Essentials: The top 10 John Hiatt albums

Singer-songwriter John Hiatt first made his name writing songs for other people, nabbing a $25-per-week songwriting gig at Tree Music Publishing in Nashville at age 18. In his song ‘Real Fine Love’ he mentions leaving Indiana in the back of a pickup truck, a myth that is probably easier to fit into lyrics than a $35 ($247 or £180 today) beater Chevy Corvair with missing floorboards. Along with Elvis and the first British Invasion, Nashville had already formed much of his musical education with R&B/soul/gospel radio station WLAC’s signal accessible late at night. The hundreds of songs that he wrote for Tree were not strictly traditional country songs but more of a precursor to what is called Americana now. 

During Hiatt’s long career his own sound has gone from soulful roots-infused ‘70s rock to a brief sojourn on the fringes of New Wave, when he was briefly touted as the American Elvis Costello, to what has become his immediately identifiable Americana style. Hiatt songs recorded by other artists — Elvis Costello, Lyle Lovett, Bob Dylan, Marshall Crenshaw, Bonnie Raitt, Jeff Healy, Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Iggy Pop, Asleep at the Wheel, just to name a few — are still far better known than the ones he has recorded himself, and a compilation of those songs is worthy of another list. Despite personal struggles and no shortage of tragedies, he has more or less worked non-stop since 1970 (as a solo artist since 1974) and recorded over two dozen incredible solo studio albums plus collaborations with heavy-hitters like Ry Cooder and Jerry Douglas. There are plenty of greatest-hits and anthology packages to start with from his many former labels. These are the ten essential albums I’m committing to today.

Number 10: ‘Terms of My Surrender’ (2014) 
Hiatt indulges his love of blues on this record, which sounds like it was taken from a late night acoustic set in a smoke-filled blues dive. (In an alternate timeline I wonder what would have happened if he had crossed paths as a young Indianapolis musician with local blues artist Scrapper Blackwell, who died right around the time Hiatt started learning to play guitar.) It was recorded live in a small studio in Nashville with his touring band. On ‘Terms’ Hiatt is surrendering to an imperfect world, aging, and life’s inevitable compromises.

Number 9: ‘Stolen Moments’ (1990) 
‘Stolen Moments,’ ‘Slow Turning,’ and ‘Bring the Family’ have been called Hiatt’s “recovery trilogy.” This was one of his more popular and mainstream-sounding albums, but that doesn’t diminish the songwriting in any way. There is regret about the past and his ever-present restless angst, but the songs shine with gratitude and redemption (‘Stolen Moments,’ ‘Listening to Old Voices’). He looks quite happy in clips of live performances from this period. 

Number 8: ‘Same Old Man’ (2008) 
There’s a lot about ‘Same Old Man’ that is reminiscent of Springsteen (‘Love You Again’), especially when Hiatt is ruefully examining a love he’s on the brink of losing or looking back at happy early days of a relationship and wondering what went wrong. There’s a world weary authenticity to this album, but Hiatt’s impish humour is still kicking around as well (‘Let’s Give This Love a Try’).

Number 7: ‘Slow Turning’ (1988) 
On this album, produced by Glyn Johns, Hiatt was backed by The Goners (including slide guitarist Sonny Landreth) as opposed to the dream team from ‘Bring the Family.’ He is equally capable of employing his sometimes goofy wit and eviscerating your heart with one line (‘Sometime Other Than Now’: “done a lot of dumb things, will probably do some more” and ”A little bit of fear, you know it goes a long way / It’s followed us around since we were little kids”). ‘Feels Like Rain’ was a massive hit for Buddy Guy.

Number 6: ‘Dirty Jeans & Mudslide Hymns’ (2011)
Hiatt’s storytelling skills about everyday dramas and character sketches are on display here, with a lot of help from multi-instrumentalist Doug Lancio, on songs like ‘Damn This Town,’ ‘Train to Birmingham,’ and ‘Down Around My Place.’ Bob Seger was so enamored of the love song to a Buick ‘Detroit Made’ that he recorded it himself. 

