John Hiatt

TrackAlbum
Riding With The KingRiding With The King
Memphis In The MeantimeBring The Family
Learning How To Love YouBring The Family
Slow TurningSlow Turning
Icy Blue HeartSlow Turning
Real Fine LoveStolen Moments
Cry LoveWalk On
Buffalo River HomePerfectly Good Guitar
I’'ll Never Get Over YouThe Tiki Bar Is Open
Crossing Muddy WatersCrossing Muddy Waters

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Contributor: Andrew Shields

In the close to forty years since the release of his first album, Hanging Around The Observatory, in 1974, John Hiatt has built up a remarkably consistent body of work which establishes him, in my opinion, as one of the best American songwriters of his generation. From an early point in his career, Hiatt was widely seen as a songwriters’ songwriter, with his songs being covered by a wide range of other artists. These included Three Dog Night, who recorded Hiatt’s Sure As I Am Sitting Here as early as 1974, country artists like Roseanne Cash (who had an early hit with the excellent The Way We Make A Broken Heart) and Bob Dylan, who performed his song, The Usual, in the abysmal 1987 movie, Hearts Of Fire.

While Hiatt’s early albums contained some excellent songs (including Riding With The King, one of the best tribute songs to Elvis Presley, which I have included here and which was later covered by B.B. King and Eric Clapton), they tended to be somewhat patchy affairs. It was not, perhaps, until his classic album Bring The Family was released in 1987 that Hiatt fully realised the potential which he had shown in his early work. On it, Hiatt achieved a potent fusion of his early influences,which included folk, country, gospel and soul music, with an added tinge of ‘New Wave’ edginess. This edginess reflected the influence on his work of contemporary English songwriters like Elvis Costello (who covered Hiatt’s song, She Loves The Jerk and who duetted with him on the song Living A Little, Laughing A Little on Warming Up To The Ice Age) and Graham Parker.

The themes which Hiatt covered on Bring The Family were ones which he was to explore further in his later work: such themes included the difficulties and rewards of family life, the after-effects of his own seemingly difficult upbringing and the painful processes by which maturity is achieved. The songs were also delivered with a hard-won wisdom, which seemed to owe a good deal to some of the difficulties which Hiatt had experienced in his own personal life up to that point.

Another of the great strengths of Bring The Family was the uniform excellence of the musicians who backed Hiatt on it; Ry Cooder, whose guitar playing was exemplary throughout (Hiatt had previously been a member of Cooder’s band and had co-written the excellent Across The Borderline with him and Jim Dickinson), Nick Lowe who played bass and the great Jim Keltner who played drums. The songs on the album were also consistently excellent and it was very difficult to decide which ones to exclude from this list. In the end, however, my choice was based on selecting those tracks which gave a good representation of the qualities of the album as a whole. The ones that missed out by a whisker were excellent songs such as Have A Little Faith In Me, Thank You Girl and Thing Called Love, (which Bonnie Raitt was to cover to very good effect on her excellent 1987 album, Nick Of Time).

Slow Turning, the album which Hiatt released after Bring The Family, was not, perhaps, quite as good as its predecessor, but it was still a very fine album in its own right. Again, he surrounded himself with a collection of fine musicians, including the excellent slide guitarist, Sonny Landreth, and the fine mandolinist, Bernie Leadon, best known, of course, for his involvement with The Eagles. My two selections from it here are the superb country ballad, Icy Blue Heart, and the title song, which continues along the autobiographical vein so effectively begun on Bring The Family. The album also featured what was, perhaps, Hiatt’s most effective ‘soul’ song, the excellent Feels Like Rain, which I would have liked to include here. Among a number of other fine songs on Slow Turning like Drive South and Sometime Other Than Now, there was also the catchy Georgia Rae, which Hiatt wrote to celebrate the birth of his second daughter just before the album was recorded.

Like Slow Turning, Hiatt’s next album, Stolen Moments, further explored a number of the themes which Hiatt had first touched on in Bring The Family. While it is somewhat disappointing by the standards of the previous two, it did include some fine songs. The best of these, Real Fine Love, which is selected here, is one Hiatt’s finest autobiographical songs. Taken together, these three albums form a coherent whole and they trace Hiatt’s recovery from what had been a very difficult period in his personal life towards a new-found contentment in both his family life and professional career.

