What I’ve Been Listening to: John Hiatt/Perfectly Good Guitar

John Hiatt is a great artist I’ve been aware of for many years. I’m glad his excellent recent collaboration album with Jerry Douglas, Leftover Feelings, brought the acclaimed singer-songwriter back on my radar screen. It finally made me start exploring some of Hiatt’s other albums in their entirety, including Perfectly Good Guitar, his 11th studio release that appeared in September 1993. I’m sure Hiatt aficionados are well aware of it; if you’re not and dig heartland and roots-oriented rock, you’re in for a treat.

Hiatt who was born in Indianapolis had a difficult childhood. After the death of his older brother and his father, he used watching IndyCar races and listening to music by the likes of Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and blues artists as escape mechanisms. At the age of 11, Hiatt learned to play guitar and started his music career as a teenager in Indianapolis, playing local venues with the a variety of bands.

When he was 18, Hiatt moved to Nashville, Tenn. where he landed a job as a songwriter for the Tree-Music Publishing Company. He also continued local performances, both solo and with a band called White Duck. Hiatt got his break in June 1974 when Three Dog Night turned his song Sure As I’m Sitting Here into a top 40 hit. His original version he had released as a single in February that year had gone nowhere.

In July 1973, Hiatt recorded his debut album Hangin Around The Observatory, which came out the following year. While it received favorable reviews, the album was a commercial failure. When the same thing happened with his sophomore release Overcoats, his label Epic Records was quick to drop him. Meanwhile, other artists kept covering Hiatt’s songs. Unfortunately, the story pretty much kept repeating itself until Bring the Family from May 1987, finally giving Hiatt his first album to make the Billboard 200, reaching no. 107.

Bring the Family featured the gems Thing Called Love and Have a Little Faith in Me, which became hits for Bonnie Raitt and Joe Cocker, respectively. Hiatt’s songs have also been covered by an impressive and diverse array of other artists like B.B. King, Bob Dylan, Buddy Guy, Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez, Linda Ronstadt, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Willy DeVille, and the list goes on and on.

To date, Hiatt has released 28 albums, including two live records and two compilations. In 1991, he also formed the short-lived group Little Village together with Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner. Previously, Hiatt had worked with each of the three artists on Bring the Family. After issuing a self-titled album in February 1992 and a short supporting tour the group disbanded.

Let’s get to some music from Perfectly Good Guitar. Here’s the great opener Something Wild. Like all other tracks except one, the tune was solely written by Hiatt. I dig the nice driving drum part by Brian McLeod. With the recent death of Charlie Watts, perhaps it’s not surprising that Satisfaction came to mind right away!

The title track perfectly captures my sentiments when I see footage of Pete Townshend trashing his guitar at the end of a Who gig; or Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire for that matter. Oh, it breaks my heart to see those stars/ Smashing a perfectly good guitar/I don’t know who they think they are/Smashing a perfectly good guitar…Yes, of course, it was all for show and I believe Townshend at least glued some of his smashed guitars back together. And while I certainly don’t support jail sentences for guitar-smashing, destroying instruments still rubs me the wrong way! Instead, make some kid happy and give it to them! Who knows, you might even change their trajectory!

Another nice track is Buffalo River Home. I really like the guitar work on that tune.

Another track that got my attention, primarily because of the drum part, is Blue Telescope. McLeod’s drum work reminds me a bit of Steve Gadd’s action on Paul Simon’s 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover. I have no idea whether Gadd’s unique drum part served as an inspiration here. Regardless, it sure as heck sounds cool to me!

The last track I’d like to call out is Old Habits, which has a great bluesy vibe. It’s the one song on the album Hiatt co-wrote with somebody else: Female singer-songwriter Marshall Chapman. Similar to Hiatt, it appears her songs have been covered by many other artists, such as Joe Cocker, Jimmy Buffett, Emmylou Harris, Irma Thomas and Ronnie Milsap.

Before wrapping up this post, I’d to acknowledge the other fine musicians on this great album. In addition to Hiatt (guitar, vocals, piano, organ) and MacLeod (drums, percussion), they include Michael Ward (guitar), Ravi Oli (electric sitar; Ravi Oli is a pseudonym of David Immergl├╝ck), Dennis Locorriere (harmony vocals) and John Pierce (bass guitar).

Perfectly Good Guitar was Hiatt’s last studio album with A&M Records. Once again, another great record failed to meet the commercial expectations of the label, though ironically, it became Hiatt’s most successful record on the U.S. mainstream charts to date, peaking at no. 47 on the Billboard 200. Hiatt subsequently signed with Capitol Records, which released his next two studio albums, including the Grammy-nominated Walk On from October 1995.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

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