THE READING ROOM: Determination and ‘A Little Faith’ Drive John Hiatt’s Life Story
John Hiatt has been working at the troubadour trade steadily for over 40 years — well, more if you count his boyhood bands — and he’s produced a catalog of gems that sparkle with wry insight, candor, and introspection. As it turns out, Hiatt set his sights very early on being a songwriter, singer, and guitarist, and never lost faith in himself, even though he went through plenty of personal struggles that might have caused him to give it all up. Now, for the first time, ND contributor and DJ and music archivist Michael Elliott provides a glimpse into the windows of Hiatt’s life, his struggles, and his music in the captivating Have a Little Faith: The John Hiatt Story (Chicago Review Press).
Drawing on numerous interviews with Hiatt and his bandmates, friends, and family, Elliott takes us on a tour-de-force journey of Hiatt’s rise from “a Catholic elementary school and a brick house in the Midwest that held its share of secrets, to a sanitarium in upstate New York, to Nashville during the great migration of progressive singer-songwriters in the early 1970s. From solo folk tours of college campuses and coffeehouses to national tours fronting a scrappy bunch of young rockers to veteran sidemen and players. From the depths of dependency and suicide and the shockwaves they cause to the height of validation, acceptance, resilience, and redemption. Success on one’s own terms, brought on by determination and faith.”
As Elliott points out, music offered Hiatt an escape from the death of his father, his older brother’s suicide, and the financial difficulties the family often faced as he was growing up. Hiatt loved to perform for a crowd so much that in the fifth grade he would often disrupt his class with his impressions of familiar individuals. When he was 11, his mother gave him a red Stella acoustic guitar, and in the month’s following his brother’s death, Hiatt retreated into his room with it. “John escaped into music,” Elliott writes. “With the guitar his mom had bought him, he took two months’ worth of lessons. His guitar teacher … wanted to teach his young pupil to read music and pick out individual notes, but John wanted to bash power chords and rock. Still, through the help of his teacher and a Mel Bay chord book, he learned the three chords necessary to write a rock ’n’ roll song, which he did. ‘Beth Ann’ (even though it only used two of the three — the A and the G — that he’d learned) was about a girl in school that had developed a little sooner than the others. At the time, he had had no luck with the opposite sex, and it would still be a while before he would, but he’d discovered the power of creating his own world through music. It didn’t hurt that on February 9, 1964, six months into John’s eleventh year, four guys from Liverpool made their American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. The bug had bitten him, and there was no turning back.”
An engaging storyteller and a researcher devoted to detail, Elliott steers us album-by-album through Hiatt’s development as an artist, exploring each song and discussing details about the making of each album and the players involved in it. At the centerpiece of the story is Hiatt’s 1987 Bring in the Family. As Hiatt recalls, “I wrote most of Bring the Family during that first year back in Nashville after Isabella [Hiatt’s second wife] had passed and I was a single parent … Then subsequently when I met Nancy, during our courtship, I was writing a lot more love songs.” According to Elliott, “John found himself writing about this domesticity, and his new love — a lot about his new love. But it wasn’t any run-of-the-mill mushy boy-meets-girl pap. These were songs about resilience, about overcoming your demons and not only surviving but learning to thrive. They were about living day to day without any substances to lean on, but there was also no proselytizing. These were songs about adulthood, responsibility, monogamy, durability. Not songs put forth by a cynical, angry young man, looking askance at the world, too cool for school, too smart for the room. These emotions came from somewhere deeper than cynicism: they came straight from his heart.”
Hiatt assembled a band — Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe, and Jim Keltner — to play with him on Bring the Family. As Keltner recalls in the book, “People have interviewed me over the years about that Bring the Family record … And they’ll say something about the drums, and I’ll say, ‘Listen, that record’s not about the drums, believe me. That record is about the guitars. That record is about how if a drummer is presented with great songs, with great bones, and you have players who really know how to hear a song and make it come alive, then the drummer’s job is done. It’s already done. All you gotta do is sit behind the drums and play.”
In the end, Elliott writes of Hiatt’s music, “IT’S THE VOICE: A raspy howl that somehow evokes total confidence, even when it’s expressing regret or heartbreak. Even at its most vulnerable, there’s an assuredness at the foundation of every emotion.”
This voice first drew Elliott to Hiatt, and now Elliott’s voice draws us to Hiatt’s voice, its registers, and the ways it has delivered a steady stream of melodies and harmonies over the years that reveal the rawness of Hiatt’s emotions. Have a Little Faith is not merely a fan’s notes; this is a riveting book that tells the stories of one of our greatest roots musicians and the tenacity that’s grown out of his enduring passion for music. Elliott’s book will introduce new listeners to the genius of Hiatt’s music and stir his fans to drop their favorite Hiatt album on the turntable once more as they read.