What I’ve Been Listening to: John Hiatt/Slow Turning

Sometimes one song is enough to draw me in, and I love when all of this happens coincidentally. Case in point: Is Anybody There? by John Hiatt. The tune, off his ninth studio album Slow Turning from August 1988, was included in yet another playlist my streaming music provider had served up to me the other day.

While I’ve started exploring Hiatt’s music, I still can’t claim anything resembling close familiarity with his catalog. But I’ve heard enough to know one thing: I love what this singer-songwriter does. Evidently, so do many other artists who have ranged from Aaron Neville, B.B. King, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Chaka Khan, Delbert McClinton, Emmylou Harris…and the list goes on and on.

John Hiatt - Slow Turning - Amazon.com Music

What’s Hiatt’s secret? Quite simply, the man writes great songs! At the same time, he’s a perfect example that great songs don’t necessarily translate into chart success, at least not for himself.

In fact, if I see this correctly, Hiatt’s best-performing record on the U.S. mainstream charts to date is Perfectly Good Guitar, his 11th studio album from September 1993, which reached no. 47 on the Billboard 200. I previously covered it here. His most successful U.S. single to date is the title track of the Slow Turning album, which climbed to no. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100, his only top 10 song.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the goodies on Slow Turning. All of the 12 tracks except one were solely written by Hiatt. Here’s the opener Drive South. Subsequently, it was covered by country vocal group The Forester Sisters who in 1990 took it to no. 63 in the U.S. on the Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart. It also made the Canada Country Tracks chart, reaching no. 60 there.

Tennessee Plates is the only aforementioned co-write on the album. Hiatt penned it together with Mike Porter. The tune was featured in the 1991 motion picture Thelma & Louise, starring Susan Sarandon and Gina Davis. A rendition of the song by American guitarist and singer-songwriter Charlie Sexton was included in the soundtrack album.

Another great tune I’d like to highlight is Icy Blue Heart. How about these great opening lines? She came onto him like a slow movin’ cold front/An’ his beer was warmer than the look in her eye… Frankly, I could have picked any other track. There’s really no weak song on this album, but these opening lines are just great. Emmylou Harris ended up covering the track on her 1989 studio album Bluebird, featuring Bonnie Raitt on backing vocals and slide guitar – what a dream pairing! In case you’re curious, their beautiful rendition is here.

This post would be incomplete without the above noted Slow Turning, the album’s title track. Again I’d like to call out some memorable lyrics: …Now I’m in my car/Ooh, I got the radio down/Now I’m yellin’ at the kids in the back/’Cause they’re banging like Charlie Watts… Gotta love this!

The last tune I’d like to highlight is the song that prompted me to listen to this gem of an album: Is Anybody There? Once again, Hyatt delivers great lyrics and a beautiful and warm sound. Based on Wikipedia, it looks like the gospel-style backing vocals were provided by Ashley Cleveland and Dennis Locorriere. And check out Hiatt’s falsetto fill-ins!

Taking a closer look at the album’s credits reveals two guests I find particularly intriguing: Blues guitarist Sonny Landreth who provides electric guitar, acoustic slide guitar, twelve-string guitar and steel guitar; and singer-songwriter Bernie Leadon who contributes guitar, mandolin, banjo and mandocello. Leadon, of course, is best known as a co-founder of the Eagles.

Last but not least, Slow Turning was produced by Glyn Johns – yep, that Glyn Johns who recently could be prominently seen in Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back documentary. Johns has also done production and/or engineering work for the likes of Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt, Eric Clapton…you get the picture. I guess it’s safe to say working with The Beatles didn’t exactly harm Jones’ career.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

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John Hiatt with The Jerry Douglas Band/Mississippi Phone Booth

I just love this clip of heartland rocker John Hiatt teaming up with Dobro resonator guitar master Jerry Douglas. Mississippi Phone Booth, written by Hiatt, is from Leftover Feelings, an upcoming collaboration album by the two artists scheduled for May 21.

As reported by Paste, while Hiatt and Douglas have known each other for years, the album marks the first time they have recorded music together. Initially, Leftover Feelings was supposed to come out in April of last year. But like in so many other cases, COVID-19 threw a monkey wrench into everything.

On the upside, Hiatt and Douglas ended up having four days at Nashville’s historic RCA Studio B during the shutdown, which otherwise would have been used by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum for public tours. One can only imagine what it must have felt like to work in the same space where the likes of Elvis Presley, The Everly Brothers and Waylon Jennings once recorded.

John Hiatt and Jerry Douglas

“The whole time you’re there, when you’re not playing, you’re thinking about who has been in that room and played, Douglas told Paste. “All these great music producers and musicians walked in and out through that room, and it was their playhouse.”

“The room’s just got a feel to it,” added Hiatt. “My mind started pedaling back to when I was a little boy hearing ‘Blue Christmas’ every Christmas and ‘Love Me Tender,’ and all of the great songs recorded there just kinda blew my mind.”

As for Mississippi Phone Booth, Hiatt commented, “I maintain that I write fiction, but my stories are based on life experiences, or the experiences of people I know, or things I’ve read about and so on. And this one in particular chronicles my last sort of run with trying to make alcohol and drugs work successfully in my life, I’ll just put it that way!”

“I have a mental picture of exactly where he was standing in that phone booth, calling and just begging somebody, at least for the operator to stay on the line long enough for him to talk to somebody,” added Douglas. “It sounded like a miserable situation. But I try to bring…real life to what was there, to do what I could do to swamp it out a little bit.”

Last but not least, here’s how John Hiatt’s website describes the upcoming album: Leftover Feelings is neither a bluegrass album nor a return to Hiatt’s 1980s days with slide guitar greats Ry Cooder and Sonny Landreth, though Douglas’s opening riff on “Long, Black Electric Cadillac” nods to Landreth’s charged intro to “Tennessee Plates,” Hiatt’s epic tale of heisting Elvis Presley’s Cadillac, a car that was surely purchased with proceeds from some of the 250-plus songs the King recorded at Studio B.

There’s no drummer, yet these grooves are deep and true. And while the up-tempo songs are, as ever, filled with delightful internal rhyme and sly aggression, The Jerry Douglas Band’s empathetic musicianship nudges Hiatt to performances that are startlingly vulnerable. Built when Hiatt was five years old, Studio B was designed for music to be made in real time by musicians listening to each other and reacting in the emotional moment. That’s what happened here: Five players on the studio floor, making decisions on instinct rather than calculation.

Mississippi Phone Booth follows All the Lilacs in Ohio, another Hiatt song from Leftover Feelings, which was released upfront in early March. I certainly look forward to hearing the entire album.

Sources: Paste; John Hiatt website; YouTube