The best country covers of rock songs and pop hits achieve at least two valuable ends. They allow artists to advertise their influences beyond country music and serve as entry points to potential fans with similar tastes.
This list skips covers that only exist as live recordings, such as Gillian Welch and David Rawling's Appalachian folk rendition of Radiohead's "Black Star." And for the sake of our playlist, we pass over some deep cuts currently unavailable on Spotify, including classic country artist Billy Walker's surreal early '70s cover of Black Sabbath's "Changes."
The following picks are sequenced with the flow of our accompanying playlist in mind. They're not ranked in order, though our final selection deserves consideration as the greatest rock cover in country music history.
"Stuck in the Middle With You," The Ranch
After rocker-at-heart Keith Urban's ascent as a solo star, Capitol/EMI reissued his former band The Ranch's 1997 album in 2004 with two bonus tracks: "Billy" and an updated, country-rock take on Scottish duo Stealer's Wheel's 1973 pop hit "Stuck in the Middle With You."
"Footloose," Blake Shelton
Blake Shelton embraces the rock-inspired showmanship of fellow Oklahoman Garth Brooks on this selection from the 2011 Footloose remake. Like the film it's from, it points back to a time when pop-rock earworms by Kenny Loggins regularly soundtracked blockbusters the caliber of Caddyshack and Top Gun.
"Super Freak," Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby
Rick James' "Super Freak" seems a bit too sexualized for bluegrass, much less an album featuring clean-cut Ricky Skaggs. Yet it works for Skaggs and genre chameleon Bruce Hornsby. Not even light-hearted ad-libbing by country star John Anderson causes this unlikely cover to go off the rails.
"Promises," Hank Williams Jr.
Blues-rock lover Hank Williams Jr. brings his own genre line-defiant twist to "Promises," a minor country hit in 1978 for Eric Clapton penned by music industry vet Richard Feldman and drum machine innovator Roger Linn.
"She Came in Through the Bathroom Window," Ray Stevens
Arguments about Ray Stevens being more than capable at singing serious songs typically point to his recordings of Southern gospel ("Turn Your Radio On") and jazz ("Misty") standards, not one of the trippier selections from the Beatles' Abbey Road. However, this cover —parked in 1970 at the intersection of psychedelic rock and the orchestral pop-country sound then prominent in Nashville— effectively proves Stevens' range as a vocalist and song interpreter.
"Eight Days a Week," Lorrie Morgan
Another Beatles cover of note turns a staple from the Fab Four's pop-leaning, mop-top haircut-sporting days into a fast-paced, freewheeling '90s country stomper helmed by child of the '60s Lorrie Morgan.
"Do It Again," Waylon Jennings
There's multiple worthy Waylon Jennings songs that could take this slot, such as his covers of Neil Diamond's "Kentucky Woman," Fleetwood Mac's "Rhiannon," Cream's "White Room," Neil Young's "Are You Ready For the Country" and a duet version of the Eagles' "Take It to the Limit" with Willie Nelson. That said, Jennings' gritty baritone delivery shines as it dirties up this sophisticated pop hit from Steely Dan's debut album, 1972's Can't Buy a Thrill.
"Every Grain of Sand," Emmylou Harris
Emmylou Harris is another legacy artist with a deep and rewarding catalog of cover songs that span decades and musical styles. For example, her 1995 album Wrecking Ball features not just a title track by Neil Young but also one of the most ethereal Bob Dylan covers committed to tape.
"Shine," Dolly Parton
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Dolly Parton's treatment of Collective Soul's "Shine" —a collaboration with Nickel Creek for 2001 album Little Sparrow— edges out Parton's covers of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," The Platters' "The Great Pretender" and other contenders, if only because of a creative approach that makes it sound more like an unearthed bluegrass-gospel rarity than a slice of post-grunge nostalgia.
