoyable, confounding and downright dumb.
The series’ catalog is now quite deep with at least 50 different entries spanning some of the oddest bluegrass ever fingerpicked. These types of recordings tend to raise about a million questions: Did the world actually ask for a bluegrass cover of Gotye? Do Survivor fans just gobble up bluegrass renditions of their favorite deep cuts or do they buy the whole album for “Eye of the Tiger?” Why is Pickin’ On Dave Matthews totally depressing while Pickin’ On Pink Floyd is a hoedown? Is it meant to be a secret as to who arranged the music and who played the instruments? Why do some albums have vocals and other not? Who decides what music gets the Pickin’ On treatment?
My running theory is Sam Bush is somehow behind all of this, since I envision him ruling the whole bluegrass kingdom with an iron fist from his wooden throne atop Ajax Peak. When you listen to Pickin’ On albums, the chasm of quality is stark. For every captivating arrangement and claw hammer moment of fury, there are at least twice as many that flat out suck. That’s half the fun of it. There is effectively a negative correlation between logic and quality. You would think it’d be easy to tell what might make a good cover tune for a bluegrass band. Nope. It’s downright impossible to predict when you might find a goody. It’s like a Kinder egg of bluegrass music.
You might call these guilty pleasures, but I don’t really believe in guilty pleasures when it comes to music. If you want to listen to Taylor Swift, Blink 182 or Coldplay go ahead and do it (yes, they all have Pickin’ On bluegrass tributes) and buy the tour shirt while you’re at it for all I care. I imagine a lot of bluegrass purists probably despise these tributes as they are a total cash grab, but who cares. Do what makes you feel good, right? Anyway, with that in mind let me show you some essential favorites from the Pickin’ On catalog.
The Who – “You Better You Bet”
Let’s start with the cream of the crop, “You Better You Bet.” Whoever this banjo player is just smokes through this whole song and the band navigates the changes with dynamism. This one makes me think of the SNL/The Lonely Island dubstep skit about waiting for the bass to drop, only it’s when will the banjo drop. And how about those two flat-picked guitar solos? Hot damn.
Bob Dylan – “Like a Rolling Stone”
You know how the original version of “Like a Rolling Stone” always felt like it was missing that out of place salsa section? Fixed.
Cyndi Lauper – “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”
Pretty killer cover all around here. I love hearing the mandolin play the lead chord progression with the acoustic guitar coming in on top for harmony. Rebecca Frazier’s voice on lead is totally unique and the all female backing vocals fit like a relaxed denim vest.
Bruce Springsteen – “Born to Run”
The twangy harmonica in place of a lead vocal steals the show on this Boss cover, but the furious acoustic guitar playing ain’t half bad either.
Poison – “Something to Believe In”
The Poison cannon obviously peaked with Open Up and Say… Ahh!, so the majority of their Pickin’ On tribute focuses on early era singles like “Nothin’ But A Good Time,” “Every Rose Has It’s Thorn” and “Fallen Angel,” but strangely those songs are all borderline unrecognizable in bluegrass form. Instead, it’s the late era ballad “Something to Believe In” that comes across as a halfway decent country tune.
A-Ha – “Take On Me”
Hurry up and cover your ears when the vocals come in, but instrumentally this is a pretty cool tune to get the bluegrass treatment. Sadly, the YouTube video for the bluegrass version falls about 215 million views short of the original.
The Rolling Stones – “Paint It Black”
Despite being fast as a pig in a pen, this “Paint It Black” arrangement is brooding and spooky. You’re probably catching on to the theme by now: the best renditions don’t tend to have any singing.
Styx – “Come Sail Away”
I don’t care how bad it is. Pickin’ On Styx will not be denied. This sounds like putrid church music for about half the song, but the band opens it up in the second half when the fiddle takes over and things get interesting.
John Mellencamp – “Small Town”
You’d hope The Bluegrass Tribute To John Mellencamp: Ain’t That America is at least better than its cover art, which is basically just a shelf of condiments. They’ve got mustard, ketchup, and the perennially underrated Heinz 57 sauce. Not sure why the 57 sauce never really caught on. Too tangy I guess.
Queen & David Bowie – “Under Pressure”
When all’s said and done, something tells me this one won’t be the lasting tribute to David Bowie the world needed, but hey at least it’s better than Smash Mouth.
Here’s Spotify Playlist of the 10 songs featured above