Since then, John Hiatt has made a series of remarkably consistent albums and I have included some of the best songs from them here. My personal favourite of his later albums, however, is the superb Crossing Muddy Waters, a pared back, mainly acoustic album, which shows his mastery of what would nowadays be described as American roots music. The title song is one of Hiatt’s most personal and bravest songs, dealing with the tragic death of his second wife. Now in his fifth decade in the music business, and as his most recent CD, Mystic Pinball, amply demonstrates, John Hiatt continues to write excellent songs and is well deserving of a place among the best songwriters of recent times.

John Hiatt official website

The John Hiatt Archives

John Hiatt biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #191

10 Comments

  1. Ian Ashleigh
    Feb 8, 2014

    Many thanks Andrew, I’ve been anticipating this post since it was trailed earlier in the week.

    Hiatt, Cooder, Lowe and Keltner released a studio and a live album as Little Village and whilst Don’t Bug Me At Work is credited to the four of them, it deserves a mention at the very least.

    I think John Hiatt is a quality songwriter and has a great voice to go with it.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Feb 8, 2014

    Ian, many thanks for this.

    I deliberately didn’t include any Little Village here – because I thought Hiatt’s solo albums include so many quality songs, they deserve a Toppermost to themselves.

    Perhaps there is A Toppermost in Little Village or as part of one on Cooder or Lowe?

    Little Village covered in Peter Viney’s post on Ry Cooder (Toppermost #53) and Rob Millis’ Post on Nick Lowe (Toppermost #132) – ahead of the game! Ed.

  3. Peter Viney
    Feb 8, 2014

    Thanks, Andrew. You’ll have me exploring John Hiatt further. I have half a dozen albums, but was never a completist, so have large gaps. Little Village was a question on the Ry Cooder and Nick Lowe Toppermosts too. For me, it’s a fine album, but nothing would hit the ten best of any of them.

    Two ones that interest me. Bound by Love was on the last Band album, Jubilation, played with John Hiatt, and they said it was chosen from 25 songs by Hiatt which were waiting to be recorded.

    The other is the title track from Master of Disaster, because I played it non-stop when I got the album. Apart from being so catchy, Hiatt has humor, so I loved the lines:

    But the master of disaster
    gets tangled in his Telecaster
    He can’t play it any faster
    When he plays the blues

  4. David Lewis
    Feb 8, 2014

    As we’re all ahead of the game, my Sam Bush Toppermost (see Toppermost #155 … Ed.) nearly included his version of Memphis In The Meantime, which of course includes the line, “I like country music/I like mandolin … But what I need right now is a telecaster through a vibrolux turned to ten.”

  5. Rob Millis
    Feb 8, 2014

    A fine addition, long overdue and superbly done.

    I avoided Little Village because I am one of the firm believers in the generally perceived view that parts were greater than sum. For me, the too many chiefs curse of a supergroup really came to the fore with LV, whereas Bring The Family had Hiatt’s name above the door and he was steering the ship.

    I particularly like the production and playing Lowe and his then current band (no slouches: Lowe himself on bass, Paul Carrack on organ/piano, ex GP & Rumour guitarist Martin Belmont and the great Bobby Irwin on drums who is still with Lowe today) did on Riding With The King. The title track is a great record as well as a great song; Lowe himself is always keen to point out that the two are quite different things.

    Good choices. I’d have had Feels Like Rain and the title cut from Perfectly Good Guitar myself, but as is so often the case, don’t fancy sweating over which two I’d sacrifice to make room!

  6. Andrew Shields
    Feb 9, 2014

    Many thanks for these comments.

    Hiatt is one of the artists who could probably stretch to two or more Toppermosts. Like all of the songs mentioned here and ‘Old School’ from Master of Disaster would be another one of those that nearly got over the line…

  7. Andrew Shields
    Feb 9, 2014

    Have gone back & read both the Cooder & Lowe lists – both great, by the way …

    Rob’s reasoning on LV hard to argue with, so I have decided not to…

  8. Andrew Shields
    Jul 3, 2014

    For anyone who is interested, John Hiatt’s new album, Terms of My Surrender, will be released on July 15. You can find more details here.

  9. Peter Viney
    Sep 1, 2014

    “Terms of My Surrender” is a strong album. Favourite three tracks (so far) are Nobody Knew His Name, Baby’s Gonna Kick and Marlene.

  10. Andrew Shields
    Sep 1, 2014

    Peter thanks for this. Agree with you that ‘Terms of My Surrender’ is a fine album… ‘Old People’ a personal favourite, as it is a very witty song.

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