Artists as diverse as Bob Dylan, Iggie Pop, Bonnie Raitt, Chaka Khan, Roseanne Cash and the Jeff Healey Band have recorded the work of John Hiatt, the respected and influential songwriter who will be performing Saturday at the 23rd annual Rhythm & Roots Festival over Labor Day weekend at Ninigret Park in Charlestown.
Hiatt’s music covers country, rock, blues and Americana. The prolific guitarist and piano player has earned nine Grammy nominations, a spot in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting and a star on Nashville’s Walk of Fame.
Hiatt, an Indianapolis native, credits his charming, intelligent, story-telling dad and his music-loving mom who sang around the house and played piano. “There was always music in our home, and you know, music’s where it’s at for me,” he said in 2013 while receiving an Indiana Governor’s Arts Award. “There’s nothing better in the world. There’s no better way of people to talk to each other in my humble estimation. Music is pretty powerful stuff.”
Hiatt’s powerful storytelling produced a hit early in his songwriting career, which began at age 18 at Tree Publishing in Nashville. Three Dog Night recorded his “Sure as I’m Sittin Here,” which became a Top 40 hit in 1974. Hiatt moved on to Los Angeles in 1978, and after playing clubs and opening for folk musicians, he eventually joined Ry Cooder’s back-up band. A creative collaboration flowered that produced his first big solo album in 1987 – the celebrated Bring the Family recorded with Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner.
Recorded over just a few days, the album propelled Hiatt beyond the club circuit, with songs that included the modern-day standard “Have a Little Faith in Me,” and “Thing Called Love,” the song Bonnie Raitt later made a hit. One lesson he learned then is not to spend too much time recording an album. “Let’s play and capture the magic,” he said recently.
Slow Turning followed closely afterward, with his only top 10 single – the title track containing the memorable lyrics, “I’m a yelling at the kids in the back ’cause they’re bangin’ like Charlie Watts,” and “I always thought our house was haunted because nobody ever said boo to me.” The album also includes “Tennessee Plates,” part of the Thelma and Louis soundtrack, one of dozens of Hiatt songs used in movies and TV series soundtracks since 1980.
Other well-covered Hiatt songs include “The Way We Make A Broken Heart,” Rosanne Cash’s No. 1 country hit, “Angel Eyes,” the Jeff Healey Band’s top 5 hit, and “Feels like Rain,” covered by Buddy Guy and Aaron Neville.
Hiatt experienced a type of rebirth in the early 2000s when he recorded Cross Muddy Waters – a transition from rock in the ’90s to his acoustic recordings today, he said. Of his 23 solo albums, his most recent is the self-described “serendipitous” Eclipse Sessions – also recorded over a few days during the full solar eclipse in the summer of 2017. This year, he’s been touring with Lyle Lovett, and next year he will lead an African Music Safari in South Africa.
His clever lyrics mine the humor within the pain. He’s been called one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most astute singer/songwriters of the last 40 years. When asked how he’d like his work to be remembered he said, “A kid from the Midwest who tried to tell it straight. What else can you do?”
Tickets are available now to the Sept. 4-6 music and dance festival at Ninigret Park in Charlestown.