Nashville singer/songwriter Lilly Hiatt has known most of her existence that life is rarely just one thing. On her fourth album’s title track, she sings “I could tell you that it’s easy/but that wouldn’t be the truth/if you ever need to call me, well you know that’s walking proof.” The song itself, set to a stripped back rootsy rock beat, with country leanings etched out in Hiatt’s mild Southern vocal lilt, and the fiddle playing of friend Amanda Shires.
Born into a musical family, Hiatt is the daughter of famous singer/songwriter John Hiatt, although her mother died by suicide when she was only one year old. He got sober and remarried, celebrating his new lease on life on his 8th album, “Bring the Family,” which rejuvenated his career commercially. He gave Lilly her first guitar at the age of 12, and she’s been playing her own music ever since. Her last album, 2017’s “Trnity Lane,” chronicled her own struggle to win sobriety and a romantic break-up, earning her the Emerging Artist of the Year award by the Americana Music Association.
But not unlike her father, country roots music may come effortlessly to Hiatt, but her preferred language is rock & roll, thus her choice of producer for Walking Proof, Lincoln Parish, formerly the lead guitarist with Cage the Elephant. We hear that side of her on the big rock chord intro on tracks like “P-Town,” “Brightest Star,” and “Never Play Guitar,” where she tries to push away all the distractions that can pile up, because she “can’t write a song if I never play guitar.” Hiatt plays along side Parish and her band’s guitarist John Condit, and gets a bit of help from Aaron Lee Tasjan on the song, “Little Believer,” where we hear Hiatt in the repetitive rant at the end sound like the girl who grew up singing along with the female punk band Belly.
Hiatt’s songwriting deals with the specifics in her experience, but her songs open up to the shared reality of all of us struggling in our own way to make sense of life in the daily grind. Whether it’s the promise of a new love or special friend in some smartly written mid-tempo rockers, (“Little Believer,” and “Brightest Star”), finding that person who will respect your private idiosyncrasies in a track with more of a country pop leaning (“Candy Lunch”), or staying connected with one’s siblings (“Rae”). Hiatt is joined by her father in the rocker, “Some Kind Of Drug,” a song that deals the gentrification in her hometown which rubs up against the homeless challenge, although you can barely make out John’s voice backing her dominant lead vocal. In the traveling blues shuffle of “Move,” Hiatt confronts that human tendency to avoid facing one’s problems, and she’s joined here by Luke Schneider’s pedal steel. The album closes with “Scream,” a song which counter-intuitively is a ballad, but finds the singer/songwriter claiming a space that’s just her own, something she’s accomplished with aplomb track after track on Walking Proof.
I saw Lilly Hiatt playing solo in an opening spot for John Prine, who invited her back to sing with his band on the encores. She clearly can stand on her own, with only her songs, voice and natural human charm as an entertaining presence. By all accounts, Lilly Hiatt came into her own on “Trinity Lane,” here on Walking Proof she takes us on a tour of terrain, opening up a broader perspective on her unique take on rock & roll while honoring her country roots. She’s getting better and better, earning her own place, shaking off any suggestions of nepotism. Her talent cuts through, and she’s delivered the Walking Proof.
Key Tracks: “Some Kind of Drug” / “Candy Lunch” / “Brightest Star”
Artists With Similar Fire: Amanda Shires / Neko Case / Lucinda Williams
-Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb