Songwriter, Recording Artist and Performer John Hiatt
By Phil Reser
Photo by Jack Spencer
Over the past three decades, John Hiatt has emerged as one of America’s most inventive songwriters, covering rock, blues, acoustic, folk and new wave.
With 11 Grammy nominations and 24 albums to his name, he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 2008.
In the late 1980s, both Jeff Healey (“Angel Eyes”) and Bonnie Raitt (“Thing Called Love”) hit platinum with Hiatt-penned tunes, and more recently, Eric Clapton and B.B. King chose Hiatt’s “Riding with the King” as the title track for their Grammy-winning CD.
Born and raised in Indiana, Hiatt turned to music at a young age.
“I first picked up a guitar at age 11, and within 6 months, I started a band with two other kids in my school,” he says. “I started to write songs right away. While my buddies were up learning Jimi Hendrix solos, I was sitting up in my room writing songs. My early writer influences were pretty much song writers. Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen were my two favorites initially. I locked myself in my room for a year and listened to ‘Visions of Johanna’ over and over. Mississippi John Hurt was a big influence on me, that country blues thing and there was TajMahal. Through the English groups, oddly enough, such as the Yardbirds, I started to get into more electric blues, Muddy Waters, the Chicago stuff. I also loved Mitch Ryder and the pop rock records of the day.”
At age 18, Hiatt packed up his Corvair and drove south to Music City. He was hired by a publishing company as a songwriter for $25 a week and wrote 250 songs over the next five years.
“If I’d been a country songwriter, I would have learned a lot more, and quicker, but I was kind of a round peg in a square hole. But I learned a lot, and I fell in love with Nashville pretty much immediately. It was a whole other world. It was only 300 miles south of Indianapolis, but culturally it was just completely different.”
His first successful composition was “Sure As I’m Sitting Here,” which Three Dog Night took to the Top 20 in 1973.
Over the course of the next decade, Hiatt experimented with a number of styles, from folk to country to New Wave rock.
About his writing, he says, “The music dictates the melody and the melody will hopefully pry something loose that resembles a lyric. Whatever’s sort of floating around in my head tends to get shaken loose. Sometimes there’s shards of about 20 different stories that you kind of put together. And because I’m a songwriter, rather than a hotshot lead guitar player, I’ll get a chord structure or a little riff or something and then I’ll start singing something to it.”
The biggest turning point in his career came in 1987, when he went into the studio for only four days with a group that consisted of Ry Cooder on guitar, Jim Keltner on drums and Nick Lowe on bass. The sound was a stripped-down and seamless blend of country, folk, blues and rock. The resulting album, “Bring the Family,” has since been hailed as a roots-music classic. It includes some of Hiatt’s most enduring songs, including the piano-driven ballad “Have a Little Faith” and the galloping “Memphis in the Meantime.” His next album, “Slow Turning,” was almost as well-received.
Since then, he has ventured into bluegrass and pure blues, and has contributed songs to tribute albums to Muddy Waters and Mississippi John Hurt.
At the same time, more musicians began coming after Hiatt’s extensive song catalog.
In concert, Bruce Springsteen occasionally plays “Across the Borderline,” which Hiatt had written for the 1981 movie “The Border.” And, Dylan covered his “The Usual” on the soundtrack of the movie “Hearts of Fire.”
Last year’s release of his CD, “Mystic Pinball,” marked his fourth CD in four years.
After 40 years, Hiatt seems to be aging like a proverbial wine, getting better as time passes.
“I still love playing so much,” he says. “It’s like the three legs of a stool for me: songwriting, recording and performing. I will do this as long as I’m able to.” •
An Acoustic Evening with John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett at Laxson Auditorium