Photo Credit: Ebet Roberts / Courtesy of the artist

Wesley Stace Fights Quarantine Boredom with a Spur-of-the-Moment Covers Project

A random comment thread on Wesley Stace's Facebook page inspired a collaborative effort to bring together cover versions of his vast catalog with artists like Josh Ritter, Graham Parker, Gary Louris, Chris von Sneidern, and the Minus 5.

It started innocently enough. On Wesley Stace‘s personal Facebook page – which is populated by both friends and fans – a comment was made regarding a parlor game whereby an imaginary covers project dedicated to specific artist is devised. In this case, it was Stace’s songs that were the subject. As an artist who began releasing albums in the late ’80s under the moniker John Wesley Harding, Stace – who is also the author of four acclaimed novels – has a wide array of songs to choose from, ranging from protest folk to power pop to country twang.

The song list soon blew up, with more than a hundred artist/song suggestions made. These ranged from realistic and inspired (The Decemberists covering “The Original Miss Jesus”, Rosanne Cash recording “Spaced Cowgirl”) to silly and technically impossible (more than a few deceased artist names were floated – Frank Sinatra, “To Whom It May Concern”, Elliott Smith, “Still Photo”). But what started as an internet time-waster soon became something of a reality.

Stace began putting together an alphabetical master list and immediately dismissed the notion of deceased artists covering his songs or even notoriously “difficult” artists like Van Morrison. “Then I began looking at the list a little closer,” said Stace from his Philadelphia home. “Graham Parker doing ‘The Devil in Me?’ I could ask him to do that!” At this point, he began thinking of it from the point of view of a fan. “I suddenly thought, ‘what if I had asked for, say, my favorite Loudon Wainwright song to be sung by Martin Carthy,’ and Loudon Wainwright would say, ‘I think I could make that happen.’ The moment I thought that thought, what it became was a little Cabinet of Wonders for me,” referring to the all-star music/comedy/literary revue that Stace hosts and curates.

“People know me through that experience,” he said. “I looked at the list, and I thought of people who I knew I could get to do things. So, the first week began to take shape.” He dubbed it “The Community Coronation Covers Project” (he wanted to use the word “coronation” because, as he said, “it was the only nice word I could think of with ‘corona’ in it”). After a couple of days, he had a handful of artists agreeing to participate. “They’re incredibly generous artists and friends,” he said. “It’s no small thing to ask a performer to learn and record a song, even if it’s only on an iPhone.” The idea of a person requesting a particular collaboration between artist and song, and having that request fulfilled, Stace says, “is like a conjuring trick.”

“The object is first to blow the mind of that one person who made that particular suggestion,” said Stace, “and then to blow the minds of any fans of the performing artists whom they never thought they’d hear singing this song or perhaps any other of my songs.”

Stace was dead set on only requesting covers from artists with whom he has an existing relationship. “There is no way you could approach a performer with whom you’re not friends and ask them to do this,” Stace said, “unless you were Bruce Springsteen and everybody wanted to please you and curry favor with you. Looking at the list of suggestions, it wouldn’t even occur to me to contact someone like Sturgill Simpson and say, ‘you have no idea who I am, but some bloke on my Facebook suggested this.’ That wouldn’t make any sense. But people like Graham Parker, Gary Louris, Chris Von Sneidern, Josh Ritter – we’ve been in the trenches together, we’ve shared dressing rooms for years, and if they think that’s a fun idea, then they’ll do it.”

As the first five covers were requested, accepted, and received by Stace, he began posting one a day from Monday, 13 April to Friday, 17 April, on Soundcloud. After a week off, he’ll post the next five the week of 27 April – 1 May. While he refuses to reveal the names of the next batch, he promises that “they’re quite amazing so far”.

Some of the covers were recorded specifically for the project – Graham Parker’s version of “The Devil in Me” was recorded on Parker’s iPhone, as was the version of “Kiss Me, Miss Liberty” by Gary Louris of the Jayhawks. But other versions were already in existence: The Minus Five’s version of “Making Love to Bob Dylan” was essentially a demo version of the song courtesy of band member Scott McCaughey, who co-wrote the song with Stace. Josh Ritter not only performed Stace’s “Sussex Ghost Story” at a Cabinet of Wonders show, he also had his own recording of the song stashed away, and it appears as part of the first batch of covers as well.

Stace had just finished a two-month U.S. tour in early March before the quarantine period began. Not really wanting to get out his guitar and start immediately doing livestream shows, he saw this project as “something that I could flow into the mix to make peoples’ days better in what is a really lonely, weird time,” he said. “It just suggested itself and I ran with it. Out of that kind of critical consensus and hive mind of Facebook and the internet I just thought, ‘well there’s a way we could brighten the world.'”

As for Stace’s creative projects unrelated to these covers, he said that his fifth novel is “under construction,” and he’s also co-writing an opera with composer Errollyn Wallen called Dido’s Ghost, inspired by Henry Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas. Additionally, there is a project of a smaller scale taking place at home during the quarantine – cover versions of Warren Zevon’s “Splendid Isolation” and Ray Davies’ “See My Friends”, complete with accompanying music videos shot and edited by Stace’s daughter.

But the covers project, which he refers to on his Facebook page as “bespoke covers: requested by a single person, and hand delivered, as it were, to that person,” is the one that may have been the most impossible to predict, given that it materialized out of a strange, unpredictable global timeline.

“As a friend of mine very wittily pointed out,” said Stace, “it only took a pandemic for me get a tribute record.”