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Various Artists

It'll Come to You: the Songs of John Hiatt

(Vanguard; US: 13 May 2003; UK: Available as import)

John Hiatt‘s reputation as a performer has been firmly in place since the mid-‘80s, when he settled into the gruff, rootsy style that we associate with him today. However, like many (or most) good songwriters, he’s arguably seen more success from other people covering his songs. That’s not to imply Hiatt teeters on the edge of obscurity. His fan following is strong, but when you consider that Bonnie Raitt literally resurrected her career by taking on “Thing Called Love” while Eric Clapton and B.B. King built a record around “Riding with the King”, you can see that some heavy hitters keep Hiatt’s name in their address books.

With that pedigree, it’s not surprising (although a touch disappointing) that It’ll Come to You consists mainly of previously released Hiatt covers. From Linda Ronstadt to Nick Lowe, some pretty definitive versions of Hiatt tunes already exist, and a good portion of them are probably largely unknown. Hiatt’s songs have been covered by nearly a hundred artists ranging from Paula Abdul(!) to Steve Earle to Iggy Pop, so there’s already plenty out there to choose from.

Of the disc’s 13 tracks, only three are new, but they’re absolute standouts. Buddy and Julie Miller rock and roll through “Paper Thin” on a guitar riff that sounds like it fell off the back of AC/DC’s truck. Patty Griffin, no songwriting slouch herself, makes “Take It Down” sound like one of her own bittersweet elegies, and Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise pilots the title track right into the heart of a classic blues guitar ‘n harmonica squall.

For this writer’s money, covers of Hiatt’s songs have often outstripped his own renditions. Thankfully, he’s reunited with the Goners for this year’s Beneath This Gruff Exterior; without that solid backing group in the past, Hiatt’s songs have sometimes felt a little . . . unexciting. Regardless of what he’s done with his own material, though, he obviously writes strong songs—songs that others can wrestle with and make their own. It’ll Come to You ably demonstrates that quality above all else, and definitely justifies Hiatt’s substantial reputation as a songwriter.

Linda Ronstadt delivers an impassioned “When We Ran”, with a stately pace that lets her stretch out vocally to great effect (somehow it’s easy to forget what a great voice she has). As many times as it’s been played over the years, Raitt’s “Thing Called Love” still holds up awfully well—the slide guitar is still as tasty as ever—while Roseanne Cash’s “The Way We Make a Broken Heart” dances along on a nimble rhythm. Willie Nelson’s “The Most Unoriginal Sin” (a song which Hiatt only just now recorded for himself, using it to close out Beneath This Gruff Exterior) is a perfect fit for his dusty outlaw lope, and Emmylou Harris’ “Icy Blue Heart” is a perfect fit for her trademark vocal style. All in all, everyone plays it pretty straight, not straying far from Hiatt’s straightforward arrangements. In nearly every case, though, the songs adapt well to each artist’s individual quirks.

It would have been nice to see more new treatments of Hiatt’s material—surely his influence spreads wider than his ‘80s and ‘90s roots music contemporaries—but It’ll Come to You really doesn’t suffer much from the relative familiarity of its songs. All in all, it’s a fairly strong collection that sometimes outdoes Hiatt at his own thing, but which always casts a spotlight on him as a gifted songwriter.

Andrew Gilstrap is a freelance writer living in South Carolina, where he's able to endure the few weeks each year that it's actually freezing (swearing a vow that if he ever moves, it'll be even farther south). Aging into a fine curmudgeon whose idea of heaven is 40 tree-covered acres away from the world, he increasingly wishes he were part of a pair of twins, just so he could try being the kinda evil one on for size. Musically, he's always scouring records for that one moment that makes him feel like he's never heard music before, but he long ago realized he needs to keep his copies of John Prine, Crowded House, the Replacements, Kate Bush, and Tom Waits within easy reach.

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