Various Artists

Rollin' into Memphis: Songs of John Hiatt

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The variety of artists who have covered John Hiatt's songs is truly staggering. From Iggy Pop to Emmylou Harris, Hiatt's unpretentious Midwestern tunes filled with clever wordplay, nifty singalong melodies, and heartfelt stories seem to resonate with an astonishingly eclectic set of musicians. But the folk, country, and blues crowd like Buddy Guy, Rosanne Cash, and especially Bonnie Raitt have been the most commercially successful Hiatt interpreters, hence an entire album devoted to these genres is a logical, and even obvious, concept. This is not the first anthology of Hiatt covers; Rhino's 1993 Love Gets Strange got there first, but that was only a compilation of previously recorded tracks. Rollin' Into Memphis, with its title seemingly derived from "Memphis in the Meantime," oddly a song that does NOT appear here, is a well-meaning and generally successful attempt to mine the blues and folk roots of his music and breathe new life into these tunes with imaginative rearrangements from an intriguing assortment of players. The album benefits greatly from utilizing the same backing band on all tracks. Although the singers run the gamut from folk (Odetta, Patty Larkin, Chris Smither) to blues (Raful Neal, Colin Linden) and even to zydeco and Cajun (C.J. Chenier, Terrance Simien), the core group featuring guitarist G.E. Smith and keyboardist Anthony Geraci keeps the music in the same sweaty, swamp rock groove. Highlights are many with Irma Thomas blazing her way through a soulful "Old Habits Are Hard to Break," Kenny Neal's slow-boiling "Love Like Blood," one of Hiatt's best and least-known compositions, and Kris Wiley with James Cotton taking "Wrote It Down" to New Orleans with a subtly scorching harp-driven version that doesn't let up powered by Smith's revved-up guitar, stuttering and lurching though the song. Even the less successful tracks like Tab Benoit's "Feels Like Rain" where the second line beat doesn't mesh with the song's lyrics, Patty Larkin's unspectacular "Have a Little Faith in Me" -- one of the only Hiatt pieces that has worn out its welcome -- and Cliff Eberhardt's straight-ahead reading of "Back of My Mind" aren't failures. They're just not as compelling or interesting as the rest of the covers here. Hopefully this will be the beginning of a series of like-minded interpretations of John Hiatt songs. The concept is sensible, and Hiatt's catalog, filled with dozens of unheralded tunes, is ripe for the picking.

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