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
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 ‘Benny 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 ‘Perfectly Good Guitar' album, and including the Nashville
Queens, from "Little Head') played bass, and Glen put everything else in
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
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
"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