It’s Wednesday and I hope you’re having a great day. Wednesday also means it’s time again for taking a closer look at a particular song I’ve only mentioned in passing or not covered at all. My pick for today is Train to Birmingham by John Hiatt, a great singer-songwriter I had known by name for many years but only started to explore about 18 months ago.
While Hiatt has written songs for 50-plus years and recorded close to 30 albums, his tunes oftentimes became hits for other artists. Perhaps the most prominent examples are 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.
Train to Birmingham, penned by Hiatt, is what I would call a deep cut from a studio album titled Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns, which Hiatt released in August 2011. Unlike many of his other records, this one fared better in the charts, reaching no. 7 in the U.S. on Billboard’s Independent Albums chart and climbing to no. 59 on the Billboard 200. Elsewhere, it peaked at no. 17 in Sweden, no. 20 in The Netherlands and no. 61 in Germany, among others. The tune was never released as a single.
Train to Birmingham was covered by American country music artist Kevin Welch on his sophomore album Western Beat, released in April 1992 as Kevin Welch @nd The Overtones. Good rendition!
Following are some additional tidbits on Train to Birmingham from Songfacts:
American folk-rock singer-songwriter John Hiatt wrote this song in his late teens, but it didn’t make it onto a disc until his 2011 album Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns. He explained why he finally decided to record the track in an interview with American Songwriter: “You know what, my wife really loves the song. And she’s been asking me to record it for years, and it kind of seemed right on this record. We were doing all of these songs about cities and different locations and going from the city and the country and back and forth. It’s our 25th wedding anniversary this year back in June, so I just thought I’d record this song for her.”
Hiatt told the story of how he came to pen a train song to American Songwriter: “I wrote it when I was about 19. I’d been in Nashville a year — I came to Nashville when I was about 18, and I was writing for Tree Publishing Company, and I wasn’t a country songwriter by any stretch, but I was surrounded by those guys. Like Bobby Braddock, who wrote a lot of George Jones and Tammy Wynette hits. And Curly Putnam,who wrote ‘Green Green Grass of Home’ and ‘Red Lane,’ all these hit country songwriters of the day. I was writing my little folk songs, or whatever they hell they were, and I was trying to pick up the craft, at any rate, and I said, ‘Well how do you write a country song?’ and one of them said one day, ‘Well, you gotta have a train song.’ And I though well s–t, I think I can write a song about a train.
And back in those days on Music Row, all the publishing companies were just in little houses, and the songwriters lived right next door. I lived in a little house with four or five other writers, and none of us were really country writers. One guy was from upstate New York trying to get some rock and roll thing going. Those were some real interesting times in Nashville, as it always is. But this one guy was from Birmingham and he kept going home every damn weekend like he couldn’t stand to be away. And I just though well s–t, there’s my ‘Train To Birmingham.'”
Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube