The first time I saw John Hiatt perform was in 1983. All these years later, that evening still stands out — a good trick considering I had no clue who he was at the time.
It was a late winter night at Louisville Gardens. The lure was my first opportunity to see Eric Clapton in concert. But the thrill was magnified because opening the show was the great Ry Cooder, then in the beginnings of a career renaissance as a star composer of film scores.
Clapton was OK. Cooder was out of this world, largely because of his ridiculously potent band. Among the ranks were pianist, producer and roots music pioneer Jim Dickinson, renowned drummer Jim Keltner and the killer vocal combo of Willie Green and Bobby Charles. Completing the band at stage right was a lanky figure adding rhythm guitar, a solemn, almost distant presence.
This, I was told, was John Hiatt.
The name already had made the rounds among my musical pals. Even then he was receiving acclaim as the sort of songwriter one was introduced to more through cover versions of his works than his own recordings. I also remember a friend sitting me down and practically forcing me to listen to Slug Line, Hiatt's 1980 album of modestly brutish pop.
So the seeds were planted. Hiatt remained on my radar after that show in 1983. The songsmith did a little plotting of his own, too. Later that year, he released an album called Riding With the King. (Clapton would recut the title song some 20-odd years later as the namesake tune for a collaborative hit album with B.B. King.)
For many, though, the wake-up call came in late 1987, when Hiatt released the breakthrough album Bring the Family. With a serious substance abuse behind him and bolstered by the support of a new marriage, Hiatt served up a collection of world-class love songs.
Some were astounding in their vulnerability (Have a Little Faith in Me). Others were deliciously seedy (Memphis in the Meantime). The remainder shifted from vivid family snapshots (Your Dad Did) to gorgeously bittersweet ballads (Lipstick Sunset). And it didn't hurt that Bring the Family's most carefree work, Thing Called Love, would re-emerge two years later as the first single from a commercially reborn Bonnie Raitt. Again, the world heard Hiatt's music without, in many cases, knowing who Hiatt was.
Things snowballed from there. The exquisite Slow Turning followed in 1988. The more streamlined Stolen Moments came in the summer of 1990 and with it, Hiatt's first Lexington shows — a pair of sold-out performances at the long-since-demolished Breeding's on Main. On Memorial Day 1994, he returned to headline a daylong bill at The Red Mile. Hiatt wound up including a few recordings from the show on a live album later that year titled Hiatt Comes Alive at Budokan. His last headlining concerts in Lexington were a pair of Kentucky Theatre dates in 1997.
The years have hardly slowed Hiatt, who turns 60 on Monday. He will release his third album in as many years next month (Mystic Pinball) and is following a string of summer concert dates in Europe with a fall tour that includes six double-header shows with Steve Earle, including a performance Wednesday at Lexington Opera House and a follow-up Thursday at Cincinnati's Taft Theatre.
While Hiatt has never released anything resembling a weak album during the past 25 years, the newer New West albums are strong enough to rival the late '80s/early '90s succession of Bring the Family, Slow Turning and Stolen Moments.
The same exuberance that fueled the earlier records is in abundance on the New West albums. Sure, some pretty dark roads are traveled on 2011's Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns through such deliciously desolate songs as Damn This Town and Down Around My Place. But a listen to We're Alright Now, the leadoff tune to Mystic Pinball, reveals the same kind of lean, electric redemption that distinguished Slow Turning. The personal and creative rebirth that fortified Hiatt's songs more than two decades ago continues to thrive.
"Sun comes up every morning, even when it's too cloudy to see," Hiatt sings over a steady, swampy groove. "I was willing to lose that years ago. I don't know what was the matter with me."
"You know, I kind of signed up with the idea that writers are supposed to write about what they know," Hiatt told me in an interview before a 2009 concert with Lyle Lovett at Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts in Danville. "Not that I know any damn thing about love. But I came from a place of such despair back when I was an addict and alcoholic. I was freakin' out of my mind. To come from that into putting a family together with a woman who cared for me and who I cared for, ... it is a continual source of inspiration. And so that just seems to be what I've decided to write about."