Forgotten Albums: Shawn Colvin, Fat City

Shawn Colvin is best remembered for her 1997 smash “Sunny Came Home,” which scaled the heights of various Billboard charts (#7 Hot 100, #4 Mainstream Top 40, and #1 Adult Contemporary, among others) and took home Grammy hardware for both Song and Record of the Year in 1998. It’s a good one, complete with catchy melody/chorus and a memorable bridge. I’d been following Colvin’s career for a number of years by then, including attending an engaging concert with my future wife in June 1995, at Bogart’s in Cincinnati. The breakthrough was welcome in these parts, even it wound up lasting for just that one hit record.

A Few Small Repairs, the album on which “Sunny Came Home” appears, was Colvin’s fourth release. It’s neither the one of hers I’ve listened to most nor like best, however. Those honors go to sophomore effort Fat City, which came out not longer after I began my teaching career, in the fall of 1992. While all but one song was written or co-written by Colvin, there’s a ton of star power contributing bits and pieces throughout the record. She’d gotten a great deal of positive buzz from her debut Steady On, and one suspects that Fat City was expected to be the launching pad for a commercially successful career.

The first song I heard from Fat City was “Tennessee.” I was in Oxford, OH, attending a conference on teaching at Miami University, availing myself of the opportunity to listen to my go-to modern rock station, WOXY 97X, in the evenings. To be honest, I hadn’t been as enamored of Steady On as the critics, but “Tennessee” forced me to re-evaluate. Richard Thompson works the guitar solo, and yes, that’s Bela Fleck on banjo.

Colvin’s next record was Cover Girl, full of remakes of such acts as the Police, Talking Heads, Steve Earle, and Dylan. The one song she didn’t write on Fat City was “Tenderness on the Block” by Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon, appearing on the latter’s Excitable Boy. Here’s a performance of it from just over four years ago.

My favorite Shawn Colvin song is easily “Round of Blues.” It’s already appeared in this space on one of my old mixtape write-ups, and you’ll see mention of it again in December, in a Modern Rock Tracks post. The album’s Wikipedia page notes that producer Larry Klein wrote the music for the bridge. I wish it’d been a hit.

Another winner is “Climb On (A Back That’s Strong).” Bruce Hornsby plays piano and sings backup; you can also hear Mary-Chapin Carpenter’s voice in there, as well.

“Set the Prairie on Fire” was co-written with Elly Brown, whom I know from her days in the late 80s/early 90s band Grace Pool. Not only is session drummer extraordinaire Jim Keltner present, but Booker T. Jones is in the house, playing the Hammond.

The other song on Fat City that received a measure of radio love (this time, Adult Contemporary) was the album’s last track, “I Don’t Know Why.” It’s a lovely yet melancholy piece, and it garnered a nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the 1994 Grammys.

I’m guessing that Fat City‘s sales did not meet expectations. Nonetheless, it showed Colvin was growing and developing, worthy of further investment. I imagine Columbia was ultimately pleased they kept her on.

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