John Hiatt and the Art of Borrowing
The songwriter just gives, gives, gives and is still waiting for that "thank you."
John Hiatt, the one-time Nashville songwriter and country/blues performer, has brought all of the talent needed for his career but none of the luck. He recorded "Thing Called Love" in 1987, and Bonnie Raitt made it a breakout hit in 1989. He named an album after "Riding With the King" in 1983, and Eric Clapton and B.B. King did the same in 2000 and went double-platinum. "Have a Little Faith in Me," first released by Hiatt in 1987, became a standby at Bon Jovi shows and a single for Joe Cocker. The only major success that Hiatt has ever enjoyed selfishly came from the 1988 album Slow Turning, and when he sang a line in the title-bearing song referencing Buddy Holly -- "Not fade away," repeated a few times -- it was one of the more direct moments of last night's show at the Pabst Theater. "It's been a slow turning," the chorus begins, "From the inside out / A slow turning / But you come about."
For all of his output -- Hiatt has put out some 20 albums since 1974's Hangin' Around the Observatory -- his songs have a borrowed quality. One he played last night referenced a David Crosby lyric, and he humbly pawned off "Thing Called Love" and "Riding With the King" as if they were covers. Many of the old tropes of country, blues and roots had a turn, some rollicking and some slightly subdued and then rollicking. Rivers were giving way to a lovesick mist, and cars were getting lost somewhere (with the radio playing) where not even the blues could find them. Hiatt poked a little fun at some of the well-worn nouns ("another song about rivers") and devolved while singing scat near the end of "Slow Turning" into saying, "I'm driving in my car / I'm driving in my car / I'm driving in my car / just can't stop driving in my car," which drew a laugh.
Hiatt's music is passionately dance-able, but its greatest strengths are in how the songs build upon themselves and become increasingly complicated, even as they're describing a love gone awry and another tough goodbye. Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson have covered "Across the Borderline," a song Hiatt wrote with Ry Cooder and Jim Dickinson, and their interest isn't surprising since you can easily imagine either, particularly Dylan, singing, "The river rolls on like a breath / In between our life and death." There's so much figurative language you almost don't know where to begin, but it works. American roots music, as Dylan, Hiatt and other songwriters have shown, is as good at the mock-prophetic as any medium.
You might be tempted to call Hiatt a "musician's musician." The list of greats who've covered his songs and paid tribute in some other way is far longer than what's mentioned here, and sometimes these singers found an edge that came across as dulled on his own recording. Sometimes he was shown up, but that has even happened to Dylan, from time to time.