Monday, April 28, 2008

"Memphis in the Meantime" / John Hiatt

Some good news from Nashville: in September, John Hiatt will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Americana Music Association, following in the footsteps of Willie Nelson, John Prine, and Guy Clark -- a well-deserved honor, because in my opinion nobody defines Americana like John Hiatt does. That, together with the news that John's got a new CD coming out May 27th -- wryly titled Same Old Man -- has got me deep in a Hiatt groove today. That's never a bad thing.

Sampling from country, R&B, alt rock, bluegrass, folk, and whatever else you've got that sounds good, Hiatt's wonderful body of work can't be boxed into any one genre -- the grab-bag term "Americana" kinda had to be invented to describe what Hiatt does. It probably hasn't helped his career that he's so hard to slot in any one niche (his buddy Lyle Lovett suffers from the same thing.) But that's what "Memphis in the Meantime," one of many great tracks from his breakthrough 1987 album Bring the Family, is all about. Sure, it's a driving song, a perfect bookend to "Drive South." But propelled by a speedy, funky beat (dig that rhythm section, with Jim Keltner on drums and Nick Lowe on bass), it's also about music, and how you've got to mix things up to keep from going stale.

This is a great springtime song, busting out with energy and longing for a fresh start: "We've been hanging around this town / Just a little too long a while . . .But if I don't get outta here pretty soon / My head's going to explode." He hangs on that "explode" for a dizzy extra beat; you can almost hear the blood pulsing in his temples. He's got Ry Cooder chipping in on guitar too; those riffs snap, crackle, and pop with nervous energy.

Hiatt lives in Nashville now (he grew up in my neighborhood in Indianapolis) but that doesn't mean he has to worship all the time at the church of Ryman and the Opry. "Sure I like country music / I like mandolins," he admits in the lead-in to the chorus, "But right now I need a Telecaster / Through a Vibro-lux turned up to ten." (I love how Hiatt defines it all through those specific details.) And so he invites his girlfriend to hop in the car and breeze down the highway to Memphis. Hiatt's got a long-standing romance with the open highway, another prime Americana quality (and hey, it's the Indy connection too). They're not going forever -- it's just for the "meantime" -- but dang, sometimes you need a change.

In his early days Hiatt was packaged as the American Elvis Costello, which ended up being more of a curse than anything else -- both were forced to act like angry young men a little too long -- but as far as witty lyrics go, Hiatt deserved the comparison. Here he deals out image after image to contrast the Nashville and Memphis scenes: "I wanna trade in these ol' country boots / For some fine Italian shoes . . . Forget the mousse and the hairspray, sugar / We don't need none of that / A little dab'll do ya, girl / Underneath a pork pie hat," and in the final chorus, "One more heartfelt steel guitar chord / Girl, its gonna do me in / I need to hear some trumpet and saxophone / You know sound as sweet as sin." Oh, yesssss.

Sure, he knows this won't be his long-term route to success -- "I don't think Ronnie Milsap's gonna / Ever record this song" (these days in concert I recall he sings "Kenny Chesney" instead). Eventually he'll dutifully toe the Nashville line again -- "And after we get good and greasy / Baby we can come back home / Put the cowhorns back on the Cadillac / And change the message on the code-a-phone." But it's spring, and he's itchy, and change is always invigorating: "If we could just get off-a that beat little girl / Maybe we could find the groove / At least we could find us a decent meal / Down at the Rendezvous." Hey, a good meal is reason enough to hit the road, especially now that the dogwoods are in blossom. Put this track on in your car next time you go road tripping -- you may end up in Memphis yourself before you realize it.

Memphis in the Meantime sample

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