Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
By the mid- to late-’80s, John Hiatt was seen pretty much as a lost cause. True, a pretty decent songwriter, having penned a hit or two for others, Three Dog Night and Roseanne Cash both being welcome recipients of his muse. But himself? Deemed just another drunk by the majors, with Arista having been the last to throw in his beer-stained towel; sobriety seemed to have beckoned too late for that final chance.
Luckily for him, the then-tiny UK label Demon, run by the same mavericks behind Stiff and Radar, had a little faith. Indeed, Hiatt himself later said they were willing to put out the farts in his bathtub, so enamored were they of his talent. And they had some bucks to back that up, if not many. Enough for about four days in the studio, if they could keep other costs to a minimum.
Hiatt rustled up his old buddy Nick Lowe, who was married to
Roseanne Cash Carlene Carter at the time. Lowe agreed to waive any fee and to share a motel room with Hiatt. Ry Cooder, whose 1980 album Borderline had included two Hiatt numbers (plus their author on guitar and backing vocals), was also up for it, as was journeyman session drummer supreme Jim Keltner. Remarkably, they were all free those four days, even if the material wasn’t entirely ready. Allegedly Cooder had to be persuaded to hang on a few hours at the end, whilst Hiatt finished writing a necessary tenth track. Another tale is how the impressively lairy rhythm of “Memphis in the Meantime” comes from Lowe plugging in and playing, less than an hour after arrival, for a song he had neither heard nor rehearsed.
But the gamble paid off, and 1987’s Bring the Family became Hiatt’s breakthrough, even if the same line-up were not available to promote it on the road. That came a full five years later, with, now, the band collectively entitled Little Village, coming together for an eponymous album, a tour, and no little rancor. Lowe later stated the problem was of too much time and too much money in the studio. But that’s another story.
The songs on Bring the Family follow a familiar template, a sophisticated yet bluesy take on relatively short, simple, and often funny songs. A honky-tonk barroom band from Heaven, all slow wailing slide and an only-just-gelled rhythm section, all fronted by Hiatt’s narrow and beseeching moan, a testament to the glory possible within a limited range.
Let’s see how others worked this source material.
Chris Smither – Memphis in the Meantime (John Hiatt cover)
This ultimate paean around ditching the polished conventions of Nashville for the rough and rawness of Memphis contains some of Hiatt’s best lyrics, and they are just about discernible in this breakneck of fingerpicking by acoustic troubadour Chris Smither — which, unusually for him, carries more than just his voice, his guitar and his omnipresent tapping foot. The slightly incongruous organ and sax are presumably there to reflect those lyrics, thereby working, if just. Smither does his sort of thing far better unaccompanied, and there are versions of this song by him out there on the net, but his sheer fearlessness of performance still come across clearer here, better than in some of those sometimes grainy performance films. (Incidentally, for those curious, Ronnie Milsap never did record this song, but he did another couple of Hiatt’s, and he named one of his records after one of them, True Believer.)
The Bros. Landreth – Alone in the Dark (John Hiatt cover)
You could be mistaken into assuming the some link or relation to Sonny Landreth, the ace slide player co-opted by Hiatt when Bring the Family needed road play, and who stayed in his band for Slow Turning, the follow-up. But these are Canadians who have built up a sound reputation in their home country, also attracting notice when John Oates (of Hall and…) acted as their support when they played Nashville. They slow the song right down, extracting more pathos than does the original, extending it into an agreeable Allmanesque jam band category. It comes from their six-track 2017 covers EP, Uncover Bros.
Bonnie Raitt – Thing Called Love (John Hiatt cover)
Sometimes the elephant is in the room because the room only has room for the elephant. And so it is with this monster. Yes, everybody but everybody (or at least everybody who would read a site like this) knows Bonnie Raitt’s smash “Thing Called Love” was a John Hiatt song, and have heard it to death. But remember, why is that? It’s because it is so damn good. Take yourself back to when Bonnie was just a best-kept secret, perhaps when she was, like Hiatt, an unreliable lush. Then, just like Hiatt, newly sober: kaboom! Remember how much you loved it then? The pace, the voice, the guitar. I looked for other options but nothing came close.
