Flashback: Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard Cover the Beatles’ ‘Yesterday’
Forty-four years ago this month, former Beatle Paul McCartney and the members of his current band, Wings, arrived in Nashville for a month-long vacation and rehearsal. McCartney and his entourage stayed at a farm just outside Music City owned by famed songwriter Curly Putman Jr. (“D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” “Green, Green Grass of Home”) and made a visit to the Grand Ole Opry, which, to McCartney’s disappointment, had recently moved to Opryland from the location the Liverpool native was anxious to visit, the Ryman Auditorium.
On June 16th, McCartney and his wife Linda were among the audience at a historic Opryland performance featuring longtime partners Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner, with Parton telling the crowd it’s “the last time we’ll play together.”
Sir Paul McCartney turns 76 years old today. In his tenure with the Beatles, McCartney, along with his songwriting partner John Lennon and bandmates Ringo Starr and George Harrison, occasionally wrote straight-ahead country songs, with one of the earliest examples being McCartney’s “In Spite of All the Danger,” written with Harrison when the two were members of the Quarrymen. Later, the Beatles’ songs “I Feel Fine,” “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” and “Something” would be country chart hits by Sweethearts of the Rodeo, Rosanne Cash and Johnny Rodriguez, respectively.
Numerous tribute albums, including the exceptional 2013 collection, Let Us In Americana: The Music of Paul McCartney, featuring Rodney Crowell, Buddy Miller, Lee Ann Womack, among others, have explored the country-music connections and inspirations of the Beatles, and country artists have also covered the Fab Four by including individual songs on their various albums, from Dolly Parton’s bluegrass take on “Help!” to Steve Earle’s raw Appalachian rendition of McCartney’s “I’m Looking Through You.”
Cut solely by McCartney at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios in London on June 14th, 1965, “Yesterday” would eventually appear on the U.S. album Yesterday and Today (after being issued on the U.K. version of Help!). In 1966, just one year after it became a massive hit in the U.S., country songwriter Willie Nelson recorded version of the song at Fort Worth’s Panther Hall for the live album Country Music Concert. He would revisit the song later as a duet with fellow country legend Merle Haggard, including it on their duet album, Seashores of Old Mexico. As the highly anticipated follow-up to the pair’s mega-successful 1983 Pancho & Lefty, the LP proved disappointing, retaining little of the spark that the pair of music icons captured on the earlier effort. In the ensuing years, while their rendition of one of the most recorded songs all time may not be among the very best, there is now, of course, an added poignancy to their take on “Yesterday,” with the 2016 death of Merle Haggard. In introducing the tune on that 1966 recording, Nelson says, “I think it’s a very great piece of material.”
With approximately 1,200 covers of it to date, “Yesterday” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1997 and voted Best Song of the Century in a BBC Two radio poll in 1999. In 2011, it placed at Number Thirteen on Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.