Acoustic Music, Saturday Soundtrack
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Women sing Waits

Tom Waits is one of our generation’s great songwriters. His work, it is noted, often focuses on the “underbelly of society” while his songs are “delivered in his trademark deep, gravelly voice.” That voice is an acquired taste that I only take in very small doses. Thankfully, there are hundreds of covers of Tom Waits songs, which run the gamut from “brilliant” to “meh.”

When I recently ran across a cover or two closer to the brilliant side it started me down a path of gathering some favorites for a Saturday Soundtrack post. But after I pulled together a couple of ones that I enjoy — such as Bruce Springsteen’s live version of Jersey Girl and Jerry Douglas’s quirky take on 2:19 — I realized that I was discovering a whole group of talented women singers providing their perspective on Tom Waits songs. When I stumbled across the 2019 album released by Nashville’s Dualtone Records entitled Come On Up to the House: Women Sing Waits, and then the earlier Female Tribute to Tom Waits collection, I knew I had my hook.

This week, let’s focus on some of the female singers who have interpreted the quirky wisdom of Tom Waits.

I was first drawn in by one of my favorite alt-country singers, Courtney Marie Andrews, and her aching version of the sad and lonely Downtown Train. The song has been covered by others, including Mary Chapin Carpenter with her folk/pop sensibilities. But I prefer Andrews’ country voice, which seems to fit the mood of the lyrics.

Will I see you tonight
On a downtown train
Where Every night its just the same
You leave me lonely
Will I see you tonight
On a downtown train
All of my dreams just fall like rain
All upon on a downtown train

Waits is a songwriter whose tunes are open to all types of interpretation. Take a listen to his version of Come on Up to the House — a gospel-type song that isn’t really a gospel song — and then listen to the talented Sarah Jarosz move it out of the grit into a different direction. For another interpretation you can also check out the version by the trio Joseph from the Women Sing Waits album.

Well the moon is broken
And the sky is cracked
Come on up to the house
The only things that you can see
Is all that you lack
Come on up to the house

All your cryin don’t do no good
Come on up to the house
Come down off the cross
We can use the wood
Come on up to the house

Come on up to the house
Come on up to the house
The world is not my home
I’m just a passin thru
Come on up to the house

I mentioned the Springsteen version of Jersey Girl, which is a classic for all sorts of reasons, including, of course, the singer’s Jersey roots.

“cause tonight I’m gonna take that ride
across the river to the Jersey side
take my baby to the carnival
and I’ll take you on all the rides

down the shore everythings all right
you with your baby on a saturday night yeah
don’t you know all my dreams come true
when I’m walkin’ down the street with you”

But then I found this interpretation by the jazzy R&B British singer Corinne Bailey Rae from the Women Sing Waits album. It is affecting and warm.

Iris DeMent’s voice has been described as sounding like your loopy old aunt, but her version of one of my favorite Waits songs, House Where Nobody Lives, is as arresting as it is unique. An NPR description of her work is pitch perfect, when they note that DeMent “makes music that celebrates humanity’s efforts toward salvation, while acknowledging that most of our time on Earth is spent reconciling with the fact that we don’t feel so redeemed.” I find the lyrics for House Where Nobody Lives a perfect fit for this search for redemption.

There’s a house on my block
that’s abandoned and cold
Folks moved out of it a
long time ago
and they took all their things
and they never came back
Looks like it’s haunted
with the windows all cracked
and everyone calls it
the house, the house where
nobody lives.

Once it held laughter
Once it held dreams
Did they throw it away
Did they know what it means
Did someone’s heart break
or did someone do somebody wrong?

What makes a house grand

Ain’t the roof or the doors

If there’s love in a house

It’s a palace for sure

Without love

It ain’t nothin but a house

A house where nobody lives

I could write forever here but now I’m just going to include a variety of clips of women singing Tom Waits and encourage you to pick and choose…or listen to them all. They are:

  • Beth Hart and Joe Bonamassa with Chocolate Jesus
  • The always wonderful Patty Griffin singing Ruby’s Arms
  • The elegant Norah Jones and her interpretation of The Long Way Home
  • Sally Norvell with her jazzy, piano bar version of Please Call Me, Baby
  • And we’ll end this set with Clara Bakker’s smoky Temptation

One of my all-time favorite covers of a Tom Waits tune is Nanci Griffin’s version of San Diego Serenade. The lyrics are pure poetry, and she makes them her own.

I never saw the morning ’til I stayed up all night
I never saw the sunshine ’til you turned out the light
I never saw my hometown until I stayed away too long
I never heard the melody until I needed the song

I never saw the east coast until I moved to the west
I never saw the moonlight until it shone off of your breast
I never saw your heart until someone tried to steal it away
I never saw your tears until they rolled down your face

Let’s recognize what we have, while we still have it.


More to come…


This entry was posted in: Acoustic Music, Saturday Soundtrack


I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this personal blog more than ten years ago as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation. After the trip was over I simply continued writing. Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus aligned with my interest in places that matter, reading well, roots music, and more. My professional background is as a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. This work has been driven by my passion for connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.


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