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Music and Memories: The Remakes That Still Make Us Smile

Even newer renditions of some of our favorite songs can reinvigorate the soundtracks of our lives


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Illustration: Selman Hoşgör; (Source: Clockwise From Left: by Kirk West/Getty Images; King Collection/Avalon/Getty Images; Georges De Keerle/Getty Images; Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; Michael Putland/Getty Images; Michael Putland/Getty Images; Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns/Getty Images; Knight Archive/Redferns/Getty Images)

Everyone has a personal relationship with their playlists, and for me, it’s impossible to separate music and family. My mom would sing Red Grammer songs to me when I was a baby. I went to my first concert when I was 7, dancing in the aisles and singing every word to Genesis. From there, the soundtrack of my life just kept building. I’ve even convinced myself that Leon Bridges is already my 3-month-old daughter’s favorite artist, as his soothing voice seems to always put her at ease.

Music’s intimate relationship with our memories has long been studied, and the results show that songs have the ability to evoke strong emotions that may be forever intertwined with a specific experience.

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While I love the songs that have identified my past, newer renditions of some of my favorites have reinvigorated my love for those classics – sparking old memories and creating new ones. Here are eight of my favorite remakes, covers and tributes:

“Rich Girl”

Original: Hall & Oates, 1976

Newer version: Lake Street Dive, 2011

Lake Street Dive is one of my sister and wife’s favorite bands. If my wife could have any singing voice in the world, it would be Rachael Price’s so every time I hear the Lake Street Dive frontwoman’s soulful, rangy vocals, I imagine it coming out of my wife’s mouth. The fun-loving group isn’t afraid to put their twist on an old classic, and “Rich Girl” is one of the remakes they play most often at their shows.

“It’s Not My Cross to Bear”

Original: The Allman Brothers Band, 1969

Newer version: Big Band of Brothers (featuring Ruthie Foster), 2019

After I graduated college, my dad, brother and I started taking annual summer trips to a jam band festival. While they are both connected to the jam band scene, I mostly tagged along for the beer. Despite not knowing the music, I will never forget being awe-struck by some of the most talented artists on the planet and watching every melodic passage trance between my dad and brother. The Allman Brothers Band and Gov’t Mule (with Warren Haynes) were staples at these festivals, and hearing any song by either of those bands brings me back to those late, head-bopping nights in those remote fields. Big Band of Brothers released jazz interpretations of 10 of the Allman Brothers’ hit songs to celebrate 50 years since the band’s debut album. This saxophone-driven remake of “It’s Not My Cross to Bear” makes me think of my brother, who plays a pretty mean alto sax.

“Nights in White Satin”

Original: The Moody Blues, 1967

Newer version: Goose, 2020

After growing up listening to the Grateful Dead and Allman Brothers, my dad was on a mission to find the “next great jam band.” In the early 2000s, he jumped on the Umphrey's McGee bandwagon and dubbed them with that distinction. Since then, he’s struggled to find a band worthy enough to take the torch from Umphrey’s … until now. That next great jam band is Goose, and their rendition of “Nights in White Satin” shows how the newcomers can appeal to a more mainstream audience. (Even my mom likes them!)

“Sweet Baby James”

Original: James Taylor, 1970

Newer version: Passenger and Gregory Alan Isakov, 2019

My mom loves James Taylor so much that she gave all three of her children the initials “J.T.” One of my first concerts was James Taylor, and my mom and I danced to “You’ve Got a Friend” at my wedding. To say the love of J.T. runs deep in my family is an understatement. My mom is the reason I have an appreciation for folk music today, and two of my favorite modern singer-songwriters – Passenger and Gregory Alan Isakov – combine to take this J.T. classic to a new level.

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“Stairway to Heaven”

Original: Led Zeppelin, 1971

Newer version: Heart, 2012

I fortunately married into a family that shares the same love of music as my own. A group text with my in-laws is dedicated to golf memes and song recommendations. My father-in-law is constantly passing along great remakes, so when he told me I had to watch this rendition of “Stairway to Heaven” performed by Heart at the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors as a tribute to the English rock band, I knew it would be special. But you don’t have to take the word of my family. It was so good even Robert Plant was impressed. “It's just a magnificent performance to watch, and it kills me every time,” the Led Zeppelin frontman told Vulture this year.

“Bohemian Rhapsody”

Original: Queen, 1975

Newer version: Panic! At The Disco, 2016

Thanks to Wayne and Garth, this is the quintessential head-banging road-trip anthem. I can’t hear this song without thinking of my many attempts at recreating that epic Wayne’s World scene while driving my blue 1986 Astro van in high school. The 2018 release of the movie Bohemian Rhapsody, which included an Oscar-winning performance by Rami Malek for his role as Freddie Mercury, reintroduced Queen to a whole new generation. "Bohemian Rhapsody" is such a transcendent song that my 2-year-old niece will randomly sing “Momma, ohhhhhh” while cooking in her Fisher Price kitchen. While there’s not a showman out there that can match Mercury, Panic! At The Disco — one of my nephews’ favorite bands — certainly does justice to this mock opera.

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“Fast Car”

Original: Tracy Chapman, 1988

Newer version: Luke Combs, 2023

This Billboard hit is a prime example of how a song can mean different things to different people. Chapman told Q magazine, “It’s not really about a car at all. … Basically, it’s about a relationship that doesn’t work out because it’s starting from a wrong place.”

Combs said on stage, “I always think about my dad when it comes on and us spending time together.” For me, it reminds me of my sister. When I bought a record player and used preamp a few years ago, it came with a tape deck. To break in the new setup, my sister bought me a few cassettes, including Tracy Chapman’s debut album. Whatever “Fast Car” means to you, Combs has the soulful classic back atop airplay charts.

“Tennessee Whiskey”

Original: David Allan Coe (written by Dean Dillon and Linda Hargrove), 1981

Newer version: Chris Stapleton, 2015

I was never a fan of country music, but then my wife introduced me to Chris Stapleton. “Tennessee Whiskey” was the first song that made me think, Maybe country music isn’t that bad after all. Stapleton could make the ABCs sound like an emotional roller coaster, and he put his typical soulful southern rock twist to this country classic. “Starting Over” was our first dance at our wedding so I guess I’ve come around on country music … or at least anything sung by Chris Stapleton.

Enjoy the defining moments in your life — the first dance at your wedding, a grandparent who passed away or a long-lost love you remember fondly — even when you’re hearing the songs through someone else’s voice.

This special issue of The Girlfriend is devoted to music and how it shapes — and strengthens — our memories. For more on this topic from AARP, including videos, events and memory games, visit aarp.org/musicandmemory

Share your experience: What's your favorite remake of a classic and what memory does it evoke? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

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