Number 5: ‘Riding with the King’ (1983) 
‘Riding with the King’ is a testament to Hiatt’s determination and the equal bloodymindedness of people who support his music. Scott Mathews produced and played on the first side in the U.S. Nick Lowe produced and played bass on the second side in London, where he gathered guitarist Martin Belmont from the Rumour, Paul Carrack, and Bobby Irwin to help out. The title track, with a few minor tweaks, later became a hit for Eric Clapton and B.B. King. ‘She Loves the Jerk’ was covered by Elvis Costello.

Number 4: ‘Perfectly Good Guitar’ (1993) 
Hiatt assembled younger musicians to help create this harder edged heartland rock album, released during the height of grunge. The title track, which sounds like it was influenced by Neil Young, was written after seeing Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic throw his bass into the air and having it land on his head instead of smash onto the stage. Other top-notch songs on the album are the beautiful ‘Buffalo River Home,’ ‘Angel,’ and ‘Cross My Fingers.’

Number 3: ‘Bring the Family’ (1987) 
This was considered to be Hiatt’s breakthrough album, following his newly embraced sobriety, new marriage, new label (A&M), and departure from California. It was released after his odd but still enjoyable New Wave-pop album ‘Warming Up to the Ice Age’ and marks the point in his career where he truly found his voice and confidence. The songs embrace a new-found domesticity (‘Your Dad Did’) and stability similar to John Mellencamp’s themes on ‘Big Daddy.’ The backing musicians include the stellar crew of session drummer Jim Keltner, Ry Cooder, and Nick Lowe, who later joined Hiatt in the short-lived 1992 supergroup Little Village. Lowe worked on the album for free.

Number 2: ‘Walk On’ (1995)
There are so many strong songs on the rootsy ‘Walk On’ that it’s almost unfair to artists who would have been content with one or two of them over a whole career: ‘The River Knows Your Name,’ ‘Cry Love,’ and ‘You Must Go.’ Some listeners found the album too unfocused, but to me it shows Hiatt’s ability to incorporate more than one style and not settle into country-rock troubadour territory forever. His lyrical insightfulness is on display in economical lines like “Your love was stronger than he could feel/He was wrapped up in himself like an orange peel.” 

Number 1:Crossing Muddy Waters’ (2000) 
Surprisingly this was, finally, Hiatt’s first (mostly) acoustic album and one of his more serious works. He told No Depression, “It has a little of what Mississippi John Hurt meant to me, a little Dylan, a little Howlin’ Wolf, some of that jug-band thing.” It features David Immergluck on mandolin, who did incredible work on ‘Walk On.’ The stunning title song could be construed as a family breakup or a take on the classical myth of a soul crossing the River Styx at the entrance of the underworld. There was no producer involved, enabling Hiatt to do excellent work at his own pace without someone looking over his shoulder.

About Kimberly Bright 32 Articles
Freelance writer specializing in music and art, British, Canadian, and American music and cultural history, flyover states, session musicians, overlooked and unsung artists. Author of 'Chris Spedding: Reluctant Guitar Hero.'

9 Comments

  1. Hi Kimberly, a very brave choice of artist for a Top 10. His early albums were patchy, though they had their gems, but since he hit his stride in the mid-80s his consistency has been unbelievable, and consistency didn’t negate the variety of styles and genres he linked his lyrics to. I could just about list a Top 10 but I wouldn’t trust myself to maintain it for any length of time without fiddling with the content and order. An excellent feature on an artist whose reputation is still underrated when measured against his achievements.

  2. Good choice although for me Bring The Family would be number one. I think that it’s generally recognised that Crossing Muddy Waters is about the suicide of his wife.

    • That’s true. I did consider going into the tragic backstory but decided against it. It’s mentioned in nearly every piece about Hiatt. Newcomers to his work (and his daughter’s) might not know the history but can still appreciate the song and album.

  3. A good choice but “Slow Turning” would have been my no.1 Why have you left out “Master of Disaster”?

    • I initially had ‘Master of Disaster’ but swapped it out for ‘Riding with the King’ – impetuously maybe, but I thought it would be better to include some of his earlier work.

  4. Hate to say it, and I know this will give most Hiatt fans chest pain, but “Slug Line” is a grossly under appreciated album, and does not get its due.

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