It is said that the music you encounter in your late teens and early 20’s is imprinted on you for the rest of your life. This is the music you love, the music you always go back to, the music by which all other music you listen to will be judged.
I first heard the music of John Hiatt when I was 21 years old.
I fell in love with the music of John Hiatt because I fell in love with the story of John Hiatt. John Hiatt was an alcoholic, troubadour Nashville songwriter. Originally from Indiana, Hiatt went to Nashville in 1972 when he was 18 years old, and became a staff songwriter for a local studio and performed with a few bands. He wrote one song for Three Dog Night, and had other songs covered by Willie Nelson, Freddy Fender and Willy DeVille.
Success was elusive. A few of his songs found their way to low chart positions, but always by other artists. He released album after album. He continued to drink. Nothing was working.
Then, in the mid-1980’s, Hiatt got sober. In February 1987, he went into the studio to record what would be his 8th album. Jim Keltner on drums. Nick Lowe on bass. Ry Cooder on guitar. Each one an amazing, experienced musician in his own right.
Money was tight, and so was time. They only had 4 days in the studio. Though the songs were carefully crafted and beautifully written, they had to be quickly recorded. Nick Lowe had only just gotten off the plane from London to Los Angeles when he was brought directly to the studio to record his bass part on “Memphis in the Meantime.” He barely knew the song, and his slightly out of sync bass line serves the song incredibly well. The musicians gelled. Hiatt was in top form. The songs were perfect.
“And after we get good and greasy
Baby we can come back home
Put the cowhorns back on the Cadillac
And change the message on the Code-a-Phone”
-“Memphis in the Meantime“
“I ain’t no porcupine
Take off your kid gloves
Are you ready for the thing called love”
-“Thing Called Love”
“Yeah, you’ve seen the old man’s ghost
Come back as creamed chipped beef on toast
Now, if you don’t get your slice of the roast
You’re gonna flip your lid
Just like your dad did, just like your dad did”
-“Your Dad Did”
Bring the Family is a country-rock masterpiece album. Every song is beautifully crafted, and the lyrics are shining with anger, regret, love and hope. He sings in the first song, “but right now I need a telecaster through a vibro-lux turned up to ten.” Hiatt knows how to write a song.
Although Hiatt had the lyrics and basic music for “Have a Little Faith in Me,” he was having a hard time coming up with an arrangement for the band. Producer John Chelew encouraged Hiatt to sit down at the piano to run through the song once so everyone could hear it fresh, and contribute ideas. Unbeknownst to Hiatt, Chelew ran the tape as he sang, and the final version on the album is the recorded rehearsal.
The song is simple, yet sincere and heartfelt.
“When the road gets dark
And you can hardly see
Just let my love throw a spark
Have a little faith in me.”
Hiatt whispers, then sings in falsetto. He strains to share passion and emotion. The lyrics are not groundbreaking, but they tell a truth. He is singing to us. He is singing for us.
In time, Hiatt would record a gospel tinged version with a full band, and though he regularly performed the song solo on the piano during his shows for years, my favorite version is the more lively version with two guitars, bass and drums.
John Hiatt is one of our finest song writers, and yet it is not the craft “Have a Little Faith in Me” that makes it so special, it is the performance. Captured on tape by chance, full-throated, passionate and raw.
“When your secret heart
Cannot speak so easily
Come here darlin’
From a whisper start
To have a little faith in me.”
I first heard “Have a Little Faith in Me” when I was 21. That was 30 years ago. It’s still with me.
“Have a Little Faith in Me”
Written by John Hiatt
Performed by John Hiatt
Released May 29, 1987