One of rock's best-kept secrets, John Hiatt is one of the most criminally underrated artists in recent decades. He is an immensely talented songwriter with a gritty voice that gives uncommon emotional depth to his songs. His career has spanned four decades and seven record labels. His 1987 masterpiece Bring the Family was a mild commercial breakthrough; although it didn't make him a household name, it did bring him long-overdue recognition just outside the mainstream. Hiatt is highly revered by his fellow musicians; his music crosses several genres (rock, country, blues, and others) and numerous artists from all of those genres have covered his songs. Many of Hiatt's pre-1987 albums have been discontinued in physical formats, but most of them are available digitally.
Hiatt made his first recording as a member of White Duck, a likable if unspectacular country rock band. Hiatt was on board for the band's second and final album In Season in 1972. (Hiatt did not play on White Duck's paper-thin self-titled 1971 debut record). The four band members (Hiatt, Don Kloetzke, Mario Friedel, and Paul Tabet) each contribute songs as singers and songwriters. Hiatt's two songs are the record's high points. "You Caught Me Laughin' " sounds like the type of song that would turn up on one of Hiatt's first two solo albums; the other one, "Sail Away", sounds almost like vintage Hiatt. "Sail Away" would be deserving of inclusion on a Hiatt anthology.
The songs contributed by Mario Friedel are almost as good as Hiatt's. Nearly half of the songs are written and sung by Don Kloetzke (who has a white duck sitting on his lap in the back cover photo); the quality of his contributions is inconsistent. Kloetzke shines on "Thank You" and "A Girl Who", but he overindulges on "Bull Island Boogie" and "Looney Tune", two oddball novelty songs in which Hiatt is not a credited player.
Overall, In Season makes for very pleasant listening, and should be regarded as more than just a curiosity piece for Hiatt's fans. The music on this record alternately resembles that of the Band and the Flying Burrito Brothers, but is more upbeat than either.
Note: In Season was released on CD in South Korea in 2014 on the Big Pink label.
1. Carry Love -- (Don Kloetzke)
2. Firewater -- (Mario Friedel, Skip Rogers)
3. You Caught Me Laughin' -- (John Hiatt)
4. Thank You -- (Don Kloetzke)
5. Sail Away -- (John Hiatt)
6. Bull Island Boogie -- (Buzz Cason, Don Kloetzke)
7. Honey, You'll Be Alright (Do What Ya Gotta Do) -- (Paul Tabet, Mario Friedel)
8. Lazy Days -- (Mario Friedel)
9. A Girl Who -- (Don Kloetzke)
10. Again -- (Mario Friedel)
11. Looney Tune -- (Don Kloetzke)
Hiatt's first two solo albums were released on Epic in 1974 and 1975. Hangin' Around the Observatory was an impressive debut. It doesn't stand as one of Hiatt's best, but it demonstrates Hiatt's songwriting talent in its early stages. It was released at a time when record companies were trying to tout singer-songwriters as "the New Dylan", a tag that is now seen as a jinx; it subsequently was lost in the shuffle and went by unnoticed. Hiatt's vocals often sound mannered on this record, but they generally serve the songs well. "Sure As I'm Sittin' Here" was a Top 20 hit for Three Dog Night, the first of several acts to score a hit single with a Hiatt composition.
Overcoats, Hiatt's sophomore album, is similar to the first but less impressive. Hiatt often sounds like he's straining on this record, either vocally ("Distance"), lyrically ("I Want Your Love Inside of Me"), or musically ("Motorboat To Heaven"). Although it has its good moments ("One More Time" and "Down Home" are high points), Overcoats is Hiatt's most dismissable album.
HANGIN' AROUND THE OBSERVATORY
1. Maybe Baby, Say You Do
2. Whistles In My Ears
3. Sure As I'm Sittin' Here
5. Hangin' Around the Observatory
6. Full Moon
7. Wild-Eyed Gypsies
8. It's All Right With Me
9. Little Blue Song For You
1. One More Time
2. Smiling In the Rain
3. I'm Tired of Your Stuff
5. Down Home
7. I Want Your Love Inside of Me
8. I Killed An Ant With My Guitar
9. Motorboat To Heaven
10. The Lady of the Night
After the two Epic records failed to attract much attention, Hiatt was without a record label for four years. He next surfaced in 1979 on the MCA label for which he recorded another pair of albums. Slug Line was the first of these; on this record, Hiatt began to sound like a new wave artist in the Elvis Costello mold. Slug Line is more focused than his two previous albums, and is the best album he recorded before 1987's Bring the Family. The music on this record is consistently exciting, full of driving beats and clever wordplay. Hiatt's vocals sound angry on this album, giving the songs a raw effectiveness. It is interesting to contrast this record with Bring the Family and the records that have come after it; you can hear Hiatt mature from an angry young man into an older, wiser, happier family man.
