John Hiatt began his solo career in 1974 and over the next decade ran through a number of different styles from rock 'n' roll to new wave pop before he finally settled on a rootsy fusion of rock 'n' roll, country, blues and folk with his 1987 album Bring the Family. Though the album didn't set the charts on fire, it became his first album to reach the charts, and several of its songs became hits for other artists, including Bonnie Raitt's "Thing Called Love." Following the album's success, Hiatt became a reliable hit songwriter for other artists, and he developed a strong cult following.
While he was growing up in his hometown of Indianapolis, Hiatt played in a number of garage bands. Initially, he was inspired by the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, and the music of those two artists would echo strongly throughout his work. Following his high school graduation, he moved to Nashville and landed a job as a songwriter for Tree Publishing. For the next several years, he wrote and performed at local clubs and hotels. Within a few years, his songs were being recorded by artists such as Conway Twitty, Tracy Nelson and Three Dog Night, who took Hiatt's "Sure as I'm Sittin' Here" to No. 16 in the summer of 1974.
Eventually, his manager secured him an audition at Epic Records. The label signed him in 1974 and released his debut album, Hangin' Around the Observatory, later that year. Despite their critical acclaim, neither Hangin' Around the Observatory nor its 1975 follow-up Overcoats sold many copies, and he was dropped by the label. By the end of the year, Tree Publishing had let him go as well.
Following his failure in Nashville, Hiatt moved to California. By 1978, he had settled in Los Angeles, where played in clubs, opening for folk musicians including Leo Kottke. With Kottke's assistance, Hiatt hired a new manager, Denny Bruce, who helped him secure a contract with MCA Records. Although his first two records were straight-ahead rock 'n' roll and folk-rock, Slug Line (1979) was in the new wave vein of angry English singer-songwriters like Elvis Costello, Graham Parker and Joe Jackson. The new approach earned some strong reviews, yet it failed to generate any sales. Two Bit Monsters (1980), his second MCA album, faced the same situation and the label dropped him.
Apart from working on Two Bit Monsters, Hiatt spent most of 1980 as a member of Ry Cooder's backing band, playing rhythm guitar on the Borderline album and touring with him. Hiatt stayed with Cooder throughout 1981, signing a new contract with Geffen Records by the end of the year. Produced by Tony Visconti (David Bowie, T. Rex), his Geffen debut All of a Sudden was released in 1982, followed by Riding With the King in 1983. As with his previous records for Epic and MCA, neither of his first two Geffen releases sold well.
By this time, Hiatt was sinking deep into alcoholism. Around the time he completed 1985's Warming Up to the Ice Age, his second wife committed suicide. By the end of 1985, he had been dropped from Geffen and entered a rehabilitation program.
In 1986, he remarried and signed a new deal with A&M Records. For his A&M debut, Hiatt assembled a small band comprised of his former associates Ry Cooder (guitar), Nick Lowe (bass), and Jim Keltner (drums). Recorded in a handful of days, Bring the Family (1987) had a direct, stripped-down, rootsy sound that differed greatly from his earlier albums. The album received the best reviews of his career and, for once, the reviews began to pay off. It peaked at 107 on the U.S. charts.
Hiatt attempted to record a follow-up with Cooder, Lowe and Keltner, but the musicians failed to agree on the financial terms for the sessions. Undaunted, he recorded an album with John Doe, David Lindley and Dave Mattacks, but he scrapped the completed project, deciding that the result was too forced. Hiatt's final attempt at recording the follow-up to Bring the Family was orchestrated by veteran producer Glyn Johns, who had him record with his touring band, the Goners. Despite all of the behind-the-scenes troubles behind its recording, the follow-up album, Slow Turning appeared in 1988. Within the next year, Hiatt successfully toured throughout America and Europe, strengthening his fan base along the way.
In 1990, Hiatt returned with Stolen Moments, which was nearly as successful as Slow Turning, both critically and commercially. In 1991, the group that recorded Bring the Family -- Hiatt, Cooder, Lowe and Keltner -- re-formed as a band called Little Village, releasing their eponymous debut in early 1992. Expectations for Little Village were quite high, yet the record and its supporting tour were considered a major disappointment. Later, the individual members would agree that the band was a failure, mainly due to conflicting egos.
Hiatt decided to back away from the superstar nature of Little Village for his next album, 1993's Perfectly Good Guitar. Recorded in just two weeks with a backing band comprised of members of alternative rock bands School of Fish and Wire Train, the album was looser than any record since Bring the Family, but it didn't quite have the staying power of its two predecessors, spending only 11 weeks on the charts and peaking at No. 47. He released his first live album, Hiatt Comes Alive at Budokan, in 1994, then signed to Capitol Records the following year.
Walk On was recorded during his supporting tour for Perfectly Good Guitar and featured guest appearances by the Jayhawks and Raitt. Walk On entered the charts at No. 48 but slipped off the charts in nine weeks, indicating that his audience had settled into a dedicated cult following. After 1997's Little Head quickly came and went in the marketplace, Hiatt parted ways with Capitol, and his next album, 2000's Crossing Muddy Waters was released on Vanguard Records. After a second album with Vanguard, The Tiki Bar is Open, he aligned himself with another independent label, New West, for Beneath This Gruff Exterior (2003) and Master of Disaster (2005).