First of all, it never actually happened. But it almost did. In the summer of 1989 Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic of Nirvana and Mark Lanegan and Mark Pickerel of the Screaming Trees organized two recording sessions with the intention of recording covers of Leadbelly songs for an album. Or at least this was Plan B as the initial idea had been to create original songs. When they got to the studio they announced to the producer they had either not written any songs or had the forgotten the ones they’d come up with.
Neither one of the two bands had achieved any significant success by that point but the record label Sub Pop was interested in releasing the new band’s songs as an album. A few of the recordings have survived and since both groups achieved legendary status later on, the Leadbelly tribute record became somewhat of a myth among fans.
The work on the recordings and the shared passion for Leadbelly’s music would have a large influence on both Cobain and Lanegan. Nirvana covered Leadbelly, finally, on their memorable Unplugged segment, ending their studio gig with a chilly rendition of “Where did you sleep last night”. Their cover has in fact become one of their most famous moments with the video running on endless rotations on MTV after Cobain’s passing. The success of the cover is not least because of the intensity of the performance. Towards the very end, Cobain stops, sighs and stares straight at the audience as the band moves into the last bars of the song.
The Screaming Trees became successful at about the same time as the other Seattle bands, although some would argue that for the wrong reasons. Of course, they had many of the elements that courted comparisons between those groups and had them all linked to the so-called Grunge style. But the sound of the band seemed steeped in something even more somber as the group oftentimes played atmosphere above distorted riffs and large choruses.
Mark Lanegan would quote the Cobain collaboration as an inspiration for his own first solo records “The winding sheet” and the excellent and dark affair of “Whiskey for the Holy Ghost”. Cobain would guest on the first of these albums where Mark Lanegan would also choose to cover “Where did you sleep last night” (aka “In the pines”) albeit in a heavier and bleaker arrangement.
The working band name for the aborted project was “The Jury”. Drummer Mark Pickerel noted that Lanegan, more experienced at the time found it hard to express suggestions or criticism to Cobain because of his respect for him. None of the two singers expressed much desire to sing or suggest a band direction. Those suggestions might have been valuable in finding a way of stringing the songs together and leading to a full EP, or perhaps even an album. Given that this was just before the “time of Grunge” starting in 1991, an album on Sub Pop would have most likely faded from sight, only to be resurrected as a lost gem a several years later. It’s hard to imagine that this album would have been the one to break Nirvana or the Screaming to the world.
The 2004 Nirvana box set, “With the lights out”, started the trend of releasing most available recordings of the band or of Kurt Cobain messing around on song ideas or demos. Some of the releases garnered fans’ interest, showing the embers of songs, band influences and experiments. Especially later on “Montage of Heck” soundtrack the releases would start feeling like the vaults were being completely emptied as some, largely nonsense recordings would be presented as Kurt Cobain solo material.
An excellent song on the box set though is “Ain’t it a shame” with Cobain using the raspy screaming at the end of the song that would become a trademark of the future “Nevermind” album. Reports suggest Mark Lanegan is playing guitar on the song.
Leadbelly was, of course, a famous folk and blues musician active until the 1940s whose biography reads like an adventure novel. He gathered and contributed writing to songs from the American folk canon. Those were songs that he came upon on his travels. His recordings constitute a sort of songbook of standards for post World War 2 folk music in America. One of these is the gospel-influenced “They hung him on a cross”. The song which was also recorded at the Nirvana/Screaming Trees session, has Cobain taking on vocals with Sub-Pop favorite Jack Endino producing the session.
Another recording from that is the instrumental, two-chord, fuzzed drenched “Gray Goose” and an early version of “Where did you sleep last night” with Mark Lanegan singing.
After the two day sessions The Jury ceased to be. Having been started in the hopes of writing original material influenced by late 60’s rock of Cream and Led Zeppelin, the band members soon lost interest in the project. Without original songs deemed good enough to be recorded by the group, they announced to Sub Pop (the Seattle label that both bands worked with) that the band would not be releasing any of the recorded music. The label then showed encouragement to Mark Lanega to record his own solo album. This was the start of a long and often fascinating solo career.
Lanegan pursued his solo career while incorporating an influence from the folk and blues American tradition. Nirvana late in their brief career showed that they could strip their sound to bare essentials on the UNplugged album. Cobain expressed an interest in working further within that context and be “respected like Johnny Cash”. Before playing the last song of the night, Cobain declares Leadbelly to be his/the band’s favorite performer and recalls a story where he asked record company owner David Geffen for money to purchase Leadbelly’s guitar at an auction. David Geffen said no.