A topic that’s guaranteed to stimulate heated discussion among music fans would be: Who is the greatest songwriter of the Rock and R&B era? Bob Dylan is probably the first name that would pop into many minds, or perhaps Lennon & McCartney — as a duo or individually — would be the choice of many. You can also toss around the likes of Neil Young, Curtis Mayfield, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Pete Townsend, Burt Bacharach, Townes Van Zandt, Brian Wilson, Dan Penn, Randy Newman, Leiber & Stoller, Carole King, Elton John & Bernie Taupin, Richard Thompson, Laura Nyro, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and countless others. But one guy who ranks among the greatest in any genre yet never gets proper props is John Hiatt. If you just said “Who?” then my point is made. John Hiatt is a music legend who remains criminally under the public radar.
Since the early 1970 John Hiatt has been writing songs, lots of songs. He’s written clever songs, funny songs, wistful songs, tenderly beautiful songs, and foot-stomping numbers that leave a smile on your face. Rock, Country, Folk, R&B, Blues; he can do it all, and do it all well. Hiatt has a wicked sense of humor, but he’s also a compassionate and tender writer. Really, there is no style of song or type of music that this guy can’t write. Many of Hiatt’s songs have been covered by artists such as Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, B.B. King and Eric Clapton, Jeff Healey, Joe Cocker, Linda Ronstadt, Delbert McClinton, Nick Lowe, Patty Griffin, and even some fellow named Bob Dylan. Not surprisingly, there is a tribute album of artists covering Hiatt songs; It’ll Come to You: the Songs of John Hiatt.
In addition to being a superlative songwriter, John Hiatt has recorded twenty most memorable solo albums. His songwriting has always been of the highest quality and he has gained the reputation for being a vibrant live performer (I was lucky to see him perform with a band one time in Florida), but over the years he has also developed into a fine singer too. Check out his powerful 1994 live album, Hiatt Comes Alive at Budokan for a dose of his energetic and electric side. No, this album wasn’t really recorded at the famed Japanese venue where Cheap Trick also experienced concert success, but the title – not to mention the hilarious cover — does serve as proof that John Hiatt has a definite sense of humor.
Hiatt began his career as a songwriter for a publishing company in the early 1970s. His first brush with success came in 1974 when Three Dog Night scored a hit with one of the songs he had written, “Sure As I’m Sitting Here.” That same year he recorded his debut album, Hangin’ Around the Observatory for Epic Records. That album and the next year’s Overcoats, sunk like molten bricks, and Hiatt was promptly released from his contract. He signed with MCA and made two even more impressive albums, Slug Line and Two Bit Monsters, before finding himself out of a contract once again. Next came a stint with Geffen Records, where he made three more wonderful albums; All of a Sudden, Riding with the King, and Warming Up to the Ice Age.
But those records also failed to sell as well as hoped, and Hiatt went label shopping once again, eventually signing with A&M. That led to a nearly decade-long streak (from the mid 80 to the mid 90s) of wonderful albums such as Bring the Family, Slow Turning, Stolen Moments, Perfectly Good Guitar, and Walk On (the later two with yet another different label, Capitol). While Hiatt didn’t turn into a Michael Jackson hit-making machine during those years, his albums did finally start selling better and cemented his reputation as a top-notch songwriter and recording artist. Hiatt was part of super-group Little Village, an ensemble that also featured Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe, and Jim Keltner. Those same musicians played on Hiatt’s perfectly crafted Bring the Family album in 1987, but as Little Village they only recorded the one album in 1992.
Hiatt eventually abandoned the major label ship and has continued to steadily release consistently fine new albums on smaller labels such as Vanguard and New West. His latest offering, 2011’s Dirty Jeans & Mudslide Hymns is a particularly outstanding collection of tunes. Songs like “Damn This Town,” “Train to Birmingham,” and “Adios to California” rank as some of the best he’s ever written. Considering the wealth of gems in his back catalog, that is saying a lot.