What I’ve Been Listening to: John Hiatt/Perfectly Good Guitar

John Hiatt is a great artist I’ve been aware of for many years. I’m glad his excellent recent collaboration album with Jerry Douglas, Leftover Feelings, brought the acclaimed singer-songwriter back on my radar screen. It finally made me start exploring some of Hiatt’s other albums in their entirety, including Perfectly Good Guitar, his 11th studio release that appeared in September 1993. I’m sure Hiatt aficionados are well aware of it; if you’re not and dig heartland and roots-oriented rock, you’re in for a treat.

Hiatt who was born in Indianapolis had a difficult childhood. After the death of his older brother and his father, he used watching IndyCar races and listening to music by the likes of Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and blues artists as escape mechanisms. At the age of 11, Hiatt learned to play guitar and started his music career as a teenager in Indianapolis, playing local venues with the a variety of bands.

When he was 18, Hiatt moved to Nashville, Tenn. where he landed a job as a songwriter for the Tree-Music Publishing Company. He also continued local performances, both solo and with a band called White Duck. Hiatt got his break in June 1974 when Three Dog Night turned his song Sure As I’m Sitting Here into a top 40 hit. His original version he had released as a single in February that year had gone nowhere.

In July 1973, Hiatt recorded his debut album Hangin Around The Observatory, which came out the following year. While it received favorable reviews, the album was a commercial failure. When the same thing happened with his sophomore release Overcoats, his label Epic Records was quick to drop him. Meanwhile, other artists kept covering Hiatt’s songs. Unfortunately, the story pretty much kept repeating itself until Bring the Family from May 1987, finally giving Hiatt his first album to make the Billboard 200, reaching no. 107.

Bring the Family featured the gems Thing Called Love and Have a Little Faith in Me, which became hits for Bonnie Raitt and Joe Cocker, respectively. Hiatt’s songs have also been covered by an impressive and diverse array of other artists like B.B. King, Bob Dylan, Buddy Guy, Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez, Linda Ronstadt, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Willy DeVille, and the list goes on and on.

To date, Hiatt has released 28 albums, including two live records and two compilations. In 1991, he also formed the short-lived group Little Village together with Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner. Previously, Hiatt had worked with each of the three artists on Bring the Family. After issuing a self-titled album in February 1992 and a short supporting tour the group disbanded.

Let’s get to some music from Perfectly Good Guitar. Here’s the great opener Something Wild. Like all other tracks except one, the tune was solely written by Hiatt. I dig the nice driving drum part by Brian McLeod. With the recent death of Charlie Watts, perhaps it’s not surprising that Satisfaction came to mind right away!

The title track perfectly captures my sentiments when I see footage of Pete Townshend trashing his guitar at the end of a Who gig; or Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire for that matter. Oh, it breaks my heart to see those stars/ Smashing a perfectly good guitar/I don’t know who they think they are/Smashing a perfectly good guitar…Yes, of course, it was all for show and I believe Townshend at least glued some of his smashed guitars back together. And while I certainly don’t support jail sentences for guitar-smashing, destroying instruments still rubs me the wrong way! Instead, make some kid happy and give it to them! Who knows, you might even change their trajectory!

Another nice track is Buffalo River Home. I really like the guitar work on that tune.

Another track that got my attention, primarily because of the drum part, is Blue Telescope. McLeod’s drum work reminds me a bit of Steve Gadd’s action on Paul Simon’s 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover. I have no idea whether Gadd’s unique drum part served as an inspiration here. Regardless, it sure as heck sounds cool to me!

The last track I’d like to call out is Old Habits, which has a great bluesy vibe. It’s the one song on the album Hiatt co-wrote with somebody else: Female singer-songwriter Marshall Chapman. Similar to Hiatt, it appears her songs have been covered by many other artists, such as Joe Cocker, Jimmy Buffett, Emmylou Harris, Irma Thomas and Ronnie Milsap.

