[16 January 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
I grew up in a household in rural Ontario during the late ‘80s with a satellite dish. This is owing to the fact that for most of my young life in that house, we only got three channels and one of them was rather fuzzy. So my parents capitulated around 1988 and got one of those jail broken dishes with a descrambler that would only last for a few years before the industry figured out a way around such blatant piracy. Anyhow. This is how a kid from small town Canada got to see MTV during its golden era (you know, back when the channel actually showed videos) and I also got VH1. Now, I was a little baffled by VH1. It seemed aimed at bored 40-somethings with some level of sophistication in New York. This was probably my first exposure to the idea that rock and pop music is geared towards a young demographic, and, after you get past a certain age, you start listening to granola music or some such thing. Being just 12 years old, I was a bit baffled by the concept of demographics and just assumed everyone loved everything to a certain degree.
So, you’re probably asking yourself, what does this have to do with John Hiatt? Well, my exposure to John Hiatt came through VH1 and seeing videos for “Child of the Wild Blue Yonder” and “Have a Little Faith in Me”, nevermind the fact that Canadian Jeff Healey would have a hit with a Hiatt-penned song called “Angel Eyes” during roughly the same period. (I never knew until very recently that that was a Hiatt song.) Anyhow, what I want to say is that if I were baffled by the concept of something like VH1, I was equally baffled by Hiatt being relegated there. To me, Hiatt seemed cool for some intangible reason. I suspect it may just be because Hiatt actually wrote decent songs, if not for the fact that he seemed to live a very hard lifestyle. (He’s had his trouble with drink and drugs in the past.) I’ve always thought that Hiatt should be bigger than he is, but I guess we and he have to just accept that he’s more of a musician’s musician who writes hits for other people, but usually winds up with the short end of the stick when he strikes out on his own.
You’ll have to forgive me if I sound a bit surprised that there’s a new compilation of Hiatt’s 21st century work entitled Here to Stay: Best of 2000-2012. After losing VH1, and having to contend with Canadian cable somewhere in 1993 or ’94, I lost all track of Hiatt. True, I know his daughter is a known singer-songwriter in her own right (and she shows up on this comp as a backing vocalist on songs such as “What Love Can Do”) and I’ve always had an inkling in the back of my head that any time I walk into a record store and there’s a used vinyl copy of Bring the Family in the racks, I should, you know, buy it. But I had absolutely no clue that Hiatt was still kicking around and recording music. That’s what makes Here to Stay so instructive: unless you’re a Hiatt obsessive, and we all know how few of those are probably out there, you probably have been left in the dark as to Hiatt’s whereabouts. It turns out that Hiatt has gone down the path of the independents since the millennium flipped over, recording most of his material for New West Records. And, it turns out, this period arguably represents the most stability, at least in terms of recording contracts, of his career.
But what’s particularly amazing about Here to Stay is that for a best-of package that collects material from eight albums in chronological order (each album is represented by two cuts, and there’s an unreleased song, the title track, at the very end), and notwithstanding that each of those albums have different feels and a different line up of backing musicians performing on the material, it still all singularly sounds like a full album of its own. If the record company had peeled “Best of” off the album cover, I wouldn’t have been the wiser. This speaks to Hiatt’s uncanny ability to be consistent in his worn and grubby take on Americana heartland rock. A lilting bluegrass song such as opener “Crossing Muddy Waters” can easily rub shoulders with the Replacements-like barroom rockers such as “Everybody Went Low” and it all sounds one and the same. And it works.
That’s not all that’s surprising about Here to Stay. I suspected Hiatt was a pretty old dude when I was 12, but here he sounds particularly grizzled and sandy, which buoys the material about those on the down and out or facing heartbreak with a particularly weary world view. It turns out Hiatt is 61 years old, but I would have thought he was much, much older than that given the workout his voice is given on this collection, which actually means that he recorded the bulk of this stuff during his 50s. But if time hasn’t been kind to Hiatt’s pipes, his songs haven’t suffered in the least. From the shuffling “What Love Can Do” to the harrowing “Damn This Town” (which has the best lyrics on the album, especially given its very Warren Zevon-like opening lines, “They killed my brother in a poker game / Damn this town, I’m leaving”), and pretty much everything in between and then some, there isn’t a particularly bad song to be found here. If anything, Here to Stay is a perfect taster for those who though Hiatt was, you know, dead or something, and gives the perfect argument that one should go out and delve deeper into the material that didn’t make the cut from the LPs represented here.
Now, if you have all of the albums represented on this greatest hits platter, you don’t need Here to Stay, even though the unreleased title track offers some smokin’ slide guitar. I’d try to just find that one song on iTunes or Amazon. In fact, the dearth of new material kind of knocks this set down just a peg because, otherwise, who is this for, especially if you’d had no exposure to the man and his music? Still, everyone else should clamour for this compilation, even if they do so blindly without hearing a lick of the sounds contained within. Better yet, we should start petitioning for a full career box set, but, given the fact that Hiatt was on something like five different labels from the ‘70s to the late ‘90s, that might be a challenge with licensing hoopla and all that. Still, Here to Stay is pretty much just damn amazing, and illustrates just how much of an under-appreciated talent Hiatt is. Can somebody give this guy a hit, even if it’s an adult-contemporary one? John Hiatt is a master, a genius at his art, and here’s hoping that the title of this collection is tellingly prescient in its choice of title. He’s been kicking around for a long time, but I do hope that Here to Stay isn’t the very last that we hear out of John Hiatt, and he’s got at least another 12 years and another eight albums worth of material in him.