It’s pretty commonplace for a country singer to release songs they didn’t write. For example, George Strait has written very few songs and it’s hard to overstate his star power or his importance to the genre. That’s not what we’re looking at on this list, though. Instead, this list will contain songs that had some success before contemporary country artists could cover them and make them modern hits.
Check out the list below, and stop to listen to the original versions of these country hits.
“Tennessee Whiskey” – Chris Stapleton: The Least Surprising Country Cover Song on the List
For some country fans, this is a Chris Stapleton song and that’s the end of it. After all, the song helped to propel the Kentucky native to his current level of stardom. However, other artists took this song to the country charts before Stapleton covered it and made it massively popular with a new audience.
Dean Dillon and Linda Hargrove co-penned this boozy classic. According to Secondhand Songs, David Allen Coe was the first to cut the song. It was the title track of his 1981 album. Then, two years later, George Jones included it on his album Shine On. Coe’s version of the song didn’t see much chart success, but Jones’ cover landed at number 2 on the Hot Country Singles chart.
“Wagon Wheel” – Darius Rucker
Darius Rucker had a huge hit with “Wagon Wheel” in 2013. It topped both the Hot Country Songs and Country Airplay charts. Additionally, the song brought Rucker a Diamond certification from the RIAA and a Grammy Award. The song that helped Darius Rucker solidify his place in country music was a cover.
Old Crow Medicine Show released the song on their 2004 self-titled debut album. It went on to become the group’s signature song and landed them a Platinum certification from the RIAA. However, the history of the song goes deeper than that.
OCMS’s Ketch Secor heard the chorus and chord progression of the song while listening to a Bob Dylan bootleg. Secor wrote the rest of the lyrics and worked out a 50/50 authorship split with Dylan. So, in a way, this modern country classic was a cover song from the beginning.
“I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal” – John Anderson
John Anderson released “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Someday)” as the lead single from his 1981 album John Anderson 2. The track went to number four on the country charts and went on to become one of Anderson’s most popular songs, and it’s a cover.
Texas-born songwriting legend Billy Joe Shaver wrote the song. However, he wasn’t the first to record it. Before he could cut the song, country legends Bobby Bare and Johnny Cash cut it. Bare included it on his 1978 album Honky Tonkin’, according to Secondhand Songs. Later that year, Johnny Cash included the song on A Believer Sings the Truth. Finally, Shaver released his first version of the song as the title track of his 1981 album.
“Whiskey River” – Willie Nelson
I’ve saved the most surprising country cover songs for last.
Willie Nelson is an icon and one hell of a songwriter. So, it seems strange to think that some of the country great’s signature songs are covers. “Whiskey River” is among those songs.
Johnny Bush co-wrote the song with Paul Stroud, per Secondhand Songs. It was the title track as well as a single from his 1972 album. Bush took the song to number 14. A year later, Willie Nelson included his cover of the song on the now-classic country album Shotgun Willie, and pretty much every subsequent live album.
“Fancy” – Reba McEntire: The Most Surprising Country Cover Song on the List
Reba McEntire is one of those iconic artists that doesn’t do much songwriting. However, as someone who grew up with her version of “Fancy” dominating country radio, it’s hard to believe that it’s a cover song.
Bobbie Gentry wrote and recorded the song and released it as a single in 1969. It went on to be the title track to her 1970 album. It brought Gentry a top 30 hit on the country charts. Reba released her version of the song in 1990. The cover brought McEntire a top 10 hit on the country chart and went on to become one of her signature songs.