Yesterday’s Jukebox: John Hiatt – ‘Bring the Family’ / ‘Slow Turning’

Legendary singer/songwriter John Hiatt's groundbreaking pair of late '80s albums have been reissued on vinyl. Fire up your turntable and get ready for this thing called love.

Bring the Family
John Hiatt
26 Jan 2018
Slow Turning
John Hiatt
26 Jan 2018

By the beginning of 1987, singer/songwriter John Hiatt had seven critically acclaimed albums under his belt, but he was having a rough time. Marketed as everything from a country-tinged troubadour to a Midwestern version of Elvis Costello – aided in part by the new wave slant of albums like Warming Up to the Ice Age and Two Bit Monsters – Hiatt’s album sales were sluggish, and he was consequently dropped by his label and looking to make a fresh start. Newly sober, he teamed up with concert promoter/producer John Chelew and recorded ten new songs in four days at Hollywood’s Ocean Way Studios. The result was Bring the Family, an album that won universal praise for its enthusiastic performances as well as its now-classic and oft-covered compositions. Hiatt was not only back – he was reborn, his previous studio works a distant memory.

A&M/UMe has now reissued Bring the Family and its 1988 follow-up, Slow Turning, as vinyl-only releases, which is a smart move. Younger vinyl enthusiasts unfamiliar with these classic albums can discover them in the re-popularized format, and the older, grizzled Hiatt fans can scoop up these long-out-of-print records, where they’re sure to fit in nicely with an eclectic music fan’s collection.

What makes Bring the Family such a rich listening experience is twofold: great songs, great performances. Certainly Hiatt – who wrote all the songs – is responsible for the former, but the latter wouldn’t have been possible without three additional musicians. While Hiatt sings, plays acoustic guitar and the occasional piano, he’s joined by guitar legend Ry Cooder, veteran session drummer Jim Keltner, and Nick Lowe – an old friend of Hiatt’s who co-produced his 1983 album Riding With the King – on bass (Lowe, incidentally, refused any financial compensation for his work on this album, which was made on a shoestring budget). The result is a tight, skilled ensemble that gives the songs plenty of rootsy gravitas.

Opening with the catchy, bluesy crawl of “Memphis in the Meantime”, Hiatt pleads with his significant other to ditch their country-western vibe for a more soulful atmosphere: “Sure, I like country music / And I like mandolins,” he admits. “But right now I need a Telecaster through a Vibrolux turned up to ten.” Cooder’s finessed guitar leads don’t immediately leap out on the opening track – he paces himself, playing with a low-key simmer that works perfectly, with Keltner and Lowe deftly swinging behind him. Lyrically, the song is full of great puns and references, and in the end, Hiatt manages to compromise with his relocation plans: “After we get good and greasy / Baby, we can come on home / Put the cow horns back on the Cadillac / And change the message on the code-a-phone.”

Virtually every song on Bring the Family is knocked out of the park, and while they all seem to somehow draw from the same country/roots swamp, they also manage to convey different musical climates individually. Every track has a unique stamp. There’s the slinky, vamp-like blues of “Alone in the Dark”. The tender country ballad “Lipstick Sunset” (one of several tracks that showcase Cooder’s ample six-string skills). The up-tempo swing of “Thing Called Love” – later a gargantuan hit for Bonnie Raitt, another blues-rocker who enjoyed a well-deserved career boost in the late ’80s. But this isn’t roots rock retrofitted for the era of Miami Vice: Chelew wisely keeps things simple and unadorned. No synthesizers, no “big” drum sounds – just good old-fashioned rock and roll.

The stripped-down nature of the album is taken a step further with the addition of the ballad “Have a Little Faith in Me”. The song, which has since been covered by everyone from Joe Cocker to Mandy Moore to your drunk girlfriend on karaoke night, is a simple declaration of love (“When the tears you cry / Are all you can believe / Give these loving arms a try / And have a little faith in me”) and is wisely accompanied simply by Hiatt’s piano playing.

Other highlights include the blazing, gleeful blues of “Thank You Girl”, which features searing guitar work from Cooder, and the rustic country folk of “Learning How to Love You”, which includes tender harmonies from both Cooder and Lowe. It’s also important to note the wry humor that’s sprinkled all over Bring the Family, and on the bouncy “Your Dad Did”, Hiatt manages to wring that humor out of a subject that would inform much of his work from this point on: a welcome sense of domestic bliss. The song is an affirmation of the joys and headaches of fatherhood, marked by a recitation of a girl saying grace at the dinner table: “She says ‘help the starving children to get well / But let my brother’s hamster burn in hell.'” You can almost picture Hiatt simultaneously grinning and rolling his eyes while singing that line.

