By Eleni P. Austin

Shawn Colvin UncoveredSinger-songwriter Shawn Colvin is best known for distilling the rituals of romance and heartache into cogent vignettes, and wrapping them in gorgeous melodies. But she cut her musical teeth re-interpreting other people’s hits.

Shawn Colvin was born in Vermillion, South Dakota in 1956 and began playing guitar at age 10. Once she finished school, she began to pursue a career in music. Throughout her 20s, she crisscrossed the country landing in London, Ontario, Carbondale, Illinois, Berkley, California, Austin, Texas and finally New York City.

Along the way she made connections with up and coming musicians like Lyle Lovett and Buddy Miller. She honed her craft playing in bands, fronting bands and even appearing in theatrical performances like “Pump Boys And Dinette Girls,” “Diamond Studs”  and “Lie Of The Mind.”


Once she was in New York, she worked the folk clubs. Despite the fact that she didn’t rely on any original material, her  re-interpretations of songs by Talking Heads, Police and lesser known musicians like David Ball won her a growing fan base. She even wound up singing back-up on Suzanne Vega’s song, “Luka.”

Shawn hooked up with musician John Leventhal and he encouraged her to begin writing her own songs. She signed with Columbia Records in 1988, just as artists like Tracy Chapman, Melissa Etheridge and Sinead O’Connor were making the world safe for girls with guitars.

Her stunning debut, Steady On, arrived in late 1989. Co-written with Levanthal, who also produced, it contained instant classics like “Diamond In The Rough” and “Shotgun Down The Avalanche,” a pointed treatise on an out of control romance. It also won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.

Three years later, she released her sophomore album, Fat City, which was produced by Larry Klein, (Joni Mitchell, David Baerwald, Innocence Mission). Sleek and glossy, the sound was slightly more sophisticated than her debut, but her songs were still just as powerful.

Although her own compositions were amazing, Shawn certainly wasn’t a prolific songwriter. Creating material for a new album was an arduous process, to keep her label happy she recorded and released Cover Girl in late 1994.

A mix of live tracks and studio recordings, Cover Girl included her interpretations of well-known songs by Bob Dylan, Steve Earle and Jimmy Webb. She also championed lesser known musicians like Greg Brown and Roly Salley, (bass player for Chris Isaak’s band). Her version of Salley’s “Killing The Blues” was very much a template for Robert Plant and Allison Krauss’ Grammy winning interpretation in 2007.

Reuniting with John Leventhal in 1996, Shawn released her watershed album, A Few Small Repairs.   Because most of the songs centered around the dissolution of her first marriage, the cognoscenti labelled it a concept album.

Songs like “Sunny Came Home” and “Get Out Of This House” accurately limned the quiet desperation and brittle post-mortems that accompany divorce. Shawn’s melodic acuity was rewarded with brisk album sales and two Grammy wins.

Following her artistic triumph, she retreated from the spotlight, quietly re-marrying and giving birth to her daughter, Caldonia, in 1998. At the end of that year she released a Folk-flavored collection of Holiday songs entitled Holiday Songs And Lullabyes.

Her next album of new material, Whole New You arrived in 2001 and it was another five years before her sixth effort, These Four Walls, appeared. In the meantime, she went public with her struggles with bi-polar issues. She handled it with her usual humor and grace. She even included a trenchant cover of the Gnarls Barkley hit, “Crazy,” on her Shawn Colvin Live record.

In 2012, a candid memoir, “Diamond In The Rough,” arrived along with a new album, All Fall Down. The last few years have been spent touring and preparing for a collaboration with Steve Earle. To commemorate the 20th anniversary of her Cover Girl record, she reconvened with John Leventhal to work on an new collection of covers.  The result is Uncovered.

She opens the 12 song set with a stripped-down version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Tougher Than The Rest.” While the Boss’ original is a slightly swagger-y come-on from a Jersey Shore mook, Shawn manages to convey a tender vulnerability beneath the boastful claims.

A few of these tracks have popped up in her live sets for years. It’s always intriguing to see how she takes well-known songs and recalibrates them to serve her strengths.

Plangent electric guitar riffs and pedal steel accents coil around the tart melody of Creedence Clearwater’s “Lodi.”  Lines like “If only I had a dollar for every song I’ve sung, and every time I’ve come to play and people sat there drunk,” resonate for any touring musician.

Her interpretation of Paul Simon’s “American Tune” feels particularly prescient in light the recent attacks in Paris. Bare bones instrumentation, just a lone acoustic guitar, cede the spotlight to Simon’s lyrical eloquence.

It almost feels as though she is addressing the tragedy.  “I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered, I don’t have a friend who feels at ease/I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered, or driven to its knees…I can’t help it, I wonder what’s gone wrong.”

Shawn is at her best when she pares down a song to its essence. She does that to great effect with two songs, Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” and Graham Nash’s “I Used To Be A King.”

On the former, she strips away the Smooth Jazz artifice of the original, relying only on arching acoustic arpeggios and mournful pedal steel. Her voice simply aches as she paints a portrait of dimmed expectations and compromise. “This city desert makes you feel so cold, it’s got so many people but it’s got no soul/And it’s taken you so long to find out you were wrong, when you thought it held everything.”
The latter was written as a reaction to Nash’s devastating break-up with Joni Mitchell and it also references his Hollies song, “King Midas In Reverse.” Nash bathes the song in day-glo British Invasion colors.  Shawn’s version is more sepia-toned. The loping melody is anchored by sparkling acoustic riffs and pedal steel notes that alternately twang and weep.  Bowed, but unbroken, she quietly vows to get past the heartbreak. “Someone is going to take my heart, but no one is going to break my heart again.

As with Cover Girl, this album gives her a chance to pay homage to songwriters she deeply admires. Her take on Tom Waits’ “Hold On,” recasts his boho lyricism as a simple sketch of a couple who just can’t keep it together. Boomerang acoustic riffs ricochet through the mid-tempo melody. The language is rich and evocative; “With charcoal eyes and Monroe hips, she went and took that California trip…he gave her a dime store watch and a ring made from a spoon/Everyone is looking to blame but you share my bed, you share my name.”

“Private Universe” from Crowded House has been part of her live set since the early ‘90s. Finger-picked acoustic fills flutter like fireflies as the lyrics offer a bucolic respite from a cold, cruel world.

Finally, she completely slows the tempo of Robert Earl Keen’s “Not A Drop Of Rain.” Weather offers a vivid metaphor for heartache; “The clouds are building slowly on the skyline to the east, the wind and dust are dancing like the devil across the lake/I could try to find a bottle or I could try to find a priest, Salvation won’t be traveling either road I take/ So I turn my collar to the wind that echoes this refrain, it’s been a long hot summer, not a drop of rain.”

Shawn puts her stamp on two Soul nuggets, she is flirty and frisky on Brenton Wood’s “Gimme A Little Sign,” and offers a righteous version of Stevie Wonder’s “Heaven Is Ten Zillion Light Years Away.” The album closes with a soaring rendition of Tammy Wynette’s classic Country weeper “Til I Get It Right.”

Cover albums can be tricky. An artist can go the Rod Stewart route and offer slavish re-creations, or take a page from Cassandra Wilson’s book and radically re-interpret familiar favorites. Shawn Colvin has found a way to honor the original versions and still make each song her own.

Until her 2016 collaboration with Steve Earle arrives, Uncovered will keep Shawn Colvin fans satisfied.