I said recently that I was aware that I hadn’t posted an Under The Covers piece for quite some time but have been prompted to do this, not just by my guilt but because a new cover was released last week of a song that I love, and for which I already knew an excellent cover version. So it seems like an idea for a quickie: rather than share several songs, I thought I’d just give you this one, in its original and with the two covers. There are other recordings of the song, but most of those don’t really do it justice, in my view.
The song itself has a tragic background story, which I think you need to know before hearing it. Crossing Muddy Waters is the title track of an album by John Hiatt, released in September 2000. Your first thought might be that it was about upsetting an old blues musician, but the real story is much sadder. It was his fifteenth album: it was recorded with no drummer and was a purely acoustic album that brought elements of bluegrass music into his Americana sound. He was nominated for a Grammy award for it in 2001 for Best Contemporary Folk Album, but didn’t win (Emmylou Harris did, for Red Dirt Girl). Like most of his records it performed steadily in the charts, reaching #110 in the US main chart, and #18 in the Indie chart. The song is about John’s first wife, Isabella, who struggled with mental health issues. They were estranged at the time when, sadly, she committed suicide. The ‘baby daughter’ in the song is Lilly Hiatt, now a well-respected singer-songwriter in her own right. Knowing that background, some of the lyrics are heartbreaking. This is John’s own version of his song, from a live appearance on the BBC show Later With Jools Holland, broadcast in December 2000:
That was some fifteen years or so after the tragic event, but you can still hear the hurt in his voice, can’t you.
The cover version which I’ve known for longest was released in 2015 by the all-female band I’m With Her. There are three members – Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan – and they have made some lovely music together whilst pursuing separate careers as well. This is their version of the song:
Three beautiful voices, three exceptional musicians. For me, it doesn’t get much better than that. There are five versions I could find on YouTube of John Hiatt playing the song, which have a total combined viewing figure of 216k. This I’m With Her video has over 2.1m, so it seems I’m not alone in being with them. To date, the band has released just four singles, of which this was the first, and one album. I’m hoping for more: individually they are all great, but the sum of the parts is even greater.
The newly released cover is by a band I featured in a previous post, Back Under the Covers, in March of this year. You probably won’t recall them, but this is the Hayde Bluegrass Orchestra:
Unless my ears are deceiving me – which is entirely possible – they take that at an ever so slightly slower pace, and I think that suits the song well. Again, their musicianship is exceptionally good and Rebekka Nilsson, the lead singer, has a beautiful voice: the harmonies are pretty good, too! In case you were wondering, the HBO come from that hotbed of bluegrass music – Norway. They released their first album in March – Migrants – and it is every bit as lovely as this might lead you to expect.
Having given you these three versions of the same song, I thought I’d close with a little bonus of something different. I mentioned that Lilly Hiatt, the ‘baby daughter’ in this song, is now a musician, and while I was researching this piece I came across this lovely interview they gave together in April 2019, to promote their joint release for a vinyl single for Record Store Day. On one side, John sang one of Lilly’s songs, and on the other she sang one of his. It is a lovely idea, and if you read the interview you’ll see how much their family means to them. This is Lilly’s part of that record:
I think she does a beautiful job with a typical John Hiatt song, with its intelligent lyrics. If you’re interested, you’ll find his original version on his 1995 album, Walk On, which Lilly describes in the interview as a special album for her, from a special time in her life – she was 12, and John and his second wife had been together for ten years at that point: they had clearly become a very close family after the early trauma in Lilly’s life. A fitting place to close this piece, I think.
See you again soon 😊🤘