photo by David McClister
Every two years or so, John Hiatt makes a record that gives music critics and DJs at those few radio stations worth listening to in America something to agree on. Which is to repeat, this time in the words of WUTC-FM’s Richard Winham, “John Hiatt is the best songwriter you’ve never heard of, but you’ve almost certainly heard his songs.” It’s sadly true, but after 40 years, Hiatt has long made peace with this bit of cruel irony.
Hiatt, as he will tell you, tells me, tells anyone, really, doesn’t write songs for anyone else. Never has, never will. John Hiatt writes John Hiatt songs—tough, gritty roadhouse-ready rock and roll and poignant “this-is-what-I’ve-learned-about-love” relationship songs that give you pause and make you think out loud, “Damn, where has this guy been all this time?”
Turns out, he’s been around for a long, long time, and those same songs have caught the ears of others who’ve done with them what he has not—with few exceptions—been able to do: turn John Hiatt songs into hit records.
The short list: Bob Dylan, B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris—hell, even Ronnie Milsap—have covered Hiatt songs and made more than a few hits of them. “Thing Called Love” helped Bonnie Raitt come back from cutout-bin obscurity in the 1980s. “Angel Eyes” dovetailed into perfect harmony with Jeff Healey’s too-short career. Clapton and King built an entire double-platinum album out of Hiatt’s Riding With The King in 2000.
Hiatt shrugs it off, enjoys the royalties and keeps on writing, playing and hitting the road with various versions of the bands who record his music—20 albums’ worth now (if you count live discs and compilations)—that stretches back to 1974’s Hanging Around The Observatory and is now bookended by his latest, Dirty Jeans & Mudslide Hymns.
At 59, Hiatt’s never had a Top 40 hit of his own, but that fact neither haunts him nor deters him. At 21, he wrote “Sure As I’m Sittin’ Here,” a No. 16 charting hit for Three Dog Night that earned him a record deal with Epic and he’s never looked back. The idea that he’d write hit songs has likely occurred to Hiatt many times. At one point he very likely relished the idea, maybe still would. But these days a hit song doesn’t enter Hiatt’s consciousness very often. He is flattered that so many artists, some of them personal heroes he grew up listening to, have covered his songs, but says he was never comfortable writing for anyone but himself.
“I don’t write for other people, never have,” he tells me during a phone conversation. He was speaking from his longtime Nashville home, during a break from his recent tour, before making the short trip to Track 29 for his first Chattanooga performance since he can remember. “I love what I do and I just have a real passion for it. I love writing and recording—hell, I don’t know how to do anything else.”
That’s not exactly true—he’d probably be racing on the Indy circuit (and has) in another career—but modern American music would be much worse off were it not for Hiatt, and songwriting would be devoid of one of its finest craftsman. After years bouncing around record labels where he was variously (and futilely) categorized as new wave, country or blues, Hiatt found his own successful niche with the release of Bring the Family. This 1987 record marked the beginning of a rich, remarkable and uncompromisingly excellent period of songwriting and recording featuring his own flinty, whiskey-and-cigarette-aged vocals.
“I had not had success out of the box,” Hiatt says of his early efforts. “Success gains you freedom at record labels, so they keep intervening. [Bring The Family] was the first record we got to make on our own, independently. I was so screwed up, learning to live without drugs and alcohol, I didn’t know what to do. The producer said, ‘You can just sing in the shower and we’ll release it.’ ”