John Hiatt Biography
Selecting the material for a "Best Of" compilation of any artist's work can be trying, to say the least. But for an artist the stature of John Hiatt, whose numerous "best" songs have been covered countless times and whose own recordings have become classic, well, narrowing them down to a single album would seem to be an impossible undertaking.
But it would be hard to challenge the 17 song choices on The Best Of John Hiatt. Such titles as "Cry Love," "Slow Turning," "Drive South," "Angel Eyes" and "Thing Called Love" - which are included - are truly representative of one of the most significant and valued song catalogs in contemporary rock music, though many of Hiatt's songs, and many of those showcased here, have crossed over into virtually all genres of pop music.
Indeed, Hiatt's copyrights have been covered by the varied and stellar likes of Bob Dylan, Jewel, Paula Abdul, Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, Jeff Healy, Don Dixon, Rodney Crowell, Roseanne Cash, Iggy Pop, Willie Nelson, John Doe, Mitch Ryder, Desert Rose Band, Dave Edmunds and Linda Ronstadt. And while he has said that he doesn't consider himself a professional songwriter, Hiatt has been rewarded by that profession with Grammy nominations, as well as the artist songwriter of the year citation presented at last year's Nashville Music Awards in recognition of his extraordinary achievements, both as artist and songwriter.
The Best Of John Hiatt, in effect, now consecrates these achievements of Hiatt as artist and songwriter - at a time when his career is on a high roll. Having released 14 albums including his 1974 debut "Hangin' Around The Observatory," Hiatt has finally brought his performing side on a par with his songwriting, and has emerged as one of rock's most exciting and unique concert artists. Last year's preceding studio album "Little Head," meanwhile, garnered the same overwhelming critical praise which marked such earlier landmark album releases as "Walk On," "Bring The Family," "Perfectly Good Guitar," "Slow Turning," and "Stolen Moments."
"Clearly it's the most consistently upbeat and amusing (album) in the heartland rocker's long-running career," stated the Philadelphia Daily News. Entertainment Weekly declared that "Hiatt rules when it comes to writing quirky roots rockers with killer melodies; here he proves he can be one silky soulful singer as well." And the Missouri paper Springfield News-Leader really summed up the significance of the Nashville-based Indiana native's accomplishment in "Little Head"; "After years of his being known as a writer for other artists, albums like this are helping Hiatt get the attention he deserves."
The selection of songs on The Best Of John Hiatt, then, effectively reclaims some of the major hits he has written for others, while at the same time collecting together many of the other songs which he himself is best known for as a performer. The song titles, with typically colorful commentary from the modestly self-effacing singer-songwriter, hereby follow:
Have A Little Faith: We had to have this one, because it's been covered six or seven times - everyone from Jo-El Sonnier, Joe Cocker, Delbert McClinton, and Jewel, who did it for the "Phenomenon" soundtrack - and it's on the 態enny and Joon' soundtrack and a couple of TV movies, so it's got some miles on it! When I originally recorded it, it was just a piano and voice, so I always wanted to try a different version. Capitol hooked me up with Glen Ballard, who put in this beautiful, wailing gospel choir at the end of the song - which I just love! I played piano and Davey Faragher (a member of Hiatt's bands since the Guilty Dogs, who supported him on the 慞erfectly Good Guitar' album, and including the Nashville Queens, from "Little Head') played bass, and Glen put everything else in there.
A Thing Called Love: "Bonnie Raitt, of course, covered it, and the movie was named after it. I wasn't in it, though. They just stole the title!"
Riding With The King: "This one's sort of a personal favorite. It's never been covered, but I always felt that it was a breakthrough for me, personally and artistically, because I was able to settle into something that finally made some sense, using the four or five tools that I seem to draw from fairly consistently: the blues and the rock 'n roll and country and r&b and gospel. And it was the title track of the first album where I finally put it all together and broke the code--though it was a few more records before I hit on it again with 'Bring The Family.' But I was always a huge Elvis fan --which is who the song's for. He was very important to me in my formative years, and I pulled off the road and wept when he died."
Cry Love: "It was a near hit, or a near miss--whichever you prefer! But I felt it was a pretty strong song, and loved the recording of it.
Slow Turning: "This is the album title track, of course, and a concert favorite, especially with the slide guitar which Sonny Landreth played. The record was produced by Glyn Johns, and it was a great learning experience because he was a no bullshit kind of guy, well trained as an engineer. As with most technical endeavors, making it was quite simple: That doesn't mean it was easy, but the direct path is the straight line and it's all about the room and the microphone and the performance and a good tape machine and a decent board and good speakers--not a bunch of tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum. And Glyn taught me that. Of course, he worked with the Stones and Eric Clapton, and knew how to capture the magic."
The Way We Make A Broken Heart: "Roseanne Cash had a #1 country hit with it, and she and I cut a duet to it, it sounds like we were so intent on skullduggery! We're pretty blatant in our willingness to cuckold whoever it was we were cuckolding, and it's pretty darn sexy!"
