A good tribute album is a tough assignment: to capture the essence of someone else’s body of work, to bring something new to the songs, and to do justice to the artist, as well as their fans. When the artist in question is someone such as John Hiatt, who has followed his muse down myriad paths with more than a dozen albums’ worth of country blues, gospel, R&B, heartland singer-songwriter fare and ass-kicking roots-rock, and who has already been covered by countless big names, where the heck do you start?
Unlike Love Gets Strange, the 1993 Hiatt tribute released by Rhino Records, the makers of Rollin’ Into Memphis have taken the approach of using a house band under the guidance of Randy Labbe (who has produced tributes to Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson and others) and inviting guest vocalists and guitarists to the studio. Although the album was recorded in Portland, Maine, and a good portion of the guests (Irma Thomas, Tab Benoit, Raful Neal, C.J. Chenier, Terrance Simien) hail from Louisiana, it’s Memphis soul stylings that provide the dominant feel.
Somehow, despite the assembled talent and the undeniably great songs, the result is unsatisfying. The album has grace and polish, but the songs slide by without really connecting. They’re beautifully played, but they lack the vitality and raunch of Hiatt’s delivery. Exceptions are Thomas’ smoky reading of “Old Habits Are Hard To Break”, and an assured “Feels Like Rain” by Benoit and Neal. As a whole, however, this release only hints at the passion and grit of Hiatt’s originals.