Born c. 1952 in Indianapolis, IN; married third wife, Nancy, 1986; children: (first marriage) Lilly and Georgia Rae. Education: Attended Immaculate Heart of Mary Schools, Indianapolis. Addresses: Record company--Vanguard Records, 2700 Pennsylvania Ave., Santa Monica, CA, website: http://www.vanguardrecords.com. Management--Vector Management, P.O. Box 120479, Nashville, TN 37212. Booking--Principle Artists, 9777 Wilshire Blvd. Suite 1018, Beverly Hills, CA 90212, phone: (310) 274-6888. Website--John Hiatt Official Website: http://www.johnhiatt.com.
Singer-songwriter John Hiatt has been an important figure in rock music, a flipside to many rock artists who live by the guitar and the groove. Rock audiences, no less than their Broadway counterparts, value the perfect line of lyric that flashes with wit or cuts to the bone of a painful story. Wordsmith John Hiatt has gradually risen to prominence by converting his personal tragedies into a lengthy catalogue of recordings.
Hiatt's raspy, blues-based singing has been compared with that of Bruce Springsteen. Dabbling in several styles of music, including what Rolling Stone critic Ira Robbins cited as ``heartland rock, Philly soul, stately folk [and] countrified swing,'' Hiatt has consistently assembled fine backup groups featuring such rock stalwarts as Ry Cooder and Nick Lowe. Ultimately, however, Hiatt's skill as a lyricist is the thread that ties his music together.
Hiatt turned to writing during a traumatic childhood in Indianapolis, Indiana; within a two-year span his father died, and his older brother committed suicide. Hiatt eventually sought fame and fortune in the country music capital of Nashville, Tennessee, where he worked his way up from a $25-a-week staff songwriting job at Tree Publishing, one of the city's largest musical enterprises. With the exception of a stint in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, Hiatt has always maintained his base of operations in Nashville. He credited the country songwriting environment for influencing his later compositions and adding directness and sincerity to his innate storytelling tendencies.
Hiatt passed through a southern-fried-rock phase while recording for Epic and MCA in Nashville in the late 1970s, then veered from folkish restraint to punk-influenced anger in Los Angeles. In the early 1980s he was dropped by Geffen Records following the commercial failure of 1983's Riding With the King, and its 1985 successor, Warming up to the Ice Age--both of which were critically lauded. All of Hiatt's early releases, though favorably received by many critics, failed to catch the attention of the music-buying public. He did not hit his stride commercially until signing with A&M Records in 1987, a success due in part to the strength and honesty of his songwriting.
Propelled by Anguish
Hiatt's creative activity has often been fueled by personal crises. ``The night [his daughter] Lilly was born, I was in a Mexican restaurant barfing on my shoe,'' Hiatt told Rolling Stone reporter Steve Hochman. As Hiatt descended into the final depths of a long alcohol addiction in 1985, his estranged wife committed suicide, leaving him with the responsibility of caring for one-year-old Lilly. Hiatt permanently renounced alcohol and drugs and once again began the long process of putting his life back together. Fleeing Los Angeles for the comparative tranquillity of Nashville, Hiatt met his third wife, Nancy, also a single parent and a recovering alcoholic.
Thus fortified, Hiatt returned to songwriting with a vengeance, reaching a new plateau of commercial success in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Slow Turning rose to number 98 on Billboard's charts in 1988, staying on the charts for an impressive 31 weeks; Bring the Family and Stolen Moments, from 1987 and 1990 respectively, also had consistent sales. These three recordings elicited strong praise from rock music's critics. Kevin Ransom of the Metro Times described the albums as ``arguably the smartest, most compelling pop-music trilogy released by a single artist over the last three years.'' In Musician, Dan Martino wrote that ``Hiatt has bared more of himself on Bring the Family than he ever has before. And it's his best album ever.'' All three recordings were notable for their concentration of autobiographical material: harrowing, howling scenes of alcoholic despair, reminiscences of Hiatt's own youth, and serene love songs that reflected his newfound stability.
Enlivened the Mundane
As Peter J. Smith of the New York Times suggested, Hiatt's narrative songs are reminiscent of ``good, short car rides with the top down.'' Hiatt has long specialized in fast-moving, vivid stories that often conclude with some type of ironic twist, a technique for which he has been compared to acclaimed short story writer Raymond Carver. In the song ``Trudy and Dave'' on Slow Turning, for example, two spaced-out, small-town criminals have riddled an automatic-teller machine with gunfire in order to get money to do their laundry. In the end, the song wryly recounts, the twosome ``drove away clean.'' Hiatt likewise has excelled at drawing small, intense pictures of everyday encounters: ``Icy Blue Heart,'' also from Slow Turning, sketched a sad, defensive barroom conversation between a man and a woman. The song's male narrator muses, ``Should I start / To turn what's been frozen for years / Into a river of tears?''
In early 1992 Hiatt reunited with band members from his five-year-old breakthrough album Bring the Family: guitarist Ry Cooder, bassist Nick Lowe, and drummer Jim Keltner. They formed a group called Little Village and put out a self-titled work. While the band recaptured the spontaneity that marked Bring the Family, Hiatt's contributions continued to mine territory already traversed on his solo recordings. ``Performance over perfection. That's totally what this album is about,'' Keltner commented in the Virginia Pilot.
