It’s been a long winter, but it’s easy to believe in spring, with the last few heaps of heavy snow finally turning to slush on the lawn and the crocus buds breaking through in the garden. Spiritually, too, the clouds are breaking: after a two-week hospital stay, the elderchild seems to have recalibrated, gaining weight on a diet of protein shakes and constant exercise; my students can see the fourth quarter end of the tunnel, and renew their vigor in discourse and deconstruction. It’s a good life, I know, but it’s been hard to see it for the fog; to know that it is lifting brings hope, slow and sure, with equal parts reluctance and relief.
Our mixed-metaphors of weather, water, and want belie the continued weight of life as it is: we’re not yet at rest, and we won’t be for at least another week, when we take our annual pilgrimage down south to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where the herons soar over the lagoon, and life slows down for a while every year. Until then, we’ll keep clearing the head, and the soul, readying ourselves to emerge into warmth.
Part of this, as always, is in the gathering of new songs and videos, albums and news from familiar sources – a strong and rising crop which have peppered our winter and gathered in our heart, where they threaten to burst upon us like the dam in spring snowmelt. And so we turn to the detritus of shoreline, the songs that spring upon us like buds in the snow, and cheer our hearts even as they moan and mourn for that which is lost, and those who are lonesome. A spin of the dice, and the world comes up with equal parts hope and heartache, roots and branches: the songs of John Hiatt, covered in folk.
Though still technically representative of the younger generation’s rich, reclaimed ground at the intersection of folk, Americana and bluegrass, Sara Watson, Aoife O’Donovan, and Sarah Jarosz are all beloved here at Cover Lay Down: each has been featured here before, both in collaboration and solo, for a combined respective breadth of work that has included plenty of sweet coverage along the way. Now the three artists have joined forces for a tour and a track, and the combination of the three is heavenly, with vocals sharp and soft pulling against each other, banjo and fiddle and guitar precise and sparingly, achingly melded. Their choice of song is inspired, too – a far cry from the hoarse cry of John Hiatt’s original, but with just as much longing and hope intermingled.
This continent-crossing trio are not the first women to take on the John Hiatt songbook so sweetly. Too folk for rock, too rock for folk, Hiatt is the epitome of the songwriter’s songwriter; the words “critical success but commercial failure” pepper his resume. He has been nominated for several Grammy awards, but drifted from label to label throughout his career; though he has recorded over two dozen albums studio albums in four decades, he’s never really charted that high. As such, he owes much of his early career to borrowing, most notably the 1974 release of Three Dog Night’s Sure As I’m Sittin’ Here, which rose to number 16 on the Billboard charts, and a spate of covers from his 1987 breakthrough album Bring The Family, recorded with Nick Lowe and Ry Cooder, which brought such hits as Thing Called Love, Memphis In The Meantime, and Have A Little Faith In Me to other voices and other rooms.
But his songs speak plainly of universal themes; his rock and roll is edged and catchy; his chords and melodies are eminently playable. And so, like most folk fans, I suspect, my own experience with Hiatt comes from stirring echoes on late night Americana radio, plus long play of his turn-of-the-century, predominantly acoustic record Crossing Muddy Waters, coupled with popular covers in celebration of his work from Raitt, Linda Rondstadt, Roseanne Cash, Willie Nelson, and a broad swath of other folk, blues and Americana artists – and with two generally solid late-century tribute albums in the canon (2000 Telarc compilation Rollin’ Into Memphis and Vanguard’s 2003 release It’ll Come To You) there’s plenty to choose from, here.
Either way, Hiatt is worth both the coverage and the comparison to each original. His best songs delve deep into divorce, addiction, and other dire extremities; that gritty voice and guitar are inimitable, and play out his motifs and themes with pain and prescience. Indeed, with a few notable exceptions – Raitt’s take on Thing Called Love comes to mind, as does Suzxy Bogguss’ Drive South and Cliff Eberhardt’s Back Of My Mind – coverage of Hiatt’s work tends to fall into decidedly gendered camps, with his heartbreaking balladry trending towards the female side, and his gruffer, angrier or more celebratory tracks more often than not delivered in the hands of raspy bluesmen.
A split set, then, from sweet to sour, sugar to spice – seven and seven, with women on the A side, and men on the flipside – as we celebrate John Hiatt’s work, and his legacy, through coverage. Enjoy.
John Hiatt, Covered In Folk
- Aoife O’Donovan, Sarah Jarosz, and Sara Watkins: Crossing Muddy Waters 
- Patty Griffin: Take It Down 
- Carrie Rodriguez: Big Love 
- Helen Watson: Icy Blue Heart 
- Albert and Gage: Cry Love 
- The Wailin’ Jennys: Take It Down 
- Patty Larkin: Have A Little Faith In Me 
- Chris Smither: Real Fine Love 
- Pat Guadagno: Through Your Hands 
- Sam Bush: Memphis In The Meantime 
- Robbie Schaefer: Feels Like Rain 
- Willie Nelson: The Most Unoriginal Sin 
- David Lindley & Wally Ingram: Do You Want My Job? 
- Cliff Eberhardt: Back Of My Mind 
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