Until recently I didn’t know much about these guys. I didn’t have their albums, but I grew up hearing their music. They were definitely NOT part of the FM hit parade, but they remained at the periphery of my “aural vision,” due no doubt to their prolific output.
Music was a lifeline for me during high school. In those days (the 70’s ) you had to surf FM radio channels and listen late at night for the new and unique music. I lived in rural Michigan and had no older siblings to guide my musical tastes. By listening to FM radio and some pretty far out DJ’s who played what THEY wanted to hear, I learned about all kinds of music. Hearing a song that really connected with me inspired me to find out all I could about the artist which in turn led me to learn about other artists. Name dropping was like bread crumbs you followed through a tangled forest of pop, disco, heavy metal to find the truly unique. For example, I may not have cared much for Kate Bush’s voice, but I could tell she was doing something really different and I knew I should try to find out what she was about.
My music interests started with the Beatles which led me to The Rolling Stones, which led to The Kinks, which led to The Who, etc. I began reading about these guys and finding out who their musical heroes were and who they were listening to. I remember an interview with The Beatles in which they were asked who their favorite music group was and they wittily answered, Nina Simone. “Whose Nina Simone?” I wondered. Well, I found out. Wanting desperately to be unique and interesting, I tried to read interesting books, watch interesting movies and listen to interesting music. If I couldn’t live in New York, London or LA, at least I could listen to the music coming from there.
So what do Hiatt, Newman and Prine have in common? They are first and foremost songwriters. They are craftsmen with words and music. Although they have definite folk, country, blues and jazz influences, they are quite unique in their choice of subject matter, use of humor and turn-of-phrase. All three greatly value words and word-play. All three like to tell stories and the majority of those stories are about who and what they know best, Americans and America. Yes, they come at the songs from different perspectives but each song is a stand-alone classic (as far as I’m concerned). Even the so-called “throw aways,” songs like John Prine’s “Illegal Smile,” John Hiatt’s “Since His Penis Came Between Us” and Randy Newman’s “Short People,” have more going on than your typical pop hit.
In the past decade or so I’ve made up for lost time, collecting their CD’s and appreciating them more and more. It’s wonderful when you can rediscover someone or something simply by becoming truly acquainted. It sorta proves that life still has its mysteries, its inspirations, its surprises, if you are willing to follow the bread crumbs…
Recommended starting places:
- “Randy Newman Songbook 1 & 2” (just Randy and his piano performing selected songs from the extensive Newman catalog)
- John Hiatt: “Bring the Family” (a pretty big hit album recorded in four days)
- John Prine: “Souvenirs” (15 new recordings of classic Prine songs recorded over three days)
Of course through the wonders of You Tube you can hear and see much of their music and judge for yourself.