Weekend Songs: John Hiatt, ‘Memphis in the Meantime’
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Classic rock is about heavy hooks, power chords and tight harmonies. But it’s also about letting loose and enjoying the good times. And there’s no better time for that than Friday evening, when we pick up our paycheck, punch out of work and enjoy a couple days of much-needed rest and relaxation.
Sometimes there’s no better way of spending one’s hard-earned downtime than jumping in the car and hitting the road — simply getting out and going, and blowing off some steam in unfamiliar environs. It’s a sentiment that’s beautifully summed up by John Hiatt in ‘Memphis in the Meantime,’ the opening track from his eighth LP, 1987’s ‘Bring the Family.’
By the time he started writing for the album, Hiatt understood that feeling all too well. Although he’d been knocking on stardom’s door since recording his debut album in 1974, all he had to show for it by the mid ’80s was a pair of busted record deals. Recently sober and freshly acquainted with his own personal rock bottom, he struggled with whether it was even worth it to continue making music at all — but armed with a small advance from Demon Records in the U.K., he decided to give it one last shot.
The result was an album that wiped away all the trend-hopping and production gimmicks that plagued some of Hiatt’s earlier releases and let the songs speak for themselves. Fortunately, the material in question was more than up to the task; while he’d occasionally been guilty of wandering into overly clever territory in the past, for ‘Bring the Family’ Hiatt penned a set of raw, simple and sometimes painfully honest songs that drew on his dark reservoir of experience to deliver a series of resonant statements on the human condition.
Which is not to say he’d lost his sense of humor. Aided and abetted by a remarkable band that included Ry Cooder on lead guitar, Nick Lowe on bass and Jim Keltner at the drums, Hiatt made ‘Bring the Family’ a loose, funky affair, with stripped-down production that let the songs breathe and left plenty of room for the sort of tunefully serendipitous mistakes that can only happen when a group of musicians get together and play live in a room.
Nothing fancy about it, but still a fresh approach in the over-produced ’80s — and that change in perspective is reflected in ‘Memphis in the Meantime,’ which finds its protagonist yearning to hightail it out of Nashville and find his groove by taking an impromptu trip to a town where he and his sweetheart can get “good and greasy.” “Maybe there’s nothin’ happenin’ there,” he admits, but adds, “Maybe there’s somethin’ in the air / Before our upper lips get stiff / Maybe we need us a big ol’ whiff.”
Once critics got a whiff of ‘Bring the Family,’ it became one of the year’s best-reviewed records — and although that didn’t translate into blockbuster sales, it did kick off a period in which Hiatt’s releases scaled higher reaches on the charts while a growing list of rock luminaries (including Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Bonnie Raitt) covered his songs on albums of their own. In the years since, his career has settled into a good and greasy groove of its own — one that started with the first few chugging bars of ‘Memphis in the Meantime.’
So whether or not you’re in driving distance of Tennessee this Friday, consider taking a cue from Hiatt and head out of town. And if you can’t do that, you can at least console yourself by scrolling up to the top, hitting ‘play’ on that video, cranking up your volume good and loud and letting the weekend start now.