Aretha Franklin was the Queen of Soul, but she was also an interpreter of songs from all genres, including country and folk music. Franklin died Thursday at 76 after a bout with pancreatic cancer, leaving behind a catalog that showcased her diverse range. Here are six of her best country renditions.
“Gentle on My Mind” (1969)
Written by John Hartford, “Gentle on my Mind” was one of the most omnipresent songs of the late Sixties. Glen Campbell popularized it. Dean Martin turned it into an easy-listening hit. But it was Aretha Franklin who stretched the song far beyond its origins, slowing the tempo and swapping the rolling guitar arpeggios for thick, soulful stabs of piano. The result wasn’t exactly a hit — it quickly fell from the charts in 1969, right around the time she released her seventh Number One single, “Share Your Love With Me” — but it showed the range of her influences, which reached far beyond the world of R&B.
“Cold Cold Heart” (1964)
Hank Williams was several months shy of a divorce when “Cold Cold Heart” became a hit in 1951. Franklin’s own interpretation followed in 1964, ignoring the depressed twang of Williams’ original and filling the void with waltzing, woozy blasts of gospel. Come for the lovely combo of trombone and church organ, the latter of which was tracked by the same keyboardist who appeared on Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited one year later. Stay for Franklin’s vocal performance, which packs more fire-and-brimstone punch than a Baptist sermon.
“Night Life” (1967)
For a song whose bridge urged everyone within earshot to “listen to the blues,” Willie Nelson’s “Night Life” never sounded half as bluesy as it did on 1967’s Aretha Arrives. Franklin recorded the song with a broken elbow, channeling her discomfort into three minutes of pained, powerhouse singing. She doesn’t just bend her blue notes during the song’s final stretch; she bruises them, proudly owning her night-owl status along the way. “It’s my life,” Franklin sings, daring anyone to try and put her to bed before sunrise.
“If I Had a Hammer” (1965)
Modeled after the loose, live vibe of her jazz-club gigs, Yeah! found Franklin adding guitarist Kenny Burrell to her backup band. When she suggested the group cover a contemporary hit like “Puff the Magic Dragon,” producer Clyde Otis convinced them to tackle “If I Had a Hammer” instead. Rather than model her version after Peter, Paul and Mary’s performance, though, Franklin took her cues from the late Sam Cooke, who included the song on 1964’s Sam Cooke at the Copa. The result is a percussive, poignant tribute to one of her soul-singing influences. “She was crazy for Sam,” Otis says in the biography Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin. “In fact, we were in the studio on some session when word came that Sam had been killed … Aretha got up and left and didn’t come back for a week. I certainly understood.”
“The Weight” (1969)
Franklin owned the R&B charts in 1969, sending five different singles — including this reimagination of the Band’s signature song— into the Top 5. The Staple Singers had similar plans, covering “The Weight” on the group’s first album for Stax Records and, years later, appearing in The Last Waltz. Their version pushed the song into gospel territory, while Franklin’s own performance mixed the stomp of urban soul with the sweat and sex of rock & roll. Duane Allman plays the song’s moaning riff on slide guitar.
“You Are My Sunshine” (1967)
This country classic was already ubiquitous by the time Franklin released her version in 1967. Of all its covers and reinterpretations, though, there’s perhaps no take as anticipatory as Franklin’s “You Are My Sunshine,” whose two-minute, free-form introduction is largely a cappella. When the song kicks into second gear around the halfway mark, the effect is both unexpected and exhilarating, like a parked muscle car suddenly springing toward highway speed. This recording is a family affair, too, with sisters Carolyn and Erma Franklin adding their harmonies throughout.