For the first decade or so of his career, John Hiatt was a case of mostly unfulfilled potential. Everyone knew he was a good songwriter–particularly other songwriters–but, for one reason or another, his albums never showed much more than the occasional flash of brilliance. This was partly due to the idiocy of major labels–Hiatt was signed to a few in the ’70s and ’80s, and all of them tried turning Hiatt into a different flavor of a different month–and partly due to the lack of focus and self-destructive behavior of an angry alcoholic in a seemingly interminable downward spiral.
In fact, Hiatt’s early efforts are interesting primarily because of what was going on behind the scenes, not the music itself. Rare is even the most diehard Hiatt fan who will tell you that Warming Up to the Ice Age or Riding With the King are great albums. The songs were often there–a fact attested to by the number of artists who have cherrypicked those albums for songs to cover on their own releases–but the performances were typically underwhelming. And the production? Whoa. Early Hiatt albums are notorious for being victims of some of the most wrong-headed and inappropriate production of the period.
And so, in 1986, when Hiatt found himself without a record deal, it wasn’t exactly a surprise. The cognoscenti shook their heads and clucked about how wrong it was that such an undeniable talent had been consigned to the periphery, but all things considered, he’d been given his shot.
And then a funny thing happened: Hiatt hit bottom, cleaned up, got sober, and turned the experience into the best music of his career. He showcased the new material during a residency at McCabe’s in Los Angeles, and word spread. The next step was a new deal with a new label, and sessions for what would become the certifiably classic Bring the Family.
Bring the Family was a watershed for Hiatt, and since its release in 1987, it’s become a touchstone for countless songwriter dorks with a soft spot for smartly written roots music. Asked to name his dream band, he responded with “Nick Lowe, Ry Cooder, and Jim Keltner”–and then discovered, much to his surprise, that all three were ready and willing. It was a case of the perfect musicians for the perfect songs at the perfect time. Getting these four cantankerous talents (and egos) into a studio together would prove to be much more problematic in the future, but for the four days it took to record Bring the Family, lightning met bottle. There are no wasted moments: Lowe’s bass is a fat, wondrous thing; Cooder’s guitar barks, bends, and snaps; Keltner’s drumwork is predictably stellar; and Hiatt’s warm, elastic growl brings it all together.
And the songs–yeah, man, the songs. It’s an album about growing up late, about coming to terms with regret, about getting a second chance with love and family. And in exploring these subjects, Hiatt lost none of the caustic humor that had typified his earlier work; instead, he learned to channel it through a more–pardon the pun–sober outlook. Take “Your Dad Did,” for instance. There might be, somewhere, a better song about fathers, sons, and domestic bliss, but I haven’t heard it:
You’re a chip off the old block
Why does it come as such a shock
That every road up which you rock
Your dad already did
Yeah you’ve seen the old man’s ghost
Come back as creamed chipped beef on toast
Now if you dont get your slice of roast
You’re gonna flip your lid
Just like your dad did
Well the day was long, now supper’s on
The thrill is gone
But something’s taking place
Yeah the food is cold and your wife feels old
But all hands fold
As the two-year-old says grace
She says, “Help the starving children to get well
“But let my brother’s hamster burn in hell”
You love your wife and kids
Just like your dad did
In the years since Bring the Family, Hiatt has enjoyed a career resurgence. After a trio of well-received albums for A&M, he signed a big-bucks contract with Capitol that produced two solid releases (Perfectly Good Guitar and Walk On) and a pretty lousy one (Little Head). His last few albums have been on smaller independent labels, but this was a change borne of choice, not necessity, and his tours and albums continue to draw solid crowds and reviews. His next release, Master of Disaster, hits stores on June 21, and was produced by the legendary Jim Dickinson and recorded with the North Mississippi All-Stars.
An album-by-album rundown of Hiatt’s entire career–or even the albums since Bring the Family–would take forever, and I’d probably be the only one who read it, so here instead is a Rather Hurriedly Assembled and By No Means Definitive collection of some of my favorite John Hiatt tunes:
John Hiatt – Cry Love (live)
John Hiatt – Before I Go (live)
John Hiatt – Real Fine Love
John Hiatt – Memphis in the Meantime (live)
John Hiatt – Your Dad Did
John Hiatt – Permanent Hurt
John Hiatt – Drive South
John Hiatt – Thank You Girl
John Hiatt – Lift Up Every Stone
John Hiatt – Little Head
John Hiatt – Thing Called Love (live)
John Hiatt – Through Your Hands
John Hiatt – Angel
John Hiatt – Cross My Fingers
John Hiatt – My Dog And Me
John Hiatt – Slow Turning
John Hiatt – The Most Unoriginal Sin
John Hiatt – Seven Little Indians
John Hiatt – Have A Little Faith In Me