Under The Radar

By Tom MacIntosh

So you are ripping over the blacktop like a bullet in your blue ‘66 Thunderbird under a moonlit sky, and you lean over and press play, volume, and sit back; the calm before the storm. The night jumps at the sharp crisp explosion of drums and a howling Telecaster bottomed by a bass groove that you feel, the car feels, and you lurch like Something Wild into the blackness! The sound barrier be damned, you roar over the hills 90mph, howling to a climatic pileup of cymbals, guitars-gone-wild, and a big bass bomb. BOOM!.............. phew.
“No sir, I didn't hear the sirens at all.”  You’ve been hooked in more ways than one my friend.    

Indiana born John Hiatt, 64, guitarist/songwriter/singer, was what got you booked back there. The man has amassed
22 records that range from new wave (Slug Line), pop (Warming Up to the Ice Age), country (Walk On), blues (Slow Turning), and rock (Master of Disaster). On Something Wild, (album Perfectly Good Guitar) he uses the 1957 Fender Telecaster given to him by Nick Lowe. ‘It’s white with a white pickguard and a maple neck. It's a great guitar...’. And can he ever rip it!


His ascent wasn't a walk in the park. There was some mud to wade through on the way. Strife make the artist strive, they say. At a young age, he lost both his brother to suicide, and his father shortly after. Those scars are allayed in many of his songs. -Your Dad Did, (Bring the Family 1987)- for example. Having lost interest in school, he picked up a guitar at 11, and never looked back. He ‘stole out of Indiana on the back of a pick-up truck...’ (Stolen Moments-Real Fine Love) John Hiatt is what they call a songwriter's writer; stories with a beginning and an end. He cuts right to the bone along with a dry sense of humour about love gone wrong, ’his beer was warmer than the look in her eye (Icy Blue Heart). He says he was a 250 lb 12-year-old who could never ‘get the girl’, even after dropping 100 lbs for her. “She still just wanted to be friends. Broke my heart. I must have got 100 songs out of her...”.

His first record was Hangin’ Around the Observatory in 1975 in which he was touted as one of the new troubadours ala Dylan. From 1979-86 Hiatt released two albums Slug Line (79) and Two Bit Monsters (80), that received good reviews but little commercial success. His songwriting did stir interest however, and he got some acclaim for writing Across the Borderline with Ry Cooder and Jim Dickinson that appeared in the film Borderline, performed by Freddy Fender, and was covered by Willie Nelson, Rubén Blades, Mink DeVille, and Paul Young among others. Rosanne Cash recorded ‘The Way We Make A Broken Heart’ that made it to #1 on the country charts in the US.

Yet, things were darker than the inside of an 8 ball for Hiatt on the personal side, with a divorce, then his second wife committed suicide, and he took to the booze and coke to wash it down. Deja vu all over again; he went into a spiral and didn't come out until he got rehab help in 1985. ´I used to drink a lot in those days you see, ya that’s the way the wind blows, these days the only bar I ever see has lettuce and tomatoes´ lyrics from Stolen Moments (1990).

Things turned around in 1987 with Bring the Family, which got away from his earlier pop and new wave efforts. He grew into his own roots, and offered an impromptu approach to his new songs.  His band was none other than Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe, and Jim Keltner. The album was cut in two days, and was a masterpiece of gritty driving beats and lyrical finesse. Attributed, he says, to the fresh feel of the practically unrehearsed tracks. His vocal and guitar range show through and are hard to ignore. He hits a vocal falsetto like a master, and chokes the guitar like a killer. “I listen to music in my car, so a lot of my songs are driving songs...”, he says. - He stole a car (Thunderbird no less) when he was young, got caught, but was let go because he said he was just hitchhiking- (jumped to the passenger side in nick of time).

The Fender Telecaster is force to reckon with on the rock end but for the softer introspective pieces he plays a Gibson SJ-100, formerly known as J-200. He also uses a Gibson Hummingbird and J-45 on country numbers. For yours truly, his slow bluesy love songs melt my ears.


After Bring the Family, he had 9 consecutive albums make Billboard 200.

Over the course of his career, his songs have been covered by the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop, Three Dog Night, Earl Thomas Conley, Suzy Bogguss, Ronnie Milsap, Joe Cocker, Bon Jovi, Jewel, Mandy Moore, Jeff Healey, Carl Perkins...and the list goes on. In 1993, the album Love Gets Strange: The Songs of John Hiatt was released.
A very special tribute to this American legend. Since then, there have a number of ‘best of...’ and greatest hits compilations released.    

In 2000 he was awarded Songwriter/Artist of the Year at the Nashville Music Awards, and in 2008 a Lifetime Achievement award from the Americana Music Association. A beloved writer and player by his peers and fans, but not yet a household name, John Hiatt keeps leaning into it with his latest release Terms of My Surrender (2015). An acoustic set with his wry personal touch. He got 2 Grammy nominations for the album: Best American Roots Song (title track), and Best Americana Album. Ever the consummate ‘road man’ he was on it for 15 years before settling down, staying at home, happily married with grown kids. He's in no hurry, no deadlines, no pressure and no worries. He says after what he’d been through, love had changed from then to now, and since he only can write about what he knows, alive and in love at 64, he’s glad to keep it new.   

On a personal note: He’s a hero of mine, and I'm proud to say I once performed Have a Little Faith in Me on piano at my brother-in-law’s wedding in Spain, where Hiatt is little known really, and it was a hit. Oh go on! It was a smash hit! They didn't see it coming; it came in under the radar. Just like him...
Thank you John Hiatt.
Cheers mate!

(Images: ©CordonPress & ©www.johnhiatt.com)