Darren Watson – Lipstick Sunset (John Hiatt cover)
Darren Watson comes from New Zealand, and he has established for himself no small local recognition with a series of albums. Mainly blues oriented, he has often provided support, in his erstwhile band Chicago Smoke Shop, for southern hemisphere tours by the likes of Robert Cray, George Thorogood, and The Fabulous Thunderbirds. Here he manages to wring every plaintive emotion out of “Lipstick Sunset,” my neck hairs standing up as pins clamor to the floor all around. A masterclass in restraint.
Jubilant Sykes feat. Jennifer Warnes – Have a Little Faith in Me (John Hiatt cover)
Spoilt for choice here, the versions myriad, usually resulting in exhibitionist overemoting and false modesties, naming no names. But keep in mind that the original “Have a Little Faith in Me,” just Hiatt and his rudimentary piano, is the demo, with Messrs. Lowe, Cooder, and Keltner feeling they could add nothing to it. Not a song for radical revisioning, but Jubilant Sykes manages it to gift it a subtle jazz hue, courtesy the double bass and vibes, his mocha baritone swirling around the middle of the mix – and having Jennifer Warnes as your accompanying singer can do no harm.
In case you wonder who Sykes is, he is a classical singer from the world of opera, with a brief crossover career. This comes from his most secular release, 2001’s Wait For Me, on the back of two earlier of more overtly gospel fare. I think he could give Gregory Porter a run for his money, given the opportunity and the material.
Mick Sterling – Thank You Girl (John Hiatt cover)
I was always taught to start with something nice, so I really like the keyboards on this. No, too harsh, this isn’t actually that bad a copy of Hiatt’s “Thank You Girl,” if a tad too much frog left gargling in the throat, and the band, the Studs, if my research is correct, look as decent a bunch of teachers as you could find in any midwest high school. It is the grandiosity of it all that grates, all the “Mick Sterling presents” faff. This all actually emanates from Crooners Supper Club, Minnesota’s “premier music venue and entertainment destination,” and I’ll bet it is a great night out, if you like that sort of thing. Mick Sterling also does Ray Charles, Joe Cocker, and Van Morrison, amongst others.
Hank Beukema feat. Joe Bonamassa – Tip of My Tongue (John Hiatt cover)
Whoa, this is different….. Seldom here do we feature spoken word covers, possibly as, Peter Sellers aside, there are so precious few. But this cover of “Tip of My Tongue” just leapt out of me, a bottom of the ashtray rumble, pitched over some mournful blues guitar wailing. Quite why is the obvious question. But, when it sounds like this, who cares? It seems Hank Beukema is a voiceover artist, and you would, wouldn’t you, with that voice, who advertises his trade on Facebook and similar platforms. Go, Hank!
Will Sophie & Delta Rhythm – Your Dad Did (John Hiatt cover)
Proving that Hans Theessink is not the only Dutch bluesman on the boil, Will Sophie has been a cog in the blues scene of the Netherlands for over 40 years, packing a mean slide. I can’t find much about the band Delta Rhythm here, over and above the detail in the clip, but Sophie’s website tells more about him. His cover of “Your Dad Did” isn’t necessarily anything groundbreaking, but it is solid and serviceable, certainly enough to entertain over a few beers in Amsterdam.
James Reyne – Stood Up (John Hiatt cover)
Here’s an energetic blue-collar cover of “Stood Up,” all cap sleeves and chest hair, very much in the style of Graham Parker or an acoustic Bruce, amping up the vocal reverb to max. James Reyne is an Aussie, onetime member of (seemingly huge in Australia band) Australian Crawl, having a solo career subsequent thereto. This takes out the any lament from Hiatt’s rendition, replacing it with a what-me belligerence that attracts, as much for the sheer expectancy it invokes. Sheilas, eh?
Anne Richmond Boston – Learning How to Love You (John Hiatt cover)
Finally, here’s a Canadian curiosity that emanates from one of the ex-members of the Swimming Pool Qs, an Atlanta band who hit some modicum of fame in the later ’80s into ’90s, described variously as jangle-pop or folk-pop-new-wave. Recorded in 1990, this cover of “Learning How to Love You” contains more of the dreaded ’80s production tropes than in the whole of the positively antediluvian sound on the original, a mere three years before it. I think I prefer the positively antediluvian, myself, but it remains an interesting time capsule. And gets better with each listen.