The Sunday Dozen: John Hiatt

I came relatively late to John Hiatt fandom. I’d heard he was a great songwriter and had heard covers of his songs, but I didn’t listen to the man himself until 1987’s Bring The Family. I checked it out because of rave reviews and Nick Lowe and Ry Cooder’s presence on the album. I was blown away by the songs and the singer.

I’ve seen John Hiatt with a variety of bands: The Goners, Little Village, The Guilty Dogs, The Nashville Queens, and The Combo. They were all outstanding, but the main attraction was John Hiatt himself. He has a rubbery, expressive face which accents the lyrics. We saw him solo once and it was a stage patter/facial expression extravaganza.

January 2021 was John Hiatt month at Saturday Odds & Sods. It was actually Hiatt-Hopper month as I paired him with the great American painter, Edward. I thought it was a good fit: both are realists on the surface but deeply weird the closer you listen and look. In fact, Hiatt songs have provided the title for nine Odds & Sods posts over the years.

There’s one notable omission. I hate one of Hiatt’s most popular songs: Have A Little Faith In Me. I prefer my Hiatt lyrics acerbic, not sappy. A hard pass on that tune.

What really matters with John Hiatt are the songs. I started off with 25 possibilities. It was painful to winnow them down to a dozen.

As always, the list is arranged in chronological order and reflects my personal taste.

I first heard Washable Ink played by The Neville Brothers. It was a real “who wrote that?” moment for me.

The story goes that Memphis In The Meantime was recorded right after Nick Lowe flew into LA from the UK. His punchiness was contagious and gave the song its loose and loopy feel.

In concert, it’s noted for the “I don’t think so and so will ever record this song” variations. In the studio original, it was Ronnie Milsap but over the years it’s been other pop-country stars such as Billy Ray Cyrus and Tim McGraw.

Your Dad Did was introduced by Hiatt at one show as “a song about messing with your kids.”

Drive South is the opening song on my favorite Hiatt album, Slow Turning. It’s a frequent live set opener and a good one indeed.

Icy Blue Heart has one of the best opening stanzas in music history:

“She came onto him like a slow movin’ cold front
His beer was warmer than the look in her eyes
She sat on a stool, he said, “What do you want?”
She said, “Give me a love that don’t freeze up inside.”

The melody is pretty darn good too.

Feels Like Rain is one of several Hiatt songs set in New Orleans. It was cited as an example of great songwriting in an episode of Treme. I concur.

Buffalo River Home is the song in which John Hiatt mixes up drinks with mixed feelings.

Native Son is an obliquely political song. A music critic called it: “a song that examines the legacy of the politics of exclusion and divisiveness.” Again, I concur without need of a concurring opinion.

Circle Back is a song about Hiatt taking his daughter to college. It was a Saturday Odds & Sods theme song during Hiatt-Hopper month. It flat out rocks thanks to the flying fingers of Sonny Landreth.

I used Master of Disaster as the title of a 2016 campaign post about you know who.

Damn This Town isn’t about New Orleans, but it could be. It’s often the soundtrack to my rantings about TFC: This Fucking City.

All The Lilacs In Ohio was originally recorded for one of Hiatt’s lesser albums, The Tiki Bar Is Open. Great title, mediocre album.

I prefer this 2022 version with dobro wizard Jerry Douglas. One could even call him John’s dobro from another mother.

Finally, some lagniappe. First, John Hiatt live at Farm Aid with the woman he always calls The Redhead followed by the Neville Brothers.

3 thoughts on “The Sunday Dozen: John Hiatt

  1. I’d have to include Crossing Muddy Waters, but there is so much substance throughout John’s musical life. I go back to I Killed An Ant (With My Guitar).

    1. It was among the first 25 songs I considered. I think John has written over 100 good to great songs.

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