Hiatt toured behind Bring the Family but due to scheduling conflicts was unable to bring Cooder, Keltner or Lowe on the road. Instead, he hired a group of musicians known as the Goners, which included David “Now” Ranson on bass, Kenneth Blevins on drums, and legendary slide guitarist Sonny Landreth on guitar (admirably filling the highly coveted Ry Cooder slot). The tour proved successful, and Hiatt brought the Goners into Ronnie Milsap’s Nashville studio in the spring of 1988 to record the follow-up to Bring the Family.

The result was Slow Turning, which continued the momentum Bring the Family started. Stylistically, it’s not a million miles removed from its predecessor. There’s a slightly more layered sound, which may owe more than anything to the fact that a few more musicians besides the “Goners” core help out. Session musician James Hooker contributes Hammond organ, former Eagles guitarist Bernie Leadon shows up on guitar, mandolin, banjo and mandocello, and Dennis Locorriere (of Dr. Hook) and Ashley Cleveland add backing vocals.

But despite the additional firepower, Hiatt still keeps things relatively simple and focused. The heartland country/blues/folk/rock template remains the same. As a storyteller, Hiatt still spins a hell of a yarn, with a handful of songs centered around music, women, and cars. “Drive South” opens the album with an earnest, mid-tempo feel and the popular lyrical subject of a road trip: “Windows open on the rest of the world / Holding hands all the way to Dixieland,” Hiatt sings. “Come on, baby, drive south / With the one you love.”

The excursions Hiatt sings about occasionally have nefarious purposes, as on the widescreen country-folk of “Trudy and Dave”, a tale of a young couple on the run from the law (with a baby in tow, no less) that falls somewhere between Bonnie & Clyde and Raising Arizona. As usual, Hiatt’s lyrical imagery is beautifully detailed and almost novelistic: “He drove ’em to the strip mall laundromat / In his three-day beard and his Red Man hat / Trudy washed their bell-bottom jeans / While that baby just sat there looking mean.” The lawlessness continues on the barn-burning “Tennessee Plates”, easily one of the best things Hiatt’s ever done. The unreliable narrator tells the first-person story of a man with the crazy idea of stealing one of Elvis Presley’s Cadillacs: “There must have been a dozen of ’em parked in the garage / There wasn’t one Lincoln, and there wasn’t one Dodge / There wasn’t one Japanese model or make / Just pretty, pretty Cadillacs with Tennessee plates.” He even justifies the theft as a victimless crime: “Anyway, he wouldn’t care / Hell, he gave ’em to his friends.” As Hiatt tells the story, the band – led by Landreth’s killer slide guitar fills – blazes on alongside him, taking it all the way to the song’s twist ending and beyond.

As on Bring the Family, there’s no shortage of ballads on Slow Turning. “Icy Blue Heart” moves delicately and deliberately while Hiatt sings about trying to love a woman who’s been burned by love one too many times. Once again, Landreth’s slide guitar packs the appropriate punch. “Feels Like Rain”, another frequently covered Hiatt ballad (by Buddy Guy, Aaron Neville, and others) benefits from plenty of tender-yet-potent guitar riffs as a slow-burn rhythm section churns away and Hiatt goes into full-blown slow jam mode: “Batten down the hatches baby / leave your heart out on your sleeve / It looks like we’re in for stormy weather / And that ain’t no cause for us to leave.” Hiatt’s emotive singing – which sometimes takes a back seat, critically, to his strong songwriting chops – has never sounded better than on this song: here he croons, growls, whispers, and even dips into a soulful falsetto.

Hiatt explores plenty of other avenues on Slow Turning – the title track (also a single) is a fun up-tempo number that combines a driving beat with Leadon’s banjo riffs and continues Hiatt’s recent obsession with the “joys” of parenthood (“I’m yellin’ at the kids in the back / ’cause they’re banging like Charlie Watts”). “It’ll Come to You” is a sturdy funk excursion that sounds like a long-forgotten Stax/Volt B-side. And speaking of Charlie Watts: “Paper Thin” is a generous helping of Stones-y rock and soul that shows Hiatt successfully stretching out beyond the mandolins and National Steel guitars.

Slow Turning was another commercial and critical success for Hiatt and would lead to decades of continuous recording and touring output. He even briefly experimented with a Bring the Family reunion in 1991 in the form of Little Village, a band featuring Cooder, Keltner, and Lowe sharing singing and songwriting duties. They made one album that faltered commercially, despite a few great tracks. But these new vinyl reissues – with no digital downloads or bonus tracks, it should be stressed – are a wonderful reminder of a time when Hiatt pulled himself out of a creative and commercial rut and began a very long string of truly inspired music that continues to this day. It’s a ride well worth taking.