John Hiatt, “Memphis In The Meantime”

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Given four days to record an album and forced to do so without any rehearsal or preproduction, John Hiatt kicked off the sessions for his 1987 album Bring The Family with a song all about changing locations and, in so doing, getting a fresh outlook on life. “Memphis In The Meantime” was the track, and it would eventually be placed perfectly as the opening song on an album that is generally considered the finest of Hiatt’s long and distinguished career.

Considering the ramshackle circumstances surrounding the song’s recording, it’s a wonder the song came off at all. Hiatt jumped off the plane in Los Angeles and headed to the studio to join his fabulous ad hoc band, which included Ry Cooder on guitar, Nick Lowe on bass, and Jim Keltner on drums. He introduced the song to them and they gave it a go, resulting in a track that is spontaneously combustible.

“It sounds like a car with four bald tires,” Hiatt told Rolling Stone about “Memphis In The Meantime.” “It’s like a four-man groove sputtering down the road, and I really like the record for that.” Lowe and Keltner’s loose swing and Cooder’s hot licks provide the perfect backdrop for a song all about someone wanting to get a little rhythm in his life.

“Memphis In The Meantime” provides a fantastic display of Hiatt’s wicked sense of humor, always one of his finest strengths as a songwriter. Fed up with the ultra-earnest Nashville scene, the narrator wants to cut loose, and changing styles of music is the best way he knows to do so: “’Cause one more heartfelt steel guitar chord/Girl, It’s gonna do me in/I need to hear some trumpet and saxophone/You know sound as sweet as sin.”

Not only does this move require different music, it also necessitates a more laissez-faire style, including a pork-pie hat and some Italian shoes instead of big hair and bigger boots. It’s now or never, he implies: “Before our upper lips get stiff/Maybe we need us a big ol’ whiff.”

Of course, there are sacrifices to be made with any drastic change, as Hiatt mentions in the song’s most memorable line: “I don’t think Ronnie Milsap’s gonna ever record this song.” And it’s not a permanent departure, as the narrator suggests a return “After we get good and greasy.”

“Good and greasy” is about as apt a way as any to describe this blazing number. “Memphis In The Meantime” worked as a statement of purpose for John Hiatt, a sly way of saying that he would make music on his own terms and let the chips fall where they may. It was the right choice, as it kick-started a career renaissance that hasn’t ever abated. Who needs rehearsal when the end result is this good?

“Memphis In The Meantime”

I got something to say little girl
You might not like my style
But we’ve been hanging around this town
Just a little too long a while
You say you’re gonna get your act together
Gonna take it out on the road
But if I don’t get outta here pretty soon
My head’s going to explode

Sure I like country music
I like mandolins
But right now I need a telecaster
Through a Vibrolux turned up to ten

Lets go to Memphis in the meantime baby
Memphis in the meantime girl

I need a little shot of that rhythm baby
Mixed up with these country blues
I wanna trade in these ol’ country boots
For some fine Italian shoes

Forget the mousse and the hairspray sugar
We dont need none of that
Just a little dab’ll do ya girl
Underneath a pork pie hat

Until hell freezes over
Maybe you can wait that long
But I don’t think Ronnie Milsap’s gonna ever
Record this song

Lets go to Memphis in the meantime baby
Memphis in the meantime girl

Lets go to Memphis in the meantime baby
Memphis in the meantime girl

Maybe there’s nothin’ happenin’ there
Maybe there’s somethin’ in the air
Before our upper lips get stiff
Maybe we need us a big ol whiff

If we could just get off-a that beat little girl
Maybe we could find the groove
At least we can get a decent meal
Down at the Rendez-vous

‘Cause one more heartfelt steel guitar chord
Girl, it’s gonna do me in
I need to hear some trumpet and saxophone
You know sound as sweet as sin

And after we get good and greasy
Baby we can come back home
Put the cowhorns back on the Cadillac
And change the message on the cord-a-phone


Lets go to Memphis in the meantime baby
Memphis in the meantime girl

– Written by John Hiatt

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Rachael Sage