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Social Distortion’s Mike Ness on His 10 Best Country-Punk Covers

From the punk godfather’s take on Johnny Cash to an unexpected Kitty Wells song

Mike Ness, Social Distortion

Social Distortion's Mike Ness talks about the country songs he and his punk band have covered throughout their career.

Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

Social Distortion may have gotten their start in the late 1970s Southern California punk scene, but the band’s musical lineage and influences go much further back (and spread further out) than the punk landscape. The group’s singer and leader Mike Ness recalls being shaped by a rich, roots-heavy musical upbringing.

“Around the house, my father liked country and my mother was more rock & roll,” Ness tells Rolling Stone Country. “I remember a lot of Johnny Cash, the Dillards and Buck Owens. Country music was just always in the background and I absorbed all of it. Also, this was in the period of the folk revival, so we had that big Smithsonian box set [The Anthology of American Folk Music] where I distinctly remember hearing the Carter Family for the first time. Their tones and that style of music really resonated with me as a kid. Early on, I wanted Social D to be the Carter Family with electric guitars.”

Inspired by the Sex Pistols and punk’s no-rules approach, Ness channeled that unruly inclusivity to mix punk with the roots music he had grown up loving, seeing a distinct connection between the styles. “To me, the main shared characteristic between the two of them is that they’re both working-class genres that deal with working-class issues in an honest way,” says Ness, who recently produced the traditionally styled country singer Jade Jackson’s debut Gilded. “Whether it’s Billie Holiday or Howlin’ Wolf or Johnny Cash, they’re singing about real-life things and that’s what punk is – a dissatisfaction with the status quo and wanting to honestly sing about it.”

Rolling Stone Country asked Ness – who is currently touring with Social Distortion and Jade Jackson – to reminisce about some of his best country covers and found that beneath the low-slung Les Paul, punk sneer and tattooed exterior lies a studied music historian. Here are 10 of Social D’s best country covers.

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“Ring of Fire,” Johnny Cash

You can’t talk about the symbiotic connection between country music and punk rock without mentioning the fusion’s high-water mark: Social Distortion’s amped-up cover of “Ring of Fire” from their 1990 self-titled album. While Social D’s pedal-to-the-floor take on the tune has become one of the band’s signature songs, it wasn’t greeted with unanimous approval. “People were kind of tripping out when I first told them about that one, even though I remember singing Johnny Cash songs like ‘Wanted Man’ in our live set as early as 1985,” says Ness. “This was during a period of time where there were a lot of those ‘what’s punk versus what’s not punk’ discussions going on. I wasn’t looking for the punk police to come around and tell me what I could and couldn’t do. I thought it was very punk rock to cover a Johnny Cash song.”

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“Making Believe,” Kitty Wells

Two years after the surprising success of their “Ring of Fire” cover, Social Distortion doubled down on their punk-meets-country concoction with two covers appearing on their fourth album, 1992’s Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell: “Making Believe” and “King of Fools.” The former was originally written by Jimmy Work in 1955 and popularized by Kitty Wells’ version released the same year. However, it wasn’t Wells’ crooning that piqued Ness’ interests in covering the country classic. “It was probably the Wanda Jackson one that I gravitated towards more,” Ness surmises. “In the late Eighties, I was buying a lot of reissues on vinyl, everything from blues to doo-wop to rockabilly to country. Every time I would hear that song, I just thought to myself, ‘Man, I really want to sing this song with the band.’ I just love that one so much. It’s such a great old country standard.”   

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“Long Black Veil,” Lefty Frizzell

Although Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin’s “Long Black Veil” is one of those songs that has transcended genre to be covered by a diverse array of artists – Johnny Cash, Marianne Faithful, Nick Cave, Nazareth, Iron and Wine, Grateful Dead, to name a few – Ness tried to keep the inspirational spark for his solo ballad version, off Cheating at Solitaire, as pure as possible. “I really couldn’t tell you whose version that I heard first or was most inspired by,” he says. “For that song, it was a case of ‘the less I hear of other people doing it, the better.’ Because I just wanted to do my own take on it. However, I did like Mick Jagger’s cover of it, the one he did with the Chieftains. Mine is kind of in between his version and Lefty Frizzell’s original.”

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“Alone and Forsaken,” Hank Williams

When Ness and the band released “Cold Feelings” as the second single from Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell, Ness again took the opportunity to showcase his affinity for vintage country by recording a downtrodden, brooding version of Hank Williams’ “Alone and Forsaken” as the single’s B-side. When it comes to Williams, Ness doesn’t hide his high praise for the legend. “Hank Williams is pretty much at the top of my list for country guys. Everyone might think Johnny Cash is at the top for me – and he is in my top five – but my top three are Hank Williams, George Jones and Buck Owens. But for Hank Williams, his tone and his songs really hit me hard like the Carter Family did. It’s a lonely, desperate, dark kind of tone that I really relate to.”    

