I’ve been a John Hiatt fan for a long time, and as Hiatt fans know, explaining who he is often turns into a round of “the guy who wrote….” He’s been making records for more than 45 years, but because he’s never had a huge hit single or album himself, most listeners would know him as the guy who wrote Bonnie Raitt’s “Thing Called Love”, the guy who wrote Roseanne’s “The Way We Make a Broken Heart”, the guy who wrote Jeff Healey’s “Angel Eyes” – and, perhaps most notably, the guy who wrote “Have a Little Faith in Me”. That song has been covered by more than 50 artists, and it provides the title for PopMatters contributor Michael Elliott’s biography, Have a Little Faith: The John Hiatt Story.
Hiatt has a devoted group of fans, and he may have as many admirers in the music industry as he does among the general public. With that reputation, it’s surprising that there hasn’t already been a book about him and his career. In writing this biography, Elliott has honoured the work of this incredibly talented artist while creating an engrossing chronicle of Hiatt’s varied career. “One of the things that any admirer of John Hiatt will appreciate about this book is the lack of self-pity, bitterness, or reproach when John reflects on the unwise paths taken and even the occasional gamble with sanity,” writes Elvis Costello in the foreward.
Indeed some readers may already be aware of some of the broader parts of Hiatt’s life story, such as the family dysfunction during his childhood, the traumas he experienced as an adult, and his struggles with alcohol and drug abuse. Elliott’s detailed yet sensitive recounting of these situations makes it painfully clear just how many challenges Hiatt has endured, and how important music was to him as “a conduit to humanity because I always felt like I was on the outside in every other aspect of my life.” Elliott’s introduction explains how Hiatt’s music came to resonate with him personally, and rightfully positions Hiatt’s story as “motivat[ion] for those who may just need an ear and a voice, an advocate.”
In addition to interviewing Hiatt and his family, Elliott spoke with many of the artists that Hiatt has worked with across the years. The challenge, of course, in writing the story of a musician with such an extensive career is in keeping the narrative moving while keeping the reader sufficiently informed. If there’s any criticism to be made of Have a Little Faith, it’s that the narrative occasionally gets slowed down by more detail than may be necessary to introduce some of Hiatt’s collaborators.
However, Elliott also, commendably, avoids the trap that many music biographies fall into of either being uncritical or of spinning stories in a way that casts the subject in the best light. He does an admirable job of contextualizing each of Hiatt’s albums, and gives fair treatment to all of them, including the ones that, in retrospect, now sound unsure or dated.
A particularly strong part of the book is Elliott’s clear-eyed recounting of the story of Little Village – the teaming of Hiatt, Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe, and Jim Keltner that was touted as a supergroup in the making, but which only lasted long enough to create one uneven album of the same name in 1992. Many writers have looked back at this group and sighed with frustration about how much more it might have accomplished; Elliott realistically points out that Little Village consisted of four hugely talented individuals who were used to leading their own groups. That, combined with each having their own manager and a record company pushing hard for success on the scale of the Traveling Wilburys, meant that Little Village, in Hiatt’s words, “lasted as long as it was supposed to last.”
A striking theme that threads throughout Have a Little Faith is what some might call the randomness and some might call the openness that has shaped Hiatt’s artistic journey. Hiatt’s work can’t be neatly slotted into a single genre, which has made it hard for music industry executives to figure out how to “sell” him. Paradoxically, that’s also one of his greatest artistic strengths.
His songs range from wry, quirky humour to deeply honest emotions to good-time playfulness, and all of them ring true. Hiatt’s also not afraid to do something very different than what he did immediately before. For example, after extracting himself from Little Village, Hiatt hired Faith No More’s producer, Matt Wallace, because Hiatt’s son played Faith No More tapes in the car during the morning drive to school, and Hiatt liked the sound the band got in the studio. The unlikely pairing resulted in Perfectly Good Guitar (1993) one of Hiatt’s best albums ever.
Even as a Hiatt fan, while reading this book I frequently ran to YouTube or Spotify to find a track that was mentioned that I hadn’t heard. Hiatt’s career is so wide-ranging that not even Elliott’s comprehensive narrative can include everything he’s done – like his 1995 collaboration with Matthew Sweet on VH1’s Duets TV series – but there’s more than enough in this book to satisfy Hiatt aficionados, and to help every reader understand why Hiatt is so beloved. When Elliott asks Hiatt how he would like to be remembered, Hiatt modestly answers, “He tried to get better.” Have A Little Faith convincingly illustrates how much Hiatt has achieved while striving for that.