"Take It Easy," Travis Tritt
Travis Tritt's contribution to 1993's Common Threads: The Songs of the Eagles has a special place in cover songs lore. Beyond being a solid version of an already country-leaning hit, its music video shoot deserves credit for reuniting the Long Run-era Eagles lineup prior to the aptly-titled Hell Freezes Over Tour— the band's first since an acrimonious split in 1980.
"My Maria," Brooks & Dunn
Twenty-three years before "My Maria" went to No. 1 on the country charts amid Brooks & Dunn's reign as hitmakers and line-dancing influencers, co-writer B.W. Stephenson dominated the pop and easy listening spaces with a song that, like the Eagles' "Take It Easy," suited country music all along.
"Five O' Clock World," Hal Ketchum
One of '90s country's most versatile superstars, Hal Ketchum took an oldies radio standard by The Vogues and made it speak on a much deeper level to anyone with a special someone waiting at home after the work day ends.
"Summertime Blues," Alan Jackson
Early rock trendsetter Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" proved to be versatile over the years, namely when Blue Cheer morphed it into a proto-metal wrecking ball and Top 15 pop hot in 1968. In 1994, Alan Jackson retooled it into a seasonal party anthem to build off the success of the prior year's fun-in-the-sun stunner "Chattahoochee."
"Piece of My Heart," Faith Hill
The '90s claim a special place in country fans' hearts in large part because of what felt like a bottomless well of countrified rock covers. A classic example of this trend finds Faith Hill flaunting her vocal range with a song popularized by Big Brother and the Holding Company, a band fronted by bluegrass musician turned roots-rocker Janis Joplin
"Little Sister," Dwight Yoakam
Elvis Presley was a country-adjacent artist from his first B-side, a rockabilly revamp of Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky," to the final album released in his lifetime, Moody Blue. Likewise, Dwight Yoakam's neo-traditionalist update on the Bakersfield Sound was never a thousand miles from his rock 'n' roll influences, as heard on this single from 1987's Hillbilly Deluxe.
"Cathy's Clown," Reba McEntire
Like Presley, The Everly Brothers reside in the country and rock halls of fame for good reason. Don and Phil Everly's blood harmonies blurred the line between country tradition and pop innovation with hits like 1960's "Cathy's Clown." An unorthodox song structure —it opens with the chorus and favors bridges over verses— didn't throw country fans for a loop en route to becoming Reba McEntire's 13th and final No. 1 hit of the 1980s.
"Slow Hand," Conway Twitty
Depending on your early '80s listening preferences, you might assume that Conway Twitty first recorded "Slow Hand," which in the summer of 1982 became his final multi-week No. 1 hit. A group with its own country bonafides, the Pointer Sisters landed international acclaim by craving "a man with a slow hand" less than a year before Twitty reinvented it to a swaggering first-person narrative.
"I Want to Know What Love Is," Kenny Chesney
Some country covers of rock and pop songs barely stray from the source material, with a country act adding a touch of twang to a clear homage of a different time, place and musical style. Others result from an artist completely overhauling everything but the songwriters' lyrics, which in turn take on a completely new feel. Kenny Chesney pulled off the latter when he morphed Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is" into something that resembles grassed-up pop-country instead of an '80s power ballad.
"Landslide," The Chicks
Stevie Nicks' poetic reckoning with personal and professional forks in the road makes sense as a ready-made country hit —a No. 2 single, to be exact— when filtered through The Chicks' multi-part harmonies. But did you know that The Chicks' version outperformed Fleetwood Mac's 1975 original on the pop charts? The Chicks scored a No. 7 crossover hit on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100, while the Fleetwood Mac original stalled at No. 51. In addition, "Landslide" became The Chicks' lone Adult Contemporary No. 1.
"Hurt," Johnny Cash
With a huge assist from producer Rick Rubin, Johnny Cash wrung all the raw emotion from Nine Inch Nail's industrial soundscape "Hurt." Cash's weathered voice adds a sense of wisdom and introspection to an already captivating song about mental anguish. In the process, Cash gifted us with the greatest rock cover by a country star.
Enjoy Country Music?
Sign up for daily stories delivered straight to your inbox.