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“Alone and Forsaken” (2011), Hank Williams

Ness’ first crack at “Alone and Forsaken” for the “Cold Feelings” B side is one of the more rare tracks in Social D’s catalog, even by the performer’s own admission. “I don’t even remember the older, slower one that well. I’m going to have to hunt that one down again myself,” Ness says. However, when it came time to record the band’s seventh full-length album Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes in 2011, Ness took another shot at the Williams weeper by ratcheting up the tempo, cranking the amps and throwing in a blistering guitar solo. “I really enjoyed doing both versions and I like the overall idea of doing the same song two different ways,” states Ness. “Sometimes songs are more powerful slow, sometimes they’re more powerful fast, and sometimes they’re equal. It’s nice to mix it up and have multiples approaches to the same song.”   

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“Once a Day,” Connie Smith

“Once a Day” is one of those classic country songs with a storied past. Written by country songwriting legend (and longtime Grand Ole Opry member) “Whisperin'” Bill Anderson, “Once a Day” was taken to Number One by Connie Smith in 1964. Smith’s version was a twice-over record-maker, becoming the first debut single by a female country artist to hit Number One and then holding the top spot for the longest amount of time by a female country artist until 2012 when Taylor Swift eventually broke the almost 50-year-old record. However, it was George Jones’ version that most inspired Ness to have his own go at the song. Though, much like with covering Jackson, Ness had to stretch himself vocally. “George Jones sings like a pedal-steel guitar player plays,” he says. “He swoops underneath the melodies and it’s tricky to do, man.”  

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“King of Fools,” Edwin Bruce

The second country cover on Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell is the muscled-up loser’s lament of “King of Fools,” from Edwin Bruce. While the most notable feather in Bruce’s songwriting cap is the Waylon & Willie duet “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” Ness was drawn to the less illuminated corners of Bruce’s catalog. “I really like some of those obscure rockabilly and country songs that he did like ‘Rock Boppin’ Baby’ and ‘King of Fools.’ As far as lyrical content – “I was born without one good thought, Just to live fast, to lie, and break your heart” ­– ‘King of Fools’ genuinely sounds like a song I would’ve written myself for Social D.” 

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“You Win Again,” Hank Williams

When Ness decided to finally release his first solo album in 1999, he already had more than 20 years of experience leading Social D through a career of interpreting multiple styles of music through a punk-rock filter. However, as Ness looks back on the late Nineties, he confesses: “While I was already integrating country into punk, at the time I felt like there were some limitations. Now, not so much, but at the time I decided to do my solo album, there definitely was. So I took the opportunity to show people I could do other things. It was very liberating for me.” The result was Cheating at Solitaire, a collection of mostly roots-based Ness originals with a sprinkling of country and folk covers by artists like Bob Dylan and Williams. “Again with my love of Hank Williams” Ness chuckles. “It was really fun to record that one for my solo album and to try and do it the justice that it deserves.”   

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“Funnel of Love,” Wanda Jackson

Shortly after Cheating at Solitaire, Ness released his second solo album, Under the Influences, a covers compilation of some of his favorite early rock, country, rockabilly and bluegrass numbers. His top-tier inspirations are well represented, including the Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower” and a double dose of Hank Williams on “Six More Miles” and “House of Gold,” but it’s his faithful take on Wanda Jackson’s “Funnel of Love” that is arguably the album’s standout. “‘Funnel of Love’ is such a good rock song with a dark undertone,” he says. “But that was a challenging song to sing! It was worth it, though, because that whole record was a nice chance to pay homage to people who have influenced me so much.”    

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“Ball and Chain” (Honky-Tonk Version), Social Distortion

Not many artists get the chance to actually cover themselves. Social Distortion’s signature song “Ball and Chain” first appeared on their 1990 self-titled third album, helping to establish the band’s bluesy, rootsy iteration of punk. Ness has even referred to “Ball and Chain” as a “folk prayer” type of song and chose to include a playful “honky-tonk” version of it to close out Under the Influences. “When you hear songs you already know in a different context, it’s not that the message changes, it’s just that sometimes you can hear the message better,” he says.

More than just a one-off exercise, this particular cover functions as a precursor of things to come for the band. “That version of ‘Ball and Chain’ is a prime example of what we want to do in the next couple of years, which is make an acoustic Social D record,” says Ness. “We’re going to take older, classic Social D songs and rework them acoustically, showing people that there’s a completely different side to these songs that they never expected.”

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