Two Bit Monsters continued in the Elvis Costello vein, but Hiatt sounds less angry and more mature on this record. While it lacks much of the nervy excitement of Slug Line, Two Bit Monsters marks the first step in Hiatt's evolution toward his current sensibilities. It's not one of his best, but a middling Hiatt record is better than a top-notch effort by most. Two of the tracks on this record were covered by Rosanne Cash ("Pink Bedroom" and "It Hasn't Happened Yet"), one of many country artists who have covered Hiatt's work over the years. The two MCA albums mark an interesting stage in Hiatt's early development as an artist.
1. You Used To Kiss The Girls
2. The Negroes Were Dancing
3. Slug Line
4. Madonna Road
5. (No More) Dancin' In The Street
6. Long Night
7. The Night That Kenny Died
8. Radio Girl
9. You're My Love Interest
10. Take Off Your Uniform
11. Sharon's Got A Drugstore
12. Washable Ink
TWO BIT MONSTERS
1. Back To Normal
2. Down In Front
3. I Spy (For The F.B.I.)
4. Pink Bedroom
5. Good Girl, Bad World
6. Face The Nation
7. Cop Party
8. Back To The War
9. It Hasn't Happened Yet
10. String Pull Job
11. New Numbers
When he switched labels again, Hiatt signed on to the then-new Geffen label, and was convinced that David Geffen's marketing wizardry would make him a star. It obviously didn't happen, but the label certainly tried. On two of Hiatt's three Geffen albums, the company tapped big-name producers to make his music as radio-friendly as possible. As a result, these two albums are uncharacteristic of Hiatt's work, and are not favorites among many of his fans. However, both albums are actually quite good.
The 1982 album All Of A Sudden was overproduced by Tony Visconti, who drenched Hiatt in synthesizers and filtered his voice in such a way that he sometimes sounded like David Bowie (one of Visconti's old clients). But Visconti's high-tech treatment doesn't ruin the album. Though it badly dates a few of the songs ("I Could Use An Angel" surely could have used more subtlety), it never dilutes the potency of Hiatt's songcraft. Several songs are top-notch, including "Getting Excited", "Forever Yours", and the rockabilly tune "Doll Hospital". In fact, the production and arrangements actually work to good effect on some tracks: "I Look For Love" has a flavorful nightclub atmosphere, and "This Secret Life" effectively conveys an anxious mood. All Of A Sudden is a fascinating misfire. With a more hands-off producer, it probably would have resembled Two Bit Monsters.
The 1985 album Warming Up To The Ice Age sounds like a full-tilt effort by Geffen to get Hiatt on the radio and the charts. The album is given ultra-slick production by Norbert Putnam, who alternately makes Hiatt sound like a heavy-metal rocker ("The Usual", "I Got A Gun"), a dance-pop crooner ("The Crush", "She Said The Same Things To Me"), a Phil Collins-like power balladeer ("When We Ran"), and other things that Hiatt normally isn't. But quality is not a problem here. Hiatt's lyrics and vocals are clever as ever, and he never drowns in Putnam's production excesses. Not the best way to hear Hiatt's craft, perhaps, but it's probably his most accessible album. One surprising moment: a duet with Elvis Costello on a remake of the 1975 Spinners hit "Living A Little, Laughing A Little", on which the two singers sound strangely similar.
ALL OF A SUDDEN
1. I Look For Love
2. This Secret Life
3. Overnight Story
4. Forever Yours
5. Some Fun Now
6. The Walking Dead
7. I Could Use An Angel
8. Getting Excited
9. Doll Hospital
10. Something Happens
12. My Edge Of The Razor
WARMING UP TO THE ICE AGE
1. The Usual
2. The Crush
3. When We Ran
4. She Said The Same Things To Me
5. Living A Little, Laughing A Little
6. Zero House
7. Warming Up To The Ice Age
8. I'm A Real Man
9. Number One Honest Game
10. I Got A Gun
A testament to the admiration Hiatt receives from other recording artists is Rhino's various artists tribute album Love Gets Strange: The Songs of John Hiatt. Released in 1993 (and now unfortunately hard to find), the album contains 18 Hiatt compositions performed by artists from various genres, including country (Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Kelly Willis), r&b (Neville Brothers, Johnny Adams) and rock (Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, Marshall Crenshaw). Although the album noticeably does not contain Bonnie Raitt's hit version of "Thing Called Love", it does include Jeff Healey's "Angel Eyes", which was a Top 5 single in 1989. Although all of the songs were written by Hiatt, 7 of the 18 songs on Love Gets Strange have never appeared on a Hiatt recording; those songs are marked with an asterisk (*) below. Love Gets Strange is a worthy tribute to a great songwriter.
