Every time I watch one on TV, a contestant is asked “If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?”
The answer usually has to do with ending warfare and other hostilities between nations, curing horrible diseases and preventing cruelty to animals.
Just once, though, I’d like to see someone step to the microphone, unleash a dazzling, Vaseline-coated smile and say “If I could change one thing, I’d like the masses to appreciate John Hiatt for his musical genius and forget about the lesser talents that are driving FM radio and the entire music industry into oblivion.”
I don’t remember the first time I heard a John Hiatt song or saw him perform in person. But, I know I liked it immediately.
Hiatt, who performs with Paul Thorn tonight in the Pitman Theater at Alverno College, is a great and usually unheralded songwriter who toiled in obscurity through the 1970s and most of the ‘80s before gaining some notoriety with his 1987 album, “Bring the Family.”
The record, Hiatt’s eighth, was recorded in just four days and featured sidemen like Ry Cooder (guitar), Nick Lowe (bass) and legendary Jim Keltner (drums). Songs like “Thank You Girl” and “Have a Little Faith in Me” weren’t hits, but they seem like classics now. The best known song on the record is “Thing Called Love,” which later became a monster hit for Bonnie Raitt.
Although he was hailed by critics and other musicians, the fact that Hiatt was unknown by many made listening to him feel like being part of an exclusive club. After almost wearing out a copy of “Bring the Family,” I was made it a point to pick up Hiatt’s albums and see his shows whenever possible.
Through “Slow Turning” in 1989, “Perfectly Good Guitar” in 1993 and others -- “Hiatt Comes Alive at Budokan,” “Little Head,” “The Tiki Bar is Open,” “Beneath This Gruff Exterior” and “Masters of Disaster,” he hasn’t disappointed.
The CD/DVD from his 1993 performance on “Austin City Limits” is both a highlight of that storied series and a solid introduction for fans unfamiliar with Hiatt’s work, which has been covered by artists like Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Iggy Pop, Jimmy Buffett, Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton and B.B. King, Jewell and the Neville Brothers.
Hiatt’s songs vary from rocking to poignant, while his gravelly and often-imitated vocal style is a turnoff for some, few songwriters are as crafty when it comes to turning a phrase.
The last time I saw Hiatt play in person, he was flanked by Lyle Lovett, Guy Clark and Joe Ely. Armed with acoustic guitars and broad smiles, the four men traded songs and laughs and seemed to have as much fun -- if not more -- than the paying customers.
The show tonight, in a cozy 930-seat theater, will undoubtedly bring more of the same. Hiatt doesn’t need a new CD or a publicity blitz to get him off the couch and onto the stage. For that, his fans should be thankful.
Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at OnMilwaukee.com. Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.