If anyone can be called a “songwriter’s songwriter,” it’s John Hiatt, who will play the Variety Playhouse on Friday. His songs have been covered on record and in concert by Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Rosanne Cash, Willie Nelson, Rodney Crowell, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Joe Cocker, Aaron Neville, Delbert McClinton and B.B. King.
It hasn’t always been easy going for Hiatt, who released his first album, “Hangin’ Around the Observatory,” on Epic Records in 1974 but didn’t achieve real success until more than a decade later.
His early life was difficult. His father was in ill health when Hiatt was a child and his elder brother committed suicide when John was nine, which was followed by the death of his father two years later. Hiatt took refuge in music, with Dylan, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, Muddy Waters and Jimi Hendrix among his early influences. He taught himself guitar at age 11 and not long afterward started writing songs. Like many who grew up in the 1960s, he was influenced by both American and British musicians, and as is common among musicians and others deeply into music, he followed their music to the source, which led him to blues and country music.
Overweight and dealing with a family life best described as tense, he started playing in bands, and drinking and experimenting with drugs, in his early teens. He dropped out of school, moved to Nashville and found a job as a songwriter for Tree Music, a major Nashville publisher. He did not read or write music, so he had to record the songs he wrote for Tree and leave the musical transcription and notation to others.
In 1973 Hiatt met producer Don Ellis of Epic Records, who signed him to a contract. His first two albums were critically acclaimed but didn’t sell. Three Dog Night covered one of his songs, “Sure as I’m Sittin’ Here,” and it became a Top 40 hit. But Hiatt was dropped by both Epic and Tree, after which he left Nashville for California, married and settled in Los Angeles.
In 1979 he signed with MCA Records and released two New Wave-flavored albums, which also failed to gain traction. But he was starting to be noticed in Europe, especially in Amsterdam, where he performed often, most notably opening for Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes at the Paradiso Club.
It was while he was playing with Cooder that I first saw Hiatt. This was during Cooder’s R&B period, and Hiatt had a guest spot singing O.V. Wright’s classic “Eight Men and Four Women.” It was an unforgettable moment.
Around this time, Hiatt, Cooder and Memphis musician Jim Dickinson co-wrote “Across the Borderline” for the movie “The Border,” which became a hit for Freddie Fender. The song is a masterpiece and has been covered by many artists.
Hiatt’s first three albums for Geffen followed the familiar pattern of his records, but they found him moving back toward his roots in R&B, soul and country music. And his songs were increasingly being noticed by other singers. Cash recorded several of them, and Dylan recorded “The Usual” for the soundtrack of the ill-fated film “Hearts of Fire.”
Meanwhile, Hiatt’s personal life was falling apart. He was now a father; his estranged wife committed suicide. Acknowledging that he had hit bottom, with both heavy alcohol and drug problems, he checked himself into rehab.
Regaining sobriety, he remarried and signed to a new label, A&M. In 1987 Hiatt recorded his masterpiece to date, “Bring the Family,” an album that was hard to ignore by anyone who listened to roots-based music. It is one of the great records of the past 50 years. Gone were the unnecessary production, the extra instrumentation and any semblance of trying to stay current with musical trends. Instead, playing acoustic guitar and piano, Hiatt was backed by a killer band made up of Cooder, Nick Lowe on bass and one of the greatest drummers in rock and roll, Jim Keltner. The sound was basic and immediately funky and rocking, but it allowed the songs to be in the forefront. The lyrics were brilliant and poetic, and chronicled his life: the trials and tribulations, his addiction, his recovery.
It was an album where every song mattered, and picking standouts on an album of standouts is difficult. But “Have a Little Faith in Me” is one of the greatest songs ever done by anyone, “Lipstick Sunset” is beyond comparison, and Raitt had a hit with a fine version of “Thing Called Love.” With the right setting, the right backing, the right production and especially the right songs, 13 years after his first album, John Hiatt was finally able to shine.
It was an amazing turnaround, comparable to when Jerry Wexler signed Aretha Franklin to Atlantic Records and, instead of putting her in front of orchestras and big bands as at her previous label, sat her at the piano and surrounded her with the best R&B musicians in New York and Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
Hiatt’s next album, “Slow Turning,” was almost as good and served to introduce guitar great Sonny Landreth to the world. It mined similar territory lyrically and included several standouts, most notably “Feels Like Rain.”
In 1991 Hiatt reunited with Cooder, Lowe and Keltner as the group Little Village, recording an album of the same name for Reprise Records. Though Hiatt sang most of the songs, their composition was a group effort, and those hoping for “Bring the Family” Part Two were disappointed.
Hiatt has since released several more albums on various labels, led quite a few bands and also performed often as a solo artist. While he has experimented with various sounds, sometimes harder, sometimes softer, sometime all acoustic, he has never strayed far from what he achieved on “Bring the Family.” There have been plenty of noteworthy songs along the way, such as “Perfectly Good Guitar,” “Crossing Muddy Waters” and his truly moving ballad about 9/11, “When New York Had Her Heart Broke.”
Hiatt’s latest album, “Mystic Pinball” on New West Records, released last year, finds him examining a relationship at a crossroads. Musically it’s a mixture of bluesy, harder-edged stuff and acoustic ballads, with a dash of reggae on the autobiographical “Wood Chipper,” the spookiest song on the record. But it’s the ballads that stand out and go right to the heart, on such songs as “It All Comes Back,” “I Just Don’t Know What to Say,” “I Don’t Know How to Love You” and “No Wicked Grin.” He saves the best for last with the finger-picked “Blues Can’t Even Find Me,” in which the singer spends his days pushing buttons on a little screen. Contrasting technological lyrical references with a roots-based musical background, Hiatt is convincingly real, while Doug Lancio’s slide guitar shimmers and shines in the background.
In concert, Hiatt is always engaging, never less than moving, at times goofy in an endearing sort of way, and most of all real, whether performing with a band or solo. Exactly a year ago, I saw him at the Philadelphia Folk Festival with the Combo, the band he’ll perform with on Friday. On a bill that included such artists as Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle and Little Feat, Hiatt easily delivered the most satisfying performance of the night.