1. LOVE GETS STRANGE - Don Dixon *
2. WASHABLE INK - The Neville Brothers
3. SHE SAID THE SAME THINGS TO ME - Johnny Adams
4. WHEN WE RAN - Katy Moffatt
5. PINK BEDROOM - Rosanne Cash
6. SOMEPLACE WHERE LOVE CAN'T FIND ME - Marshall Crenshaw *
7. DRIVE SOUTH - Kelly Willis
8. ANGEL EYES - The Jeff Healey Band
9. I'LL NEVER GET OVER YOU - Jo-El Sonnier
10. SHE DON'T LOVE NOBODY - Nick Lowe & His Cowboy Outfit *
11. SHE LOVES THE JERK - Rodney Crowell
12. SOMETHING HAPPENS - Dave Edmunds
13. ICY BLUE HEART - Emmylou Harris
14. THE REAL ONE - John Doe *
15. WHERE IS THE NEXT ONE COMING FROM? - Mitch Ryder *
16. THE WAY WE MAKE A BROKEN HEART - Rosanne Cash
17. ANY SINGLE SOLITARY HEART - Kris McKay *
18. CONFIDENCE MAN - The Jeff Healey Band *
The albums that Hiatt released in the 1990's became less introspective as time went along. It was probably due to his personal contentment, since one can hardly argue that he was spoiled by stardom. On the 1997 album Little Head, Hiatt sounded as though he was aiming for nothing more than good-time music. Co-produced by Hiatt and ex-Cracker bassist Davey Faragher, the album begins with an amusingly goofy double-entendre title track; the rest of the songs are the types of rockers ("Pirate Radio", "Sure Pinocchio") and ballads ("My Sweet Girl", "Runaway") that Hiatt can probably perform in his sleep. This album has many detractors who deride it as being creatively lazy, but a below-average Hiatt effort is still better than many other artists' top-notch efforts. Hiatt has paid plenty of dues; if he wants to have occasional fun with a superficially enjoyable album such as Little Head, he can surely be forgiven.
1. Little Head
2. Pirate Radio
3. My Sweet Girl
4. Feelin' Again
6. Sure Pinocchio
8. Woman Sawed In Half
9. Far As We Go
10. After All This Time
Hiatt's next album surfaced three years later on the independent Vanguard label. Crossing Muddy Waters is a rustic set of tunes that strips Hiatt's usual folk and blues leanings down to their bare essence. It was recorded over the course of four days by the multi-instrumental trio of Hiatt, Davey Faragher, and David Immergluck. The sound is mostly, though not entirely, acoustic, and there are no drums (although Faragher is credited with "foot-stomping" and with playing a "metal folding chair"). Hiatt also returned to the type of introspective lyrics which were largely absent on Little Head. It's not in the same musical or lyrical league as Bring The Family (the other Hiatt album that was recorded in four days), but Crossing Muddy Waters is still another admirable example of what Hiatt is able to accomplish on a small, intimate scale.
Crossing Muddy Waters was reissued in 2010 by Vector Recordings.
1. Lincoln Town
2. Crossing Muddy Waters
3. What Do We Do Now
4. Only The Song Survives
5. Lift Up Every Stone
6. Take It Down
8. Take It Back
9. Mr. Stanley
10. God's Golden Eyes
11. Before I Go
The Tiki Bar Is Open reunited Hiatt with the Goners, the Louisiana band that backed him on his 1988 album Slow Turning. Although Tiki Bar is reminiscent of that album in some ways -- mainly due to Sonny Landreth's distinctive guitar playing -- it does not duplicate its rural country feel. Instead, most of Tiki Bar returns Hiatt to the electric adult-alternative sounds of his '90's albums, with the amps turned down a bit lower. The Tiki Bar Is Open is the type of thoughtful, moving work that we've come to expect from Hiatt, with "My Old Friend", "Something Broken", and the title track delivering the emotional high points. And, just when you think the album holds no real surprises, it closes with "Farther Stars", a nearly-nine-minute space jam that is unlike any other song Hiatt has ever recorded.