Before wrapping up this post, I’d to acknowledge the other fine musicians on this great album. In addition to Hiatt (guitar, vocals, piano, organ) and MacLeod (drums, percussion), they include Michael Ward (guitar), Ravi Oli (electric sitar; Ravi Oli is a pseudonym of David Immerglück), Dennis Locorriere (harmony vocals) and John Pierce (bass guitar).

Perfectly Good Guitar was Hiatt’s last studio album with A&M Records. Once again, another great record failed to meet the commercial expectations of the label, though ironically, it became Hiatt’s most successful record on the U.S. mainstream charts to date, peaking at no. 47 on the Billboard 200. Hiatt subsequently signed with Capitol Records, which released his next two studio albums, including the Grammy-nominated Walk On from October 1995.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Paul Simon/Still Crazy After All These Years

My introduction to Paul Simon happened many moons ago with Simon & Garfunkel and their second compilation Greatest Hits from 1972, which my sister owned on vinyl. I loved that record from the very beginning and still do to this day. Not long after I had heard it for the first time, I started taking guitar lessons and eventually got a songbook for that collection. I practiced hard to learn the tunes and soon found out what a formidable acoustic guitarist Paul Simon is. Eventually, I managed to figure out the finger-picking for The Boxer – haven’t tried playing that tune in 20-plus years. Anyway…

While there’s an obvious connection to Simon & Garfunkel, this post is about Paul Simon’s fourth studio album Still Crazy After All These Years, which appeared in October 1975. I would say I know a good deal of Simon’s tunes he recorded as a solo artist, but other than the fantastic Graceland from August 1986, I cannot really make the same claim for his albums. As oftentimes happens, the idea for this post was triggered when my streaming music provider served up the record as a listening suggestion. It didn’t take me long to realize this is a great album with a smooth jazz, blues and soul-influenced sound – my kind of music!

Let’s kick things off with the excellent opener and title track. Like all songs on the record, it was written by Simon, one of my favorite American singer-songwriters. It nicely sets the mood for the album. BTW, the recording features the Muscle Shoals Rhythm SectionBarry Beckett (Fender Rhodes piano), David Hood (bass) and Roger Hawkins (drums). Also, check out that beautiful saxophone solo by Michael Brecker, which starts at around 2:12 minutes.

My Little Town reunited Simon with Art Garfunkel. The tune, which also appeared on Garfunkel’s second solo album Breakaway that was released about 10 days prior to Still Crazy, became the first single credited to the duo since America, a single off their above Greatest Hits compilation. Simon and Garfunkel may have had a complicated relationship, but they surely recorded some great music together and their voices blended perfectly with each other. While perhaps a little bit lush in the second part (hey, it’s the ’70s!), the song has a nice build.

The big hit from the album of course is 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover. Yes, I realize it’s perhaps an obvious choice everybody knows, but I just dig that tune way too much to skip it. I love that cool drum part played by Steve Gadd, as well as the song’s bluesy feel and clever lyrics. It became the record’s third single and Simon’s only solo song to top the Billboard Hot 100.

Next up: Gone At Last, another gem on the album with a great soul and gospel vibe. Phoebe Snow and The Jessy Dixon Singers provided dynamite guest vocals. The track also became the album’s lead single in August 1975. According to Wikipedia, Phoebe received a credit on the single. The song charted in the top 25 on the Billboard Hot 100.

The last track I’d like to highlight is Have A Good Time, which nicely sums up what I feel when listening to this record. This is another great song with a nice bluesy feel. Musically, it’s the slide guitar, as well the alto saxophone played by Phil Woods, which speak to me in particular. Check it out!

Still Crazy After All These Years was co-produced by Simon and South African born recording engineer and producer Philip Ramone. The record won Grammy Awards for Album Of The Year and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance in 1976. It hit no. 1 on the Billboard 200 and received Gold certification from the Recording Industry Association of America, making it one of Simon’s most successful solo albums.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube