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Music Review: John Hiatt – Slow Turning

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Today, John Hiatt is among the leading American folk-rock singer-songwriters, standing in stature just below Springsteen and Mellencamp, but it was no overnight success story for him.

Hiatt struggled to get traction on his career for over a dozen years after releasing his first album in 1974. This, despite some critical acclaim and his songs regularly being picked up by others for their own albums. Going through a multitude of record companies, stylistic makeovers and personal demons, Hiatt finally found his groove with the stellar Bring The Family. It's probably one of the rare examples where an artist peaks after cleaning up instead of before.

It's hard to follow up on a record like the breakthrough Bring The Family. I mean, how do you top songs like "Have A Little Faith In Me" and a backing band of Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe, and Jim Keltner? I realize I'm in a tiny minority, but Hiatt did indeed best that record the following year with Slow Turning.
john_hiatt2Slow Turning does continue the theme introduced on Family of the pain of recovery from youthful indiscretion and the bliss of raising a family. And Hiatt wisely sticks with his new signature blend of roots rock, folk, blues and country. But this time there's a little more country and a little less blues, which actually suits his songwriting style better.

The other big difference is the backing band. Hiatt was unable to get the A-list crew from the last go-around to come back to the studio so he ultimately settled on his touring band, The Goners. That would be Ken Blevins on drums, David Ranson on bass and Lafayette, Louisiana's own slide specialist, Sonny Landreth, on various guitars. These guys can't match the technical sophistication of Keltner/Lowe/Cooder, but they bring more down-home feel to Hiatt's down-home ditties. They aren't the brand new fine Italian leather shoes, they're like an old pair of cowboy boots; more rugged but more comfortable.

Take for example the kickoff track, "Drive South," which covers similar subject ground as Family's "Memphis In The Meantime." The electric guitars are dispensed with altogether in favor of a bank of acoustic guitars as Hiatt sings "Come on, baby drive south with the one you love" with an assuring twang in his voice.

"Trudy And Dave" is graced by mandolins, mandicellos, and Landreth's pedal steel-style slide. "Sometime Other Than Now" is a gentle, perfectly constructed country ballad that I'm surprised hadn't been covered yet that I'm aware of. "Ride Along" and "Tennessee Plates" are jaunty country-rockers.

Hiatt's grin-inducing wit is everywhere on this CD, like when he sings "took the money for the laundry and drove away clean" in "Trudy And Dave" and the whole story about stealing Elvis' car in "Tennessee Plates."

The autobiographical title track also rocks in a Nashville way, too, with all the energy coming from an acoustic guitar strumming away persistently as Hiatt sings about the nuisances of everyday life as a family man but takes it in stride and counts his blessings. It's immediately countered by a funky number, "It'll Come To You," which suggests that you can't always escape the past.

The trials of a recovering alcoholic that underpins "Paper Thin" with it's aggressive guitar riff, lurid lyrics and Hiatt's gruff vocal delivery, is plainly the best Stones song the Stones never wrote. The closer "Feels Like Rain" starts out with a Curtis Mayfield guitar riff and unfolds as a gentle Crescent City soul number with New Orleans-themed lyrics to match.

There's not a weak song on this record and Glyn Johns did a perfect job on production; here we are almost twenty years later and it's still impossible to pin it down as a relic of late Reagan-era synthesized and compressed excess.

John Hiatt would go on to make many more records using the template he forged on these two late-eighties classics; some are good, a few of them great. But I don't think any of them were ever as great as Slow Turning.

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  • Mark Saleski

    Slow Turning, Bring The Family, Stolen Moments…three perfect records.

  • Pico

    Amen. Hiatt’s Holy Trinity.

  • Holly Hughes

    John Hiatt is a disgracefully underrated artist. I think he found his voice on Bring The Family, but he’s continued to grow ever since. My personal favorite album of his comes along a little later in his career, Crossing Muddy Waters, though The Tiki Bar Is Open ranks right up there with it.

    I’d hardly consider Sonny Landreth a B-list guitarist, though — to me, that pedal-steel is a big part of what made this album so soul-satisfying.

  • Pico

    Crossing Muddy Waters and The Tiki Bar Is Open are my latter-day favorites, too. Not coincidentally, Tiki Bar is another Goners record.

    I’m a big fan of Landreth, as well (he’s from my old neck of the woods). I could have easily doubled the size of the article talking up his contributions to this album. Like Hiatt, he’s seriously overlooked.