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.’ ”
Sobriety unleashed something. Hiatt released seven albums on three labels prior to Bring The Family. Each had their moments, as Hiatt gathered critical momentum and a solid fan base, thanks to relentless touring in the U.S. and overseas. But mainstream success eluded him. His influences—Elvis (Presley and Costello), Dylan, the blues and country—produced erratic, often critically acclaimed records, but each failed commercially. Nuggets from these years ensconced him as songwriter to the stars. A young Rosanne Cash latched on to “The Way We Make A Broken Heart,” dueting with Hiatt on the song in 1983. The song went unreleased until Cash re-recorded it and took it to No. 1 on the country charts in 1987—the same year Hiatt released Bring The Family.
That seminal record, recorded with a supergroup that included Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and drummer Jim Keltner (who would together briefly form a side project dubbed Little Village), touched a nerve. Independence—from alcohol, drugs, record labels—marked a turning point for Hiatt, reflected in a song he says he would not mind being remembered for, “Have A Little Faith In Me.” Again, a string of other artists—Joe Cocker, Delbert McClinton, Jewel, Jon Bon Jovi—nabbed the song for their own, but Hiatt’s own voice rose above them all.
Nine successive albums all broke the Billboard 200, including Slow Turning, the follow-up album to Bring The Family that included such hits as “Paper Thin,” “Tennessee Plates” and “Angel Eyes.” But it was Bonnie Raitt’s version of “Thing Called Love” from her 1989 album, Nick of Time, which reached No. 11 that year and helped re-boot Raitt’s own floundering career, that earned him the most acclaim as a songwriter. More records, countless tours and another label (A&M) followed that success.
Not much has changed in the intervening years, Hiatt insists, besides the ability to record and release records on his own. “That certainly helps,” he says of his indie status, “being able to make records that I want to make when I want.” His latest is the ninth since departing A&M after Perfectly Good Guitar.
Hiatt now writes and records his own records in his Franklin studio and leases them to New West Records, with whom he’s had a fruitful relationship since 2003’s Beneath This Gruff Exterior. His prodigious output—more than 700 songs and counting—he says, is simply a matter of occupation, and, he has joked, aging. “I’m running out of time,” he’s said on more than once occasion.
These days, Hiatt consistently releases noteworthy albums that have earned him the sort of high praise—if not multimillions—that those who have recorded his songs are more often associated with. It is not unusual to see the terms “national treasure” and “icon” tagged to his name, though he blanches at such sobriquets.
His music is neither influenced nor tied to moments in time, although you’d get that sense from his most recent album covers, which reflect a “Grapes of Wrath” grit and weariness that echo the nation’s economic plight. Hiatt is not a “message” songsmith in the mold of his fellow Indianan, John Mellencamp. Instead, he deals in the politics of life, family—the joy, the pain and day-to-day moments that underscore his best love songs—and, occasionally, the reckless abandon of his youth.
“All my songs are message songs,” he says, turning my question around. “I’m talking to the people—that is political. Causes and such is not something I deal in. It’s not my thing. There are other people much more knowledgeable than me in that arena.”
Politics may not appeal to Hiatt, but the ravages of disaster, natural and otherwise, pockmark his songs. Dirty Jeans is filled with references to monumentous events from the past few years. From floods and blizzards to remembrance of 9/11, Hiatt brings an emotional resonance—felt if not explicitly expressed—to his songs that form boundaries.
Speaking recently to another interviewer (Hiatt does lots of interviews) he reflects upon the events of recent years, connecting his lyrics to the everyman assessment of life he’s become known for. Not the really big stuff; just the stuff of daily life we all muddle through and can connect to and relate with.
“The 2010 flood in Nashville tore up some of our place and thousands of people lost their homes,” he told one reporter. “It didn’t get much national attention because there weren’t enough lootings—not enough bad news. Then, we did a winter tour and every city we went to got hit by a blizzard. The songs that came out of that were about the impermanence of things—the constant shifts of people and things.”
Even after 25 years of marriage, Hiatt still regards his love affair with similar impermanence, as if it will flutter away with the prevailing winds. His love songs—“relationship” songs, really—chart his comfort levels, affirm his core beliefs and celebrate small tendernesses—but the songs don’t get any easier, he says. “Love songs are still the hardest songs to write because they can become corny so quickly.”
In “I Love That Girl,” he writes of such “corny” affirmations, singing, “And she wakes me with coffee and kisses my head/And starts to explain about something she’s read/I say, ‘Darling, you haven’t heard a word that I’ve said’/And I love that girl.”
You can’t help but find something in common with Hiatt’s scenes from a relationship and I ask him how is wife responds to such valentines. “She likes ‘em for the most part,” he says with a laugh. “She’ll say things like, ‘That’s nice.’”
Unintentionally, it seems, the corniness of Hiatt’s sentiments are the ones the ring most true and he mines the mundane as if these fleeting moments that pass us all by will disappear, unremarked upon. Love, Hiatt, seems to say, is what happens when you’re not paying attention.
Such moments, along with a healthy dose of rock and roll, Indiana-style—hot cars, fast women and nights under the bleachers—and the wicked sense of humor that Hiatt brings to his live show, combine into something he regards as the epitome of his essence. Even for an artist who has lived from eight tracks to digital downloads.
“Nothing beats live,” he says, seeming to anticipate the road shows ahead of him. “You can’t download live and that’s the most exciting part. We’ve got a great little four piece band, it’s rock and roll, the classic setup and we’ve been rocking all over the country—the shows have been a blast.”
John Hiatt’s road goes on forever, it seems. We’re lucky to catch a glimpse.
John Hiatt performs Thursday, Nov. 17, at Track 29.