John Hiatt: Dirty Jeans And Mudslide Hymns


Recording with The Combo makes all the difference in the world in the presentation of John Hiatt’s songs. A craftsmanlike composer schooled in Nashville, Hiatt may forever skirt a pro-forma approach to songwriting, but the unified punch of this band brings realism to his material and his performance on Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns.

As usual, Hiatt’s songs run the gamut from character portraits such as “Til I Get My Lovin’ Back” to the more tuneful self-expression  “I Love That Girl.” Along the way he illustrates why his greatest claim to fame may always be the covers of his numbers by the likes of Bonnie Raitt and why that’s deceiving: he may write by rote but there’s always a level of emotional honesty inside the songs. “All the Way Under,” for instance, is not just a jaunty quasi-country blues: the bounce in both Hiatt’s singing and the Combo’s devil-may-care musicianship is the definition of carefree.

Drummer Kenny Blevins, bassist Patrick O’Hearn and multi-guitarist Doug Lancio are stylistically versatile enough to imbue their collaboration with a passion equal only to the pleasure they derive in playing with each other. So while they excel, naturally, at the fast-chugging likes of “Detroit Made,” and “Train to Birmingham,” they can also touch more elusive realms based on the deep bond of their instrumental relationship.

Thus, as Hiatt wrings the sentimentality from “Damn This Town,” the rhythm section combines with electric guitars to conjure an air of mean menace. Similarly, “Hold On For Your Love” finds the vocalist and author searching for solace in an abiding relationship while all other potential centers of gravity –here in the form of guitars and drums–recede from him.

It’s a measure of John Hiatt’s own connection and (confidence in) The Combo that he’ll risk their submergence in the strings that appear on “Don’t Wanna Leave You Now.” But just as his lyrics erect a healthy distance from the object of his attachment, so does the ensemble exude sufficient personality to step aside in the arrangement just long enough not to collide with the orchestration, the rest of the time bringing earthy support to the singer and the song.

Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp have staked the latter years of their careers by positing themselves as the voice of the so-called common man, but celebrities that they are, they simply can’t sustain the credibility of John Hiatt. As a working musician with all that connotes (the romanticism of his last album The Open Road notwithstanding), he’s not so comfortable with simple truths to deny the palpable sense of rejection when, as happens during “Down Around My Place,” they disappear in the face of more complex circumstances.

If the sleek sweet sound of pedal steel on “Adios California” somehow brings John Hiatt some measure of commercial recognition in the contemporary country niche, it’ll be ironic: the tune is a rejection of superficial values cleverly disguised within a snappy arrangement. As in his less oblique reference to 9/11 in “When New York Had Its Heart Broke,” the man refuses to stand on platitudes any more than The Combo opts for clichéd licks; as the three musicians play firmly but gently behind their leader’s careful intonations of the lyrics, you’re hearing the same mutual resolve that arose (and is still rising) from that tragedy. Music hardly, if ever, sounds more true to life than this on Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns–or elsewhere for that matter.

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