By 1987 John Hiatt had released 7 LPs of his songs to some critical acclaim but little commercial success. Hiatt had moved to Nashville from Indianapolis, Indiana when he was 18 years old. In a couple of years he had written a hit song for 3 Dog Night & scored a record deal for himself. His debut record “Hangin’ Around the Observatory” (1974) covered a lot of bases, folk, country, R&B, without establishing a distinct individuality. After a 4 year hiatus 1979’s “Slug Line” hooked up with the New Wave & John was inappropriately tagged as an American Elvis Costello. His songs were hook-filled, his lyrics succinct & cynical but they lacked The Imposter’s range & acerbity. A number of reputable producers added an 80’s gloss, synthesized swirls, thumb-plucked bass, which did few favours to music that was essentially rootsy American rock.
Hiatt was most effective on the 2nd side of “Riding With the King” (1983). It was recorded in West London with Nick Lowe whose Cowboy Outfit, Martin Belmont, Paul Carrack & Bobby Irwin, provided a no-frills but still imaginative support, allowing the songs to stand by themselves. On a European tour this band called in on German TV’s “Rockpalast” & “The Love That Harms” shows that live & uncontrived John Hiatt was pretty, pretty good.
It was John’s standing in Europe which helped him when, after a further release, he was dropped by Geffen. Demon Records pledged $30,000 towards new recordings & he spent the money well. Nick Lowe came over to Los Angeles with his bass guitar while Jim Keltner had been the session drummer for the stars, including 3 former Beatles, for over 15 years. Throughout the 80’s Ry Cooder had concentrated on film soundtracks. For “The Border” (Jack Nicholson, Harvey Keitel, Warren Oates…enough said) the standout “Across the Borderline” was written by Cooder in collaboration with Jim Dickinson & Hiatt himself. His contributions as a sideman to “Safe As Milk” with the Magic Band & to the “Performance” movie score were 20 years since & were still notable. Obtaining the services of an ace, a distinctive, distinguished guitarist, was a real stroke, a guarantee of quality.
“Bring the Family” was recorded in just 4 days. The opening track “Memphis in the Meantime” states an intention to get “good & greasy” & the whole LP does just that thing. John was in his mid-thirties, personally & professionally he had seen some things & he knew how to get to the heart of them in his writing. The maturity & consistency of Hiatt’s songs is consolidated by the cohesive unit in the studio. There had always, even on his more commercial records, a touch of musical curatorship about Ry Cooder. His soundtrack for “Paris, Texas” (1985) is a delicate, almost ambient delight. His later collaborations with Ali Farka Toure & the Buena Vista crew are a lovely introduction to outstanding non- First World talents. On “Bring the Family” Cooder is a rock & roll guitarist, just one of the best. In “Memphis…” John sang “I don’t think Ronnie Milsap’s gonna ever record this song”. There were others on the LP that would suit those Nashville cats. “Lipstick Sunset” is one of them but they would have to go some to match Hiatt’s vocals & Cooder’s impeccable slide accompaniment.
The LP was Hiatt’s most successful to date but his studio band were busy men. He toured with a new band, the Goners, which featured Sonny Landreth, a virtuoso slide guitarist of great reputation. The live clips of songs from “Bring the Family” are with this group & well, Sonny is good, if a little flashy for my taste but he ain’t Ry Cooder. Hiatt recorded 2 more LPs before, in 1992, the “…Family” band got back together as Little Village for another record. This time around the songwriting was more democratic, though John provided most of the vocals & the set lacked the immediacy of their previous outing. It was a damp, desultory, sparsely attended Sunday at the Crystal Palace Bowl when we saw Little Village. They were never going to be John Hiatt’s backing band & individually Hiatt, Lowe, Keltner & Cooder are all top-ranked musicians. You can never have too many opportunities to see quality like this & they were great. It’s just a shame they didn’t play those songs like “Thing Called Love”, “Have A Little Faith In Me” or “Your Dad Did”.
John Hiatt continued to be prolific. His extensive range meant that in 2003 he was recording with Irish folk giants the Chieftains & in the following year contributed to a Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute. Sometimes his songs have had a wider reach than his dedicated audience. 1988’s “Tennessee Plates” is on the “Thelma & Louise” soundtrack, “Cry Love” (1995) is probably the hit that got away, The rocking “My Old Friend” (2001) remains a personal favourite. There have been around 15 LPs in the 22 years since Little Village & he’s a master at crafting wry, pithy observations with tight, no-frills tunes. Each of them reward closer listening but it’s “Bring the Family”, 4 great musicians getting together & playing for the fun & the creativity of it, that remains his most enduring masterwork.