Revered by Honky-Tonk Buddies
Hiatt seems likely to continue widening his circle of admirers. Country musicians have been drawn to his outrageous rhymes, and several of the most prominent artists in the country field, including Rodney Crowell, Earl Thomas Conley, and Rosanne Cash, have taken Hiatt's songs to the top of the country charts. More popular than any of Hiatt's own recordings is his witty rock composition ``Thing Called Love,'' which went a long way toward insuring the runaway success of Bonnie Raitt's 1989 Nick of Time album; American airwaves resounded with Hiatt's lines, ``I ain't no porcupine, take off your kid gloves. / Are you ready for this thing called love?'' for months.
Hiatt released Perfectly Good Guitar in 1993, produced by Matt Wallace, which peaked at number 47 on the charts. Jason Cohen of Rolling Stone called the album "the usual menu of love-struck laments and bluesy balladry ... augmented by surrealist, goofy story songs and a reliable punk-meets-bar-band crunch." Hiatt's first live album, Hiatt Comes Alive at Budokan?, was released in 1994. Hiatt left A&M Records that year, signing with Capitol in 1995. His first Capitol release was Walk On, which entered the charts at 48, but dropped off in just nine weeks. Another Capitol released followed in 1997, called Little Head. Though generally a critical success, Stephen Thomas Erlewine of All Music Guide commented: "It's supposed to be a lighthearted record, but the humor is so labored and the music so forced that it largely falls flat." Hiatt became the host for the public television music performance series Sessions At West 45th in 1999.
Nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album, the acoustic album Crossing Muddy Waters followed on Vanguard Records in 2000. In a move to broaden his fan base, Hiatt signed a distribution deal with Emusic, a website that provides downloadable music for a fee, to offer the album in a digital format; the release of the album on the Internet coincided with its release on disc. The deal was successful: Crossing Muddy Waters was the fifth biggest-selling album on the Internet the week of its release, and a pre-release of the song "Lincoln Town" was downloaded 4,000 times in its first month on the website.
Hiatt released The Tiki Bar is Open in 2001, the first album to feature his backing band the Goners since Slow Turning in 1988. Comprised of guitarist Sonny Landreth, bassist Dave Ranson, and drummer Kenneth Blevins, the group's collaborative reunion with Hiatt on the album "perfectly captures the phenomenon of John Hiatt and the Goners," Hiatt is quoted on his website. Hiatt and the Goners planned to tour in 2002.
Hiatt's songwriting mastery stems from years of practice and intense musical pursuits. ``I've always written songs, whether I was making records or not, he told Musician's Josef Woodard. ``It serves a lot of purposes for me. I'm good at working by myself; it's therapeutic. It's a means of focusing my world, my views, and explaining some things to myself.''
by James M. Manheim
John Hiatt's Career
Has composed more than 600 songs; recorded solo material for Epic Records, 1974-75; MCA Records, 1979-80; Geffen Records, 1982-85; A&M Records, 1987-94; and Capitol Records, 1995-99; host of public television series Sessions At West 45th, 1999-; released first album on Vanguard Records, the Grammy Award-nominated Crossing Muddy Waters, 2000; released The Tiki Bar is Open with the Goners, 2001. Also a member of the band Little Village; backing bands include the Guilty Dogs and the Goners.
John Hiatt's Awards
Artist/Songwriter of the Year, Nashville Music Awards, 2000.
- Selected discography
- Hanging Around the Observatory , Epic, 1974; reissued; Epic/Legacy, 1991.
- Overcoats , Epic, 1975; reissued, 1991.
- Slug Line , MCA, 1979; reissued, 1990.
- Two-Bit Monsters , MCA, 1980; reissued, 1990.
- All of a Sudden , Geffen, 1982.
- Riding With the King , Geffen, 1983.
- Warming up to the Ice Age , Geffen, 1985.
- Bring the Family , A&M, 1987.
- Slow Turning (includes ``Trudy and Dave'' and ``Icy Blue Heart''), A&M, 1988.
- Stolen Moments , A&M, 1990.
- Y'all Caught?: The Ones That Got Away, 1979-1985 , Geffen, 1989.
- (With Little Village) Little Village , Reprise, 1992.
- Perfectly Good Guitar , A&M, 1993.
- Hiatt Comes Alive at Budokan? , A&M, 1994.
- Walk On , Capitol, 1995.
- Little Head , Capitol, 1997.
- The Best of John Hiatt , Capitol, 1998.
- Greatest Hits: The A&M Years '87-'94 , A&M, 1998.
- Crossing Muddy Waters , Vanguard, 2000.
- The Tiki Bar is Open , Vanguard, 2001.
- Billboard, July 31, 1999; August 25, 2001.
- Down Beat, September 1990.
- Metro Times (Detroit, MI), August 1, 1990.
- Musician, May 1985; August 1987; March 1992.
- New York Times Magazine, March 12, 1989.
- PR Newswire, January 8, 2001.
- Rolling Stone, September 10, 1987; July 12-26, 1990; October 18, 1990.
- Time, April 18, 1988.
- Variety, November 13, 2000.
- Village Voice, March 12, 1985.
- Virginia Pilot (Norfolk, VA), October 25, 1991.
- "John Hiatt," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (January 4, 2002).
- John Hiatt Official Website, http://www.johnhiatt.com (January 2, 2002).
- "John Hiatt: Perfectly Good Guitar," RollingStone.com, http://www.rollingstone.com/recordings/review.asp?aid=33459&cf=314 (January 4, 2002).