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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.

Mike Ness, Social Distortion

“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.”   

Mike Ness, Social Distortion

“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.”    

Mike Ness, Social Distortion

“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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