The Tiki Bar Is Open was reissued in 2012 by New West Records.
1. Everybody Went Low
2. Hangin' Round Here
3. All The Lilacs In Ohio
4. My Old Friend
5. I Know A Place
6. Something Broken
7. Rock Of Your Love
8. I'll Never Get Over You
9. The Tiki Bar Is Open
10. Come Home To You
11. Farther Stars
In 2002, Hiatt was tapped to write and sing original songs for Disney's The Country Bears, a cornball live-action kiddie film about a lovable group of country-singing bears who plan a reunion show. Hiatt also sings four of his seven compositions which appear on the movie's soundtrack CD. The soundtrack is a moderately enjoyable collection of family-friendly tunes. Hiatt's contributions are done in his usual genre-blending style. They may be a bit less serious than the songs he records for his proper albums, but they do not fall below his usual standards. Hiatt's compositions also come in the forms of a gentle duet between Bonnie Raitt and Don Henley (neither of whom are strangers to singing Hiatt's songs); a modern r&b number from Krystal Harris; and a semi-slick country-pop tune from Jennifer Paige.
Besides Hiatt's songs, the CD also includes a rousing rockabilly rave-up from Brian Setzer, with character actor Stephen Root providing guest vocals; a timeless Byrds classic; Elton John's aged ballad "Friends" (which was originally the title song for a really bad movie from 1971); a banjo solo from Bela Fleck; and a pair of laid-back instrumentals from veteran film score composer Christopher Young.
1. LET IT RIDE - John Hiatt
2. WHERE NOBODY KNOWS MY NAME - John Hiatt
3. CAN LOVE STAND THE TEST - Don Henley and Bonnie Raitt
4. THE KID IN YOU - Krystal Marie Harris
5. I'M ONLY IN IT FOR THE HONEY - Brian Setzer '68 Comeback Special with Stephen Root
6. KICK IT INTO GEAR - Jennifer Paige
7. STRAIGHT TO THE HEART OF LOVE (live) - John Hiatt with Alvin Chea, E.G. Daily, Colin Hay, Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt
8. BEAR MOUNTAIN HOP - Bela Fleck
9. JUST THE GOIN' - John Hiatt
10. WHERE NOBODY KNOWS MY NAME (reprise) - E.G. Daily
11. SO YOU WANT TO BE A ROCK 'N' ROLL STAR - Byrds
12. FRIENDS - Elton John
13. BEARLY HOME (score) - Chris Young
14. NYLON HYMN (score) - Chris Young
Hiatt worked with the Goners again for the 2003 album Beneath This Gruff Exterior, which is currently in print. It was the most fiery album Hiatt had released in a decade, and it took him nearly another decade to match that fire again. A limited edition promo CD connected to this release contained the original demos of three of the album's tracks: the excited "Uncommon Connection" and "Almost Fed Up With the Blues", and the introspective ballad "Missing Pieces". The sound of these demos is much like the acoustic, drumless sound of the Crossing Muddy Waters album. But Hiatt's vocals are just as impassioned here as they are on the finished album tracks, making these demos the virtual equals of their fully realized counterparts.
1. Uncommon Connection
2. Missing Pieces
3. Almost Fed Up With The Blues
The 2012 U.K. release Paper Thin: The 1989 Canadian Broadcast purveys an oft-bootlegged concert by Hiatt and the Goners, performed in January of '89 at Barrymore's Music Hall in Ottawa and broadcast on local rock station CKQB-FM. It's a fine musical snapshot of Hiatt during his watershed period, featuring seven songs apiece from the Bring The Family and Slow Turning albums. This was the point in Hiatt's career when he had finally developed his defining style, performing the unique brand of country-blues that helped him distinguish himself in the late ‘80’s. It was also the time in his life when he found new fulfillment as a family man, and he had plenty to say about that topic during that evening. The Goners added their own Cajun-style dimension to the songs from Bring The Family while leaving the Mississippi Delta roots intact. Their playing on the Slow Turning selections is faithful to their playing on the studio versions without being too exact. Sonny Landreth's slide guitar adds emotional texture to the regretful "Tip Of My Tongue" and the frustrated "Icy Blue Heart". "Is Anybody There?" loses a bit of its Gospel flavor in this setting, but Hiatt makes up for it with plain old soul. As on the studio version, "Have A Little Faith In Me" needs only a piano and Hiatt's voice to achieve emotional heights. Hiatt’s performances here are often soul-baring, especially during the closing track “Your Dad Did”, in which Hiatt ad-libs a psychodramatic conversation with his deceased father. Paper Thin is anything but paper-thin; it's a full-blooded example of a performer laying his heart open for an audience, and having fun in the process.