Memphis In The Meantime: "The first thing cut during the 'Bring The Family' sessions, and it defined what we were going to be to for the rest of the record. It was a pretty intense little quartet--me and Ry Cooder, Jim Keltner, and Nick Lowe--and a pretty whacked-out groove! It established the sound we made, and it's always been a concert favorite. Gregg Allman covered it on his most recent solo album."
Child Of The Wild Blue Yonder: "The first single from the 'Stolen Moments' album and again I though, Dammit, it should have been a hit! If I'm buying my own records, I'd buy that song! If it's on the radio, turn it up!' It was never covered, but it should be!"
Drive South: "Suzy Bogguss had a country hit with this song. When I wrote it I was so in the first flush of love with my wife, and we'd just got married and moved into our first house and I was really ga-ga about the whole deal and felt like I was living the dream! I'm still living the dream, by the way, so it has meaning every time I sing it. Through the years it became more of a rock number than it was on the original record, so we redid it here."
Angel Eyes: "Jeff Healy had a big hit with it, but I'd never cut it myself besides the original demo. Again, it's from the first flush of love period. It was love at first sight, as far as I was concerned! I remembered that the demo was especially good, and I kind of went back to it for inspiration for this new version."
Buffalo River Home: "This one's about the place I call home, the old Southwest, pushing past the cane breaks down along the old Natchez Trace Indian Trail which is now the Federal Parkway running from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee."
Feels Like Rain: Aaron Neville recorded it , and Buddy Guy. The inspiration was the band I had at the time, the Goners, who were a bunch of characters from Louisiana [guitarist Landreth, bassist David 'Now' Ranson, and drummer Kenny Blevins] with their own slant on things--certainly the food! So it's just like a Yankee romanticizing on the area!"
Love In Flames: "What can I say? It speaks for itself: When love goes down--or burns up. I wrote it about eight years ago and always wanted to cut it. I don't know why I never got around to it until now."
Perfectly Good Guitar: "The album remains my biggest seller, and came from a period where all my best stuff came to me when I was on my Nordic Track machine! I remember I was watching a rerun of the MTV Awards or something, where the bass player threw up his guitar and it hit him on the head and the song came together for me. It was such a beautiful sight, him getting bonked on the head! But there is a love-hate relationship we all have with the guitar."
Tennessee Plates: "This is another concert favorite. It was recorded by Charlie Sexton, for the 'Thelma and Louise' soundtrack."
Take Off Your Uniform: "John Chelew, who produced 'Bring The Family,' had a list of songs he wanted on this album, too, and this was on it. I wanted to include something from 'Slug Line,' and after going back and listening to it I thought this was a good choice. It was one of my early piano songs: When I write on piano the song tends to come from a different place, so it's ballad-y--but sort of a rock ballad."
Don't Know Much: "I had a cover of this in Sweden, and I think it was a hit--I know you've heard that before! If I was living there I could have bought a few smorgasbords with it--or maybe one drink! I think that if we now take a trip from 'Have A Little Faith In Me' to the end of this album, we kind of end up nibbling at our own tails--and then it all starts over again, as it should be!"
While many of the titles contained in The Best Of John Hiatt are obvious, one still wonders how the prolific songwriter managed to whittle down his enormous body of work into just 17 career highlights.
Currently he is immersing himself in old American folk and country music from as far back as the 20's in seeking inspiration for present songwriting activities. "I've been writing quite a bit," he notes, specifically, "folk songs and songs I may want to record just by myself, maybe tapping my foot on something. But I've been really inspired lately, and I've also been listening to old jazz from the 50's and 60's and even getting off on opera lately!"
But besides doing his own headlining dates, Hiatt is also performing this summer as part of the first touring Newport Folk Festival, along with the likes of Lyle Lovett, Lucinda Williams, Wilco, and Nanci Griffith. And in keeping with the nature of the tour and his current interest in folk music, he's trimmed his Nashville Queens four-piece band from last year to a folk trio format.
"It's like the Kingston Trio, but since the last band was the Nashville Queens, were calling it the Queenston Trio!" he says. "I'm on guitar, Davey Faragher's on bass, and fellow Nashville Queen David Immergluck is on everything else - guitars, mandolin, and pedal steel. We did some dates as a trio in the spring and had a blast: No drums, but we stomp quite a bit and don't need no stinking drummer! It's a dad-gum hootenanny!"
Meanwhile, Hiatt and Faragher, who previously teamed in co-producing "Little Head," are now co-producing country singer John Berry. "Its been fun," Hiatt says. "Being the artist the last fifteen albums, I think I bring a lot of understanding to the making of an album - which can be a fairly intense and gutwrenching experience."
And that analysis also pretty well describes what it's like to listen to The Best Of John Hiatt - because few singer-songwriters around today write with such intensity and sing with such gutwrenching feeling. And knowing that Hiatt is in the midst of a particularly creative songwriting tear, it seems certain that a second "Best Of" volume, will inevitably be in order.
- Jim Bessman
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Real Folk/Blues for the 21stC | Reviewer: Junker Barlow | 8/22/2007
If the folk/blues of 100 ago has a place in the 21st century, then it's living in the heart of John Hiatt.
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