In the pantheon of treasured troubadours John Hiatt is a towering presence. The veteran American singer-songwriter has been blessed with critical acclaim but not always the extensive audience his intelligent, highly literate songs have warranted.
If the name is unfamiliar, you will have heard his work down the decades. Hiatt has been covered by, among others, Bob Dylan (The Usual), BB King and Eric Clapton (Riding With The King), Bonnie Raitt (Thing Called Love), Rosanne Cash (The Way We Make A Broken Heart), Rodney Crowell (She Loves The Jerk), Aaron Neville (Feels Like Rain), Joe Cocker, Emmylou Harris, Joe Bonamassa, Linda Rondstadt, Steve Earle, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Searchers and even Iggy Pop. One of my favourite renditions is by the cleverly titled I’m With Her (Sarah Jarosz, Sara Watkins and Aoife O’Donovan), who added even more poignancy to the bluegrass-stained Crossing Muddy Waters.
Without wishing to be morbid I have a kick-the-bucket list of 100 songs which is forever changing. I have warned friends to be prepared for an overnight vigil at the crematorium, or at least until the music stops. Desert Islands Discs would present an insurmountable challenge.
One of the constants of that list is Hiatt’s magnificent The Most Unoriginal Sin which he did not record until the 17th of his 22 studio albums in 2003, Beneath This Gruff Exterior. The song, about infidelity and a relationship in ruins, had been interpreted, wonderfully, by Willie Nelson 10 years earlier but Hiatt takes his own composition to fresh heights.
Superbly aided by the stinging harmonics of slide guitarist Sonny Landreth, Hiatt grips the listener from the start with his inventive rhyming and edgy wordplay. He is well-read for a high school dropout.
What there was left of us
Was all covered in dust and thick skin
A half-eaten apple
The whole Sistine Chapel
Painted on the head of a pin
A life long love's worth
Gone up in a smirk
And you didn't even see her waltz in
Now this love is a ghost, for having played host
To the most unoriginal sin
Hiatt was born in Indianapolis where his love of rock ’n’ roll at an early age was matched by a passion for racing cars. That’s what living on the doorstep of the Indy 500 does to you, and it informed his songwriting. Sleek machines and zany tales of the road pepper his back catalogue – Drive South, a huge hit for Suzy Bogguss, and Tennessee Plates, which was used in the Ridley Scott blockbuster movie Thelma And Louise, appeared on his 1988 album Slow Turning, before Thunderbird on 2005's Master Of Disaster and Detroit Made on 2011's Dirty Jeans And Mudslide Hymns.
The initial breakthrough came when his Sure As I’m Sitting Here was covered by Three Dog Night. He had moved to Nashville at the age of 18 and secured a job as a songwriter for a publishing company. Shades of Tin Pan Alley. Unable to read or write scores, he had to record all 250 songs he wrote for the firm.
It took Hiatt over a decade to crack the LP charts. His seminal album was 1987’s Bring The Family – Hiatt’s backing band included bottleneck virtuoso Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner who would later briefly become Little Village – featuring the gospel-soaked Have A Little Faith In Me and the glorious chugger Memphis In The Meantime. In the latter Hiatt’s wit and fondness for irony,
à la Warren Zevon and Guy Clark, delivered the killer line: ‘Until hell freezes over maybe you can wait that long / But I don't think Ronnie Milsap's gonna ever record this song.’
After battling drink, drugs and depression, Hiatt regained control in the mid-Eighties, and the music said thank you. You’d expect a man who has tamed his demons, surviving the suicides of his older brother and second wife, to have profound and plaintive stories to tell. His well-travelled gravelly drawl is suited to the Delta blues he has increasingly turned to, equally at home with raucous rockers and the rocking chair.
I love the foot-stompers but his soulful in-and-out-of-love songs stay in the memory longer. Those back-porch heartbreakers are always barbed or sardonic rather than maudlin or saccharine. There are few throwaway lines. Hiatt’s lyrical masterpiece continues…
At the wedding we smiled
While some devil played wild violin
Soon after the chapel
She offered me that apple
One bite and I was gone with the wind
And you needed no proof
'Cause the whole naked truth
Was wearing only an infidel’s grin
And a proud schoolboy’s boast
For having left his post
For the most unoriginal sin
There is no wild violin but Landreth’s cascading slide manages a fair impression. The so-called King of Slydeco – because of his Cajun roots – fronts Hiatt’s backing band The Goners who are belatedly given a title credit here after having also played on Slow Turning and The Tiki Bar Is Open. Landreth, described by Clapton as one of the most underrated of players, is renowned for his technique of fretting behind the slide and playing finger-style while simultaneously using a thumb pick. The effect is dazzling.
Beneath This Gruff Exterior did not quite match the consistent quality of Bring The Family where Cooder’s subtle, sinuous bottleneck uplifts the outstanding Lipstick Sunset. Cooder, Hiatt and Jim Dickinson had co-written Across The Borderline. The Gruff Exterior production is stripped-down and there is a live feel, the odd vocal glitch accommodated for the sake of it. In fact, it was recorded in just eight days. Hiatt told Paste magazine: ‘I’ve sung while I play guitar since I was 11 years old. That’s how I sing. So when you send me out there, “OK, overdub your vocal now”, and I’m not playing, I don’t sing the same. I’ve been through probably every phase, trying to trick the muse into showing up. So I kind of got over that.’
Hiatt, who has been touring again with Lyle Lovett, takes great pride in his dynamic live shows – performance of the song is as important to him as its creation. He has been writing songs since he was 11 too. ‘While my buddies were learning Jimi Hendrix solos, I was sitting up in my room writing songs,’ he told Rolling Stone Online. ‘Dylan and Leonard Cohen were my two favourites initially. I locked myself in my room for a year and listened to Visions Of Johanna over and over.’ Then the bluesmen and the giants of soul consumed him.
The human cost of economic turmoil has been a more recent theme. Unlike his president, he knows his left from his right. On Dirty Jeans And Mudslide Hymns, Damn This Town and Down Around My Place tackled the impact of austerity. ‘A lot of people are scared. I’m one of them, probably,’ Hiatt told Popmatters. ‘I get scared about my own family, what’s going to happen next.’ The same blue-collar concerns of Bruce Springsteen are apparent here.
Hiatt is at his most empathetic dealing with the disillusioned and disenfranchised, people dragged down by factors they cannot comprehend, least of all conquer. ‘My feeling ever since I was a kid was that the weirdest stuff was going on behind closed doors somewhere in these little communities, bizarre and beautiful little lives,’ Hiatt told the New York Times.
He is always brutally honest, particularly about matters of the heart, no doubt reinforced by those through-a-glass-darkly experiences. On his last album in 2014, Terms Of My Surrender, the voice is of lower register and the electric guitar defers to an acoustic. But the wry sentiments, satire and cinematic storytelling are as powerful as ever. That Americana Lifetime Achievement accolade in 2008 was richly merited.
The Most Unoriginal Sin should have the last word…
Now the jukebox is humming
At the venial shortcomings of men
But I found me this drink
That can finally sink
All this guilt I've been wallowing in
Buddy, once you get started
Once true love’s departed
You do it over and over again
So tonight I will toast
Just whoever comes close
To the most unoriginal sin
It takes an exceptional track to secure a place in that bucket list dominated by Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Lennon-McCartney, Springsteen, Rodney Crowell, Lucinda Williams, Shawn Colvin and Smokey Robinson. But Hiatt’s jewel is a song to die for.