1. Memphis In The Meantime
2. Drive South
3. Thank You Girl
4. Tip Of My Tongue
5. Tennessee Plates
6. Alone In The Dark
7. Ride Along
8. Is Anybody There?
9. Paper Thin
10. Thing Called Love
11. Have A Little Faith In Me
12. Icy Blue Heart
13. It'll Come To You
14. Your Dad Did
My Kind Of Town: The Lost 1993 Chicago Broadcast was another U.K. release that proffered a previously bootlegged concert, this one performed in June of '93 by Hiatt and the Guilty Dogs. (My Kind Of Town is at least the fourth live Hiatt release recorded during that year with that band). This CD was also sourced from a radio broadcast, this one on Chicago's WXRT-FM; it was recorded at Grant Park in that city. The Guilty Dogs were made up of guitarist Michael Ward (formerly of School Of Fish and later of the Wallflowers) and two ex-Cracker members: bassist Davey Faragher and drummer Michael Urbano. This backing trio gave Hiatt's music a kind of '90's alternative rock hipness, which worked to good advantage on most of the songs (especially the ones from the Perfectly Good Guitar album, which the Guilty Dogs played on), but seemed inappropriate for some of the more country-based tracks (i.e. "Drive South", "Child of the Wild Blue Yonder"). My Kind Of Town certainly doesn't disappoint, but if you already own Hiatt Comes Alive At Budokan and/or Live From Austin Tx and/or Live At The Hiatt, then the first 11 tracks on this CD basically offer more of the same with more casual presentation. However, the last three "bonus" tracks were recorded three years earlier with a different band, during Hiatt's 1990 Stolen Moments tour. On these three tracks ("Seven Little Indians", "Bring Back Your Love To Me", and "Rock Back Billy"), Hiatt comes across as a more "mature" adult-alternative performer, a mellowed-out middle-aged artist who hadn't yet started hanging with those rowdy young Guilty Dogs hipsters. Showing this more common side of Hiatt that is oddly under-represented on his live releases, these three tracks give My Kind Of Town some extra value.
1. Through Your Hands
2. Drive South
3. Paper Thin
4. When You Hold Me Tight
5. Child of the Wild Blue Yonder
6. Straight Outta Time
7. Thing Called Love
8. Cross My Fingers
9. Feels Like Rain
10. Have A Little Faith In Me
11. Perfectly Good Guitar
12. Seven Little Indians
13. Bring Back Your Love To Me
14. Rock Back Billy
For Record Store Day 2019, Hiatt and his 35-year-old daughter Lilly Hiatt (who is an alt-country recording artist) recorded a 7-inch split-single limited to 450 copies. On the A-side, John covered Lilly’s song “All Kinds Of People”, which originally appeared on her 2017 album Trinity Lane. On the B-side, Lilly covered her father’s song “You Must Go”, from his 1995 album Walk On.
When you hear the elder Hiatt sing his daughter’s song “All Kinds Of People”, it’s hard to believe it’s not his own composition. The heartbroken lyrics about losing a true lover who is bound for the ocean (sort of a first-person variation on the Looking Glass song “Brandy”) have an emotional depth and a sense of down-to-earth realism that seemingly run in the family. John’s gentle guitar-and-harmonica arrangement, in which he is accompanied only by drummer Kenneth Blevins, also makes the song sound very much like it is one of his own creations.
Lilly also manages to put her own spin on her father’s song “You Must Go”, one of the better selections from his spotty 1995 album Walk On. She sings the song in an affecting voice reminiscent of Emmylou Harris. While she keeps the original’s mandolin-based arrangement in place, Lilly’s rendition ends with a nice, unexpected ambient guitar fadeout that helps the single leave a lasting impression. It’s a fruitful little father-daughter collaboration.
A. All Kinds Of People – written by Lilly Hiatt, performed by John Hiatt
B. You Must Go – written by John Hiatt, performed by Lilly Hiatt