Discovering the singer-songwriter whose songs have inspired the biggest names in music
Most people have heard a John Hiatt song, whether they know it or not. They’ve been covered by heavyweights from across an array of musical genres—from Bruce Springsteen to Bonnie Raitt to B.B. King to Iggy Pop.
But far fewer have heard Hiatt’s own soul-wrenching renditions of those songs, or discovered his other uncovered work. His one-of-a-kind allegories and classic titles like “Wreck of the Barbie Ferrari” would be worth the price of admission, even if the man never plucked a note.
Hiatt is someone to whom the guitar and piano are incidental, even though he can summon on either instrument an endless variety of what are known in the industry as “killer grooves.” He’s one of a dying breed of crinkly, road-tested storytellers capable of captivating a crowd with little more than personal presence and a mesmerizing bullfrog voice, and he can keep an audience perched at seat’s edge from the first note to the last of a dead-slow ballad that trembles lips and swells tears, then instantaneously has them up and dancing to some ridiculously simple but inexplicably infectious groove for which there is no cure.
Hiatt’s a workingman’s genius with a razor wit and emotional sensitivity so sharp he’s like a porcupine charging a stampede of hemophiliacs. Yet he’s so subtle you’ll bleed out before ever feeling the initial prick. His uncommon insights are delivered with a Midwestern frankness that leave an aftertaste reminiscent of home cooking.
Whether his chewy hooks are rendered in the vernacular of folk, rock, blues, punk or rockabilly—or in the context of tragedy, comedy or irony—the results are always impressive.
In 1970, 18-year-old Hiatt moved to Nashville to take a job with Tree-Music Publishing Company writing original songs. Due to his inability to read or write scores, he personally recorded over 250 of these songs in just a few years. While honing his chops and mining for material, Hiatt tapped the mother lode, flexing his superpower as a wordsmith and groove monger.
Over the ensuing four decades, he has amassed a treasure chest of gems that stud 22 albums, at least three of which many consider to be desert island discs: 1983’s Riding With the King, 1988’s Slow Turning and 1990’s Stolen Moments. His themes start at the junction of function and dysfunction, and dogleg from farm to city with tales of adventure, romance, aspiration and the mundane, before resting somewhere between fallibility and vulnerability. Hiatt comes across as a teacher’s pet in the school of life and a wise and playful troubadour.
Hiatt is a monumental songwriter on the level of Burt Bacharach, Harry Nilsson, Antonio Carlos Jobim, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. He’s a savant of song structure, melody, harmony, poetry, and sonic texture. It almost doesn’t matter what style or melody he explores, the audience is certain to be inspired. Like his lyrics, his musical hooks are disarmingly simple, but tricky, and downright magical in their originality and visceral delivery.
Listening to Hiatt can be like reading Ernest Hemingway, in that his genius may not be immediately evident. The unassuming simplicity and directness of style of the vocabulary and structure used to convey Hiatt’s insight renders a message that’s enduring—like the nugget of wisdom at the center of a Zen koan, where essence outshines form.
Info: 8 p.m., Friday, Sept. 25, Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz; $35/$40.
PACIFIC AVENUE IN THE MEANTIME John Hiatt plays the Catalyst on Friday, Sept. 25.