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Uncovering Writer Ray Padgett, Burlington's King of Covers

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Ray Padgett - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Ray Padgett

Twelve years ago, Ray Padgett was just another college kid obsessed with music. He had been writing a blog about Bob Dylan since high school, and during his time at Dartmouth College, the Chicago native's appetite for the subject only intensified — he even started a second blog and a radio show. Along the way, he stumbled into a music niche that would come to define the next phase of his life and career: cover songs.

"Funny enough, it came through Dylan," recalls Padgett, 32.

Now living in Burlington, Padgett was an avid follower of Dylan's late, great Sirius XM radio show, "Theme Time Radio Hour." One day, while listening to that show, he heard a cover of George Gershwin's "Summertime" by 1960s soul singer Billy Stewart that was unlike any version of the famous song he'd ever heard.

"It's usually this languid, sort of beautifully slow song, but this version was a soul rave-up!" Padgett explains with his signature boyish charm. "There's scatting, drum solos, false endings — it's almost like a James Brown thing."

Once his pleasant shock subsided, one thought kept going through his mind: I didn't know you could do this.

"So I started wondering what other covers change the songs so dramatically," he says. "Twelve years later, I'm still down the rabbit hole."

Padgett is the founder of a blog called Cover Me, through which he indulges his passion for covers both great and obscure. Since 2007, the blog has evolved into its own website with multiple writers and editors working under Padgett. He spun the concept into a 2017 book, Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time.

"There's something special about these types of songs," Padgett explains of the enduring lure of covers. "People naturally love them because something they know and maybe even love is being reinvented and presented back to them. That's a cool concept.

"Or," he continues, "they learn about a song that slipped through the cracks and rediscover it."

To this last point, Padgett cites an album he's currently listening to as research for his next book. In 1991, Columbia Records released I'm Your Fan, a tribute album to Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. While the album was well received, it remains famous for one track above all else.

"It's the album that made 'Hallelujah' famous," Padgett says with an almost incredulous lilt to his voice. "In a roundabout way, I mean."

Padgett explains that John Cale covered "Hallelujah" on the Cohen tribute album, which is where Jeff Buckley, having never heard the original, was introduced to the song. Buckley covered Cale's version on his 1994 album Grace.

"It's one of the most covered songs of the last 20 years now," says Padgett. "And that wouldn't have happened had Buckley not heard the cover in the first place."

Revelations like this kept Padgett fixated on cover songs. As his blog grew and he finished school, he moved to New York City and worked for Shore Fire Media, a music PR company. The long hours meant less time to actually write content for Cover Me. So he adjusted his process and started only writing on the weekends but producing longer, more researched pieces.

True to his Dylan fandom, the first of those pieces was an in-depth exploration of Jimi Hendrix's cover of "All Along the Watchtower." He even interviewed the late guitar hero's former girlfriend.

That post quickly became the most popular in the history of the blog, and Padgett discovered that his readers enjoyed the deep dives.

"So that was really when I first thought, Hmm, there might be a book here."

Though readers and friends had suggested he write a book before, the Hendrix post offered an angle into what previously had been too vague a concept. Rather than write about covers under a broad umbrella, he settled on specific covers that resonated or were especially important over the last six decades of pop music.

"Through those 20 songs, I set about following the history of the concept," he explains. "I started with Elvis Presley doing 'Hound Dog' and went right up to Adele's version of 'Make You Feel My Love.'"

Padgett interviewed luminaries such as former Talking Heads front person David Byrne and Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh. The two musicians had similar stories about why they chose to do cover songs in the first place — Talking Heads with "Take Me to the River" and Devo's bizarre version of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction."

"They basically said the same thing," Padgett recounts. "They were in these sort of arty bands with small, arty fan bases, but they wanted to be famous. So, in both cases, by covering a song everyone already knew but doing it in their own idiosyncratic style, they left a bread-crumb trail back to their original music."

Cover Me was released to glowing praise from Padgett's peers. Variety's Jem Aswad called it "one of the best multi-subject music books to come down the pike in years."

The book's genesis and release coincided with Padgett's on-again, off-again relationship with Burlington, a city he had long admired. While attending Dartmouth, he would routinely drive to the Queen City to see shows, since it was the closest place to see touring acts. Even not knowing another soul in town, Padgett says each time Burlington left a bigger mark on his heart. After living in New York City for five years — and after meeting the woman who would become his wife, Lesley — Padgett decided to move north in 2014.

"It just seems so alive," Padgett says of the city's music scene. "For a place the size of Burlington to be producing as much world-class music as it does is sort of stunning."

He recalls a night eating at the Radio Bean-adjacent restaurant ¡Duino! (Duende) with his wife when they recognized their waitress as local chanteuse Kat Wright.

"She smiled at us and said she'd have our bill ready in a few minutes," Padgett remembers with a laugh. "Then she promptly jumped onstage to belt out a soul song. We'd never seen anything like it!"

The Queen City love affair would be interrupted as Lesley's work took the couple back to Queens after only a year. Unperturbed, Padgett didn't relinquish his obsession with Burlington music. Instead he started a new blog called County Tracks.

"I still followed the scene from New York through Seven Days and social media," he says. "But the way my brain is, if I'm thinking about it, I might as well write about it."

County Tracks takes its name from local country-rocker Kelly Ravin's 2015 album. According to Padgett, the site was designed to be a blog about Vermont music but written by an outsider, for outsiders. Unlike Cover Me, the smaller County Tracks is pretty much a one-man show. But the writer estimates that roughly two-thirds of County Tracks readers come from out of state, a figure that tells him the concept is working.

That concept may need some tweaking now that he and his wife have once again returned to live in Burlington. Having moved back earlier this year, Padgett is no longer an outsider but a member of the music community he finds so charming and vital.

"There's an endless fount of music that excites me in this state," he asserts.

Padgett's immediate future is still about cover songs, however. He's about halfway through working on his follow-up to Cover Me. This one will be part of the well-loved 33 1/3 series, short books that usually focus on single albums. In Padgett's case, though, he's focusing on a type of record instead: the tribute album.

"It's this weird, nebulous form where totally unrelated bands play cover songs, but there's hardly ever any flow to the records," Padgett explains. "A good tribute album will have great songs but doesn't necessarily work as a unified listening experience. But I just love that stuff anyway."

Half of the new book will focus on I'm Your Fan, the Cohen tribute record. The other half will spotlight the movers and shakers who first developed the idea of tribute albums, such as producer Hal Willner.

Padgett estimates that finishing the book will take another year and a half. Until then, he'll be breaking in his new home in the Old North End, getting to know all the local musicians he's been writing about for years and continuing his research — namely, listening to tons of covers and tribute albums.

It's a lot of work, but something in Padgett's smile says he won't mind it one bit.

The original print version of this article was headlined "The Imitation Game | Uncovering Burlington's king of covers, writer Ray Padgett"

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