John Hiatt made his best album, the brilliant and skillful Bring the Family, in record time — four days in February 1987, to be exact.
On it, Hiatt was accompanied by a small, simpatico ensemble of all-star musicians: guitarist Ry Cooder, bassist Nick Lowe and drummer Jim Keltner. The sessions were preceded by no rehearsals or preproduction. Lowe, in fact, went straight from the airport to the studio, arriving just in time to cut "Memphis in the Meantime," a song he had never heard before.
The spontaneity of it all, Hiatt believes, was largely responsible for the understated, forthright collection of songs that resulted. "I just don't think it would've come out the same if we'd spent more time on it," he says. "The beauty of the project was that none of us was given the time to think with the old left side of the brain."
Producer John Chelew imposed a four-day limit on the sessions; his motivation had less to do with economics or scheduling than a desire to capture the performances with an unstudied, first-take freshness. Hiatt himself likens it to a jazz session, where a band runs a tune down a few times, cuts it and moves on. "I imagined it might be something similar to that, in terms of the intensity and the fun," Hiatt says. "It was kind of scary, too, but very exciting."
There were seat-of-the-pants decisions made at every turn. When the band couldn't settle on an arrangement for the moving, confessional "Have a Little Faith in Me," Hiatt banged it out alone at the piano during a break, and it wound up on the album in that form. Lowe's breathless arrival the first day gave "Memphis in the Meantime" its odd, loopy rhythms. "It sounds like a car with four bald tires," says Hiatt, laughing. "It's like a four-man groove sputtering down the road, and I really like the record for that."
Hiatt is especially fond of Bring the Family's love songs. Having beat his alcohol and drug problems in 1984, Hiatt was a clearheaded, happily married and much less vituperative songwriter. "'Learning How to Love You,' for instance, is a song I had never been able to say quite so directly," Hiatt says. "I'm a coward, basically, when it comes to love, and that was the first time I really felt willing to come out and be a little vulnerable."
The emotional openness and spiritual resurgence carried through the whole album — which, amazingly enough, was made at a time when Hiatt didn't even have a record deal in America. "The normal sort of pressures of making a record, real or imagined, just weren't there," says Hiatt. "I'm not so sure a major label would have even let it happen, frankly, although they all seemed to want it after we made it. It went against the corporate approach to record-making, which is 'It can't be any good; you didn't spend any time or money on it!'"
To the contrary, Bring the Family is one of the most sublime and deeply felt albums of the Eighties. "I think the effect this group of musicians had on each other is that we all wanted to do our best," Hiatt says. "The way I look at the album today, I really see it as a true collaboration, of which I was just a cog in the wheel. I'm not trying to feign humility, but it was just such a group effort. It's a very inspirational bunch. I would like to go on record to say I sure hope it happens again."