February 2001

Rollin' Into Memphis: Songs of John Hiatt
Telarc CD-83505
Released: 2000

by John Crossett

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

[Reviewed on CD]Ever notice how some writers’ songs seem to get covered by all kinds of different artists? Songwriters like Bob Dylan, John Prine, Steve Goodman and Bruce Cockburn fall into this category -- why, Dylan alone is practically an entire songwriting industry. John Hiatt's name may not leap to mind in this context; yet, when you think about it, he just might be one of today’s premier sources for cover songs.

For example, Jewel's reading of "Have A Little Faith In Me" helped launch her career. Eric Clapton and B.B. King rode "Riding With The King" to their best record (individually or together) in years. (Said album being my choice for album of the year for 2000, due in no small part to the strength of Hiatt’s tune.) Bonnie Raitt’s multi- platinum album Nick Of Time scored big with "Thing Called Love." And Maria Muldaur covered "Feels Like Rain" on one of her recent Telarc releases.

Telarc Records invited a number of fine blues and folk musicians up to Portland, Maine to record an album’s worth of Hiatt’s music -- artists as diverse as Cliff Eberhardt, Patty Larkin, Odetta, C.J. Chenier, James Cotton and Kris Wiley, among others. Each chose a favorite Hiatt song and recorded his or her own interpretation. And, while Hiatt’s original versions are still the best way to know them, the new interpretations work very well.

One reason Hiatt’s songs have always touched a chord within many listeners is that they deal with real life. Hiatt doesn’t sugar coat his songs with fancy words. He writes and sings from personal experience, and it shows. He speaks to and about us -- we're included in his music. That may be why so many singers have been drawn to Hiatt’s tunes. That, and the fact that Hiatt’s songs offer a multitude of options in the interpretation department.

For example, listen to the jaunty Cajun bounce in C.J. Chenier’s version of "Falling Up." Or the bluesy, heart-touching feel Kenny Neal gives "Love Like Blood." Or the gospel-tinged sound of Odetta's "Listen To Old Voices." Wistfulness and longing in Chris Smithers' voice permeate "Real Fine Love." And the way Kris Wiley uses her guitar as another voice on "Wrote It Down" makes the song her own. And don’t miss James Cotton’s harmonica on the same tune -- it’s beautifully poignant.

While some of the songs on Rollin’ Into Memphis may be familiar to you, most will probably be new. But that’s a situation that Rollin’ Into Memphis was made to rectify. Songs such as "Old Habits Are Hard To Break" (Irma Thomas), "The River Knows Your Name" (Colin Linden) and "Thirty Years Of Tears" (the back-up band's feature) will probably become as familiar to you as the more well-known tunes such as "Have A Little Faith In Me" (Patty Larkin), "Back Of My Mind" (Cliff Eberhardt) and "Feels Like Rain" (Tab Benoit and Raful Neal).

I’ve heard too many tribute albums where the record labels bring in a bunch of big names who seem to be just going through the motions while singing the praises of the honored star. Rollin’ Into Memphis isn’t one of those, not by a long shot. First, because Telarc Records recorded it, you expect that the sound quality on this disc is going to be first rate, and it is. (I withheld a full star in my rating of recording quality only because this is not a DSD recording. Its excellent sound would have been that much better had it been.) Secondly, Telarc didn’t hire pop stars to record these tunes (and thereby guarantee sales); they went back to people who have lived much of what Hiatt has written about, so these singers' interpretations are also coming from the heart.

Hiatt deserves both the tribute and the acknowledgement of his song-writing prowess. All of these singers deserve to be included, and they sing these songs because they like them, too. If you’re a John Hiatt fan, you must own this disc. And if you’re not, this may well be the perfect introduction to Hiatt’s work. It should pique your interest enough for you to go to the source and pick up some of Hiatt’s own albums. And that's about as high a recommendation as I can imagine.