John Hiatt's 'Drive South': Inside the Travel Song's Storied History

Singer-guitarist's signature song appears on 'Slow Turning,' released 28 years ago this week

John Hiatt performed his signature song "Drive South" on 'Arsenio' in 1989.

While Americana troubadour John Hiatt is known mostly as an influential "songwriter's songwriter," whose songs are covered by legendary artists (Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, B. B. King) and upstarts alike, it is his ninth album Slow Turning that contains the song most synonymous with Hiatt himself: "Drive South." This week, Slow Turning celebrates 28 years since its release on August 30th, 1988, and "Drive South" is still chugging along.

The rustic album-opener showcases the Indiana native's knack for marrying cinematic lyrics with sly wordplay, all delivered in his charming drawl. From its acoustic-guitar riff to the slinky dobro lines and Hiatt's "singing-through-a-smirk" delivery, "Drive South" sets a humid scene, and invites listeners along on Hiatt's journey below the Mason Dixon.

Although it was never released as an official single, "Drive South" was one of the key songs Hiatt used to promote Slow Turning on the late-night talk-show circuit, playing the upbeat "ode to the road" on programs like Sunday Night and the inaugural season of The Arsenio Hall Show. For the latter appearance, backing band the Goners, with slide-guitar king Sonny Landreth and vocalist Ashley Cleveland, joined Hiatt, all reprising their performances from the studio version of the track. Even after almost three decades since it was first released, Hiatt can still whip out "Drive South" in concert with a guaranteed audience reaction.

However, as is often the case with most of Hiatt's songs, there was another artist who took "Drive South" to even greater mainstream success. In the winter of 1992, Suzy Bogguss released her version of the song as a single from her Voices in the Wind album, hitting Number 2 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. Bogguss also released a playful music video that entered heavy rotation and helped make the song the highest-charting single of her career. Between the release of Hiatt's original and Bogguss' hit cover, the Forester Sisters also landed on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart with their own take (peaking at Number 63), and Kelly Willis included a version on her debut album Well Travelled Love, both of which occurred in 1990.

But "Drive South" was not the only track from Slow Turning that found new life in the hands of other artists. Emmylou Harris covered "Icy Blue Heart" (with Bonnie Raitt on background vocals) for her 1989 album Bluebird, and Buddy Guy took on "Feels Like Rain" on his 1993 album of the same name, which went on to net Guy a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album the following year. Dutch pop-country star Ilse DeLange even included two Slow Turning tracks ("It'll Come to You" and "Feels Like Rain") on her 1999 Hiatt tribute album Dear John.

The release of "Drive South" and Slow Turning as a whole marked a new milestone for Hiatt, as it was the first release of his career to enter the Top 100 of the Billboard 200 chart, peaking at 98. His three follow-up studio albums – Stolen Moments, Perfectly Good Guitar and Walk On – would continue the momentum, all going on to chart even higher (61, 47 and 48, respectively). Songs from Slow Turning have had lasting television and film success as well, with the title track appearing in 2002's The Rookie and "Feels Like Rain" popping up in both the 2004 film Raising Helen and in a 2011 episode of HBO's Treme, where it provided both atmosphere and narrative inspiration for the entire episode. Slow Turning also activated Hiatt's relationship with the Goners, who backed him on 2001's The Tiki Bar Is Open and 2003's Beneath This Gruff Exterior.

In September, Hiatt will launch his An Acoustic Evening With John Hiatt Tour, which chooses a relaxed, intimate setting to showcase the songs of his storied catalog – "Drive South" likely among them.