Two hundred fifty: that's the number of songs a young John Hiatt wrote and recorded when he worked for Tree Music Publishing back in 1971, earning the aspiring musician a mere $25 a week.
Now age 61, and 22 studio albums into the kind of career only a select few are ever lucky enough to claim, phrases like "commercial failure," "failed to sell" and "moderately successful" still permeate his Wikipedia page. Clearly, populist accolades like record sales and awards don't mean much when it comes to a comprehensive definition of achievement. If they did, it's doubtful Hiatt would have the bountiful catalogue of songs he does; songs that have been covered by a who's-who-list of popular musicians.
The truth is Hiatt is the songwriter behind hits like "Sure As I'm Sitting Here" which was recorded by Three Dog Night and "Riding with the King," which went double platinum after being recorded by Eric Clapton and B.B. King nearly two decades after Hiatt himself released it. Lyrics from that song like: "Well I stepped out of a mirror at ten years old with a suit cut sharp, as a razor and a heart of gold. I had a guitar hanging just about waist high. I'm gonna play that thing until the day I die," were intensely colorful and earned him critical acclaim; at first mostly only from his peers. But over time, his bluesy storytelling of acutely personal sounding—even if not always 100 percent true—anecdotes did garner Hiatt a cult following that today, fills venues and keeps demand up for Hiatt to pen new tunes; including those on his 2014 effort Terms of My Surrender.
"I always felt that if you're going to sing words, why not tell a story?" explained Hiatt in 2011 to West Hollywood Patch, an LA news outlet. "It's what holds my interest, too."
Twenty two studio albums in 40 years—a blistering pace for an artist who's never had a number one hit himself—and he hasn't deviated from that premise. Lyrics from "Slow Turning"—the closest thing Hiatt's had to a hit when it reached number 8 in 1988—offer as honest an assessment about his approach as any he's ever written: "My only pride and joy was this racket down here. Bangin' on an old guitar and singin' what I had to say."
That tired-sounding, but sure-footed claim reverberates even more strongly when paired with his voice; a leathery, Joe Cocker-like delivery that builds trust with every story sung. It's the main reason why, even if listening to Hiatt for the first time on Terms of My Surrender—a macabre sounding title to be sure—it's easy to feel like you know him.
As he sings on "Long Time Comin'," the lead track from that album: "I've sang these songs a thousand times, ever since I was young. It's a long time comin' and the drummer keeps drummin', your work is never done," it's evident, that what Hiatt has been doing for 40 years has nothing to do with becoming a star or winning awards, it's merely in his nature to be a songwriter.
"When I was younger, I wanted the brass ring," Hiatt told the Wall Street Journal this year. "Then, as I settled in and started building a career, if you want to call it that, I was more concerned with what I had, that I was able to write songs that connect with people and play them live and make records."
Mission accomplished, Mr. Hiatt.
John Hiatt and The Combo with Taj Mahal Trio
Thurs., Aug. 7
57250 Overlook Road, Sunriver