There are singers and songwriters and singer/songwriters. Then there's John Hiatt. The masterful Americana performer celebrates his 57th birthday on August 20th.
The exceptional John Hiatt
What makes John Hiatt unique is his ability to tear your heart to a million pieces in one song then make your sides hurt from laughing so hard in the next. He has a way with lyrics that paint pictures worthy of hanging in a museum. Consider the opening line of "Lipstick Sunset:" "There's a lipstick sunset smeared across the August sky." He can also tell you a lot by omission. The final line of "The Night That Kenny Died," a song about an unpopular geek who became a hero because of the way he met his end (a motorcycle wreck), is such a case: "They kept the casket closed."
Hiatt has known his share of trouble and heartache, and he has turned these into songs. The title song from his 2000 Grammy-nominated album Crossing Muddy Waters deals with the suicide of his second wife shortly after the birth of their daughter. Now clean and sober, he deals with his alcoholism in both serious ("The Back of My Mind") and comical ("these days the only bar I ever see has got lettuce and tomatoes" from "Stolen Moments") ways.
Hiatt produces some of the best love songs of the last three decades, all of which were, as he proudly proclaims, inspired by his love of wife Nancy. And yet he can also write a hearbreak song so intense that fans write him and ask if his marriage is in trouble. Perhaps the reaction in the latter case is because Hiatt writes such intimate, autobiographical songs ("Two kids up and at 'em, one more left at home" he reported in "Circle Back," or the third person "Your Dad Did" that is obviously Hiatt's own paean to domestic bliss, "you love your wife and kids just like your dad did") that some automatically assume every song is a chapter out of his life. Of course, that does not seem to be true: it's hard to think Hiatt ever poked pins in a doll out of teenage sexual frustration such as the way the heroine of "Pink Bedroom" did.
That is part of the magic of John Hiatt. He is everyman -- very nice in person, funny, thoughtful, intelligent. He can translate the feelings of a shattered relationship (which he has known) into a masterful song just as easily as he can extol the joys of marital bliss that he has experienced for the past two and a half decades. It is truly sad that, while many of his songs are well-known ("Sure As I'm Sittin' Here," "Angel Eyes," "Thing Called Love"), he is not.
If you're unfamiliar with Hiatt's material, celebrate his birthday by treating yourself.