"Sure, I like country music," John Hiatt sang on the first track from 1987's Bring the Family. He wasn't being ironic — he did love hillbilly songs. But like most people who come to Nashville to write for Music Row, he'd had less success than he'd hoped (despite a handful of terrific Rosanne Cash cuts), and after years of trying to guess what country radio wanted, he'd heard too much twang and not enough funk. "I like mandolins," he cried, "but right now I need a Telecaster through a Vibrolux turned up to 10. Let's go to Memphis."
Hiatt's song, "Memphis in the Meantime," pointed out that Tennessee's two music cities are separated by more than just 210 miles — they're separated by straight fours and syncopation, by steel guitars and saxophones, by ballads and blues. And whenever you've had too much of one, it's only a three-hour drive to get a dose of the other. (Note to all you angry letter-writers firing up your email: Yeah, yeah, we know, there's always been R&B in Nashville and C&W in Memphis, just like there are sometimes cold days in Texas and warm days in Alaska.) "Let's go to Memphis in the meantime, baby," Hiatt sang to his lover. "Forget the mousse and the hairspray, sugar, we don't need none of that. Just a little dab'll do ya, girl, underneath a porkpie hat."
In the song, Hiatt is driving a Cadillac down I-40 with the top down, Nashville in the rearview mirror and Memphis in front of the windshield. The car, like the song, is being pushed along the greasy, push-and-pull rhythms of guitarist Ry Cooder, bassist Nick Lowe and drummer Jim Keltner, sounding a whole lot more like where he's going than what he's leaving behind. Why shouldn't he leave Nashville? After all, as he sang, "I don't think Ronnie Milsap's ever gonna record this song."
In 1987, Milsap was who you wanted to sell your songs to. The blind singer-pianist, who performs Saturday at Riverfront Park, had 29 No. 1 country singles between 1976 and 1987. He represented the Sugar Mountain — the one topped with royalty checks — that a struggling songwriter like Hiatt could never quite climb. Milsap also represented the satiny polish of country radio that might make a rootsy musician like Hiatt throw up his hands and jump in the car to Memphis.
When Hiatt sang the song in the '90s, he would often sing, "I don't think Garth Brooks will ever touch this song." Partly that was because Brooks had replaced Milsap as the new Sugar Mountain of Music Row, but partly it was because Milsap was never a comfortable fit for the role Hiatt had assigned him. An ardent fan of Ray Charles, Milsap had more R&B in his music than any other country star of the '80s. In fact, the same month that Hiatt released Bring the Family, Milsap released as his single "Snap Your Fingers," a remake of Joe Henderson's 1962 No. 2 R&B hit. Sure, the arrangement was a bit smoother than Brother Ray would have used, but if Hiatt needed "to hear some trumpet and saxophone," as he claimed in "Memphis in the Meantime," he could have simply bought Milsap's new single.
Milsap must have had a sense of humor about the whole thing, for he eventually did record a Hiatt song — not "Memphis in the Meantime," but "Old Habits Are Hard to Break," a co-write by Hiatt and Marshall Chapman. It appeared on Milsap's 1991 album Back to the Grindstone, and opened with some sneering blues guitar followed by rumbling baritone sax and Milsap growling, "Ah, when the snake of love starts to pulling you under." It sounds as if it were recorded for Malaco Records rather than RCA Nashville. Milsap even used another Hiatt composition as the title track for his 1993 album, True Believer.
Hiatt, who eventually recorded "Old Habits" himself on the 1993 album Perfectly Good Guitar, performs at The Ryman on Sept. 10. He will be supporting his best new album in 11 years, Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns, and he almost certainly will sing "Memphis in the Meantime," a staple of his set for 24 years. But this time, when Hiatt puts the porkpie hat on his head, takes the cow horns off the Cadillac and heads for Memphis, maybe he can make room for Milsap in the passenger seat.