Saturday, June 11, 2011

What makes a great song? John Hiatt on Treme

A recent episode of HBO’s Treme featured a “live” performance by a dapper John Hiatt of his song, Feels Like Rain, which resonates in the post-Katrina setting of the show.

Down here, the river meets the sea
And in the sticky heat I feel you open up to me
Love comes out of nowhere, baby, like a hurricane…
Feels like rain.

Almost as good as the cameo was the discussion that followed between Annie, the violin busker and her new mentor, Harley Watt. Annie says, “Good song.” Harley says, “Great Song.”  For those who have not been watching Treme, Annie is trying to boost her career by writing songs but without much originality. Harley has taken her to see Hiatt for educational purposes.

As they walk home,  Harley asks what was great about it.
Annie: The melody is simple, like the blues. It’s not locked into those chord changes.
Harley: Yeah, the music gives you what it can. Keep going
Annie: The lyrics not so simple. I mean it starts off and he’s singing about the weather, the river , the sea and you realize it’s New Orleans. But then he isn’t singing about New Orleans. It’s really love he’s got on his mind.
H: Okay
A: And love is not simple. It’s a little dark sometimes  and a little dangerous—like New Orleans.
H: (laughs)
A: And he’s riding it out, no matter how rough it gets. He’s like us, now, after the storm.
H: Hiatt wrote that song 20 years ago darlin.' You still had training wheels on your bike and nobody had ever heard the name Katrina.
A: Really?
H: That’s what makes it a great song.

One of the ironies here is that Harley is played by a grizzled, grandfatherly Steve Earle, a pretty fair country singer-songwriter in his own right. The other is that it takes a television series by David Simon to give John Hiatt his due after all these years. (After some twenty albums, he’s gotten several Grammy nominations but no trophies.)

Hiatt, who was born about six blocks from where I went to grade school in Indianapolis, is one of those artists who is more revered by musicians and singers than the general public. It’s almost easier to list who has not covered his songs than the myriad of people who have: Bonnie Raitt (Thing Called Love) to Eric Clapton and B.B. King (Riding With the King) and Roseanne Cash (The Way We Make A Broken Heart) to The Neville Brothers (Washable Ink).

Wikipedia lists the following musical genres for Hiatt: Americana, folk rock, country, blues and Heartland rock.  I would add comedy because he can turn a funny line (“We rolled that Camaro like a cowboy cigarette”).
Wikipedia does not include the fantastic collection of covers that Rhino released in 1993,
“Love Gets Strange.”  It would be the perfect starter album for Annie’s songwriting 101 course.

Batten down the hatches
But keep your heart out on your sleeve
A little bit of stormy weather,
That’s no cause for us to leave...

Feels like rain
(Copyright Lillybilly Music 1988)


  1. Frank-A great post. So glad you are spreadin' the word about Treme. We are hooked. About our man John, who you and I have listened to at loud volume, and feelin' little pain many times, you are right about getting his due credit. Some of us used to catch him in Broad Ripple, in the way back and knew then the man was not only the real deal, he was special.

  2. Need to figure out how to see Treme. Love John Hiatt. Remember listening to Perfectly Good Guitar album a million times when I was little. It was always in your car. Also, you should know that Mellencamp (whom I always got him mixed up with) is playing here on July 3rd. xo

  3. Thanks for this ... just viewed the episode last night and wanted to know more.