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John Hiatt’s Bring the Family An ’80s Masterpiece

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Remember Bonnie Raitt’s comeback 1989 hit, “Thing Called Love”? While many fans remember her Grammy-winning song and album Nick of Time (along with the video featuring a young and sexy Dennis Quaid), few think of that tune's songwriter, John Hiatt. A veteran singer/songwriter whose songs have been covered by many artists, Hiatt is a “musician’s musician,” quietly forging his own mix of rock, blues, country, and folk. While he had been recording since the mid-70s, he came into his own with 1987’s Bring the Family, a modern classic and one of the best albums of the 1980s.

Hiatt’s masterpiece features introspective songs from the perspective of a man looking back at his life and pondering the future. The album kicks off with “Memphis in the Meantime,” a witty, almost rockabilly song coaxing a woman to drive to Memphis with him: “Sure I like country music / And I like mandolins / But right now I need a telecaster… turned up to ten.” In a clever nod to big-hair 80s fashion, he cautions her to “Forget the mousse and the hair gel sugar / We don’t need none of that / A little dab’ll do you girl / Underneath the porkpie hat.”

Also included is Hiatt’s original “Thing Called Love,” which appears much rougher than Raitt’s smooth cover. Electric guitars dominate the song, with Hiatt’s tough vocals in the forefront. The overall sound resembles a blues band performing in a gritty bar.

Like country music? Look no further than “Lipstick Sunset,” a lovely ballad that shows Hiatt’s obvious affection for the genre as well as some sublime electric guitar. While the lyrics address a familiar story — the dissolution of a love affair — he paints a picture with his words, using images of colors and sunsets to evoke emotion. “Tip of My Tongue” explores how the wrong words can doom a relationship: “`Til I watched the greatest love I’ve ever known / All come down to a slip of the tongue,” he croons, regret palpable in his vocal performance.

Despite these bittersweet ballads, Hiatt balances the serious with the fun on Bring the Family. He returns to straight-forward rock with “Thank You Girl” (not to be confused with the Beatles classic), which features blistering electric guitar and a Stevie Ray Vaughan-like vocal. Speaking of the Beatles, “Your Dad Did,” an amusing look at fathers and sons, definitely possesses a Beatlesque, even Byrds-like quality in its jangling guitars. The lyrics describe a son trying to live differently than his father, but Hiatt’s sly lyrics define the futility of his desire: “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.”

One of the most interesting aspects of Bring the Family remains its examination of a thirtysomething, of lessons learned. “Stood Up” recounts failed love affairs, but how Hiatt learned from them and continues to “stand up” when love appears again. “Learning How to Love You” (not the George Harrison ballad) further explores this theme, this time describing in a straightforward manner how long it took for him to properly love someone. Apparently drawing from personal experience, Hiatt recounts how he gradually learned about love from childhood until the present, confessing that learning how to love properly is “long” and “hard,” but that the journey is worth it: “`Cause I only got to where I am / Learning how to love you.” Hiatt’s choice to simply sing the song while playing his acoustic guitar lends great intimacy to the song and emphasizes the deeply personal subject matter.

Amazingly, the album sounds as fresh and different today as it did in 1987. Unlike many over-synthesized and overproduced 80s recordings, Hiatt’s album uses only guitars and drums. The tracks sound as if they were recorded live with little overdubbing, the production never making the instruments and vocals sound overly polished. Bring the Family did not rack up big sales or rank high on the charts, perhaps because it resembled no other popular albums at that time. Even today, its complex subject matter, intelligent lyrics, and “roots” stand out, stressing its timeless quality.

Like peeling the layers of an onion, listening to Bring the Family (preferably multiple times) reveals more and more meaning over time. For instance, I bought the album upon its initial release, but did not fully appreciate it until reaching my early 30s. Hiatt’s songs chronicle a familiar turning point, when people reflect on where they’ve been, what they’ve learned, and how they will apply that knowledge in the future. It’s a universal experience and one that Hiatt addresses with eloquence and, yes, rocking electric guitars, on Bring the Family.

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About Kit O'Toole

  • Pico

    Great review as usual, Kit. This was Hiatt’s breakout record and justifiably so (even though I like the followup Slow Turning better still). Having Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner as his backing band didn’t hurt, either.

    His heart wrenching ballad “Have a Little Faith In Me” deserves some mention, too, it’s one of his best songs ever IMHO.

  • Kit O’Toole

    Thanks, Pico! I agree about “Have A Little Faith in Me”-in fact, I wrote about it originally, but my Word file somehow got corrupted and I had to write the whole article again from memory! I forgot to include “Faith” the second time, so thanks for mentioning this beautiful ballad here.

  • Beth Ann

    Always loved him, and glad to have the reminder about what an accomplished artist he is. Excellent piece. Thanks

  • Belle 2

    I also love “Have a Little…”. Do you know the story behind the song? I’m curious.

  • Pico

    Belle, hopefully Kit can answer more fully, but I think I’ve read somewhere that “Have A Little Faith In Me” was inspired by the tragic suicide of his second wife just two years prior to the time he recorded this song.

  • Belle 2

    Well, I certainly wasn’t expecting that explanation. Very sad. I’ll have to dig out my cd and listen to it again. I only bought it in the first place for this song. I first heard it on a movie sound track and I watched the credits for the artist because I knew I had to have it for myself. It’s beautiful and haunting and now I guess…tragic.

  • Pico

    Yes, that’s why I called it “heart wrenching.” He almost seems to be singing what he wish he could have said to his then-wife with the benefit of hindsight. At least that’s how the lyrics read to me.

  • Holly A Hughes

    “Stood Up” is so incredibly poignant — it’s really not just about love, but about Hiatt’s getting sober, which was still a fresh event when he did this album. After his second wife’s suicide, he had to take on raising their toddler daughter, Lily, which quite an eye-opener for him. I don’t know whether he kicked his substance abuse before or after he met his third wife, Nancy (to whom he’s still happily married), but I know he emerged from all of this a saved man, and IMO a better artist than he had been before. I’ve always felt that “Thing Called Love,” “Have A Little Faith,” and “Learning How to Love You” were about his relationshop with Nancy, while “Tip of My Tongue”‘s the painful one about his second wife’s death.

    “Your Dad Did” is one of the few brilliant rock songs about being a father, and hey, most of the others on that topic are by Hiatt, too. His new album Same Old Man is fantastic, by the way; it’s the only rock album I know about empty-nesters rekindling their love. It gets downright steamy at times.

  • Kit O’Toole

    Thanks for all the great comments–I knew about Hiatt’s drug issues, but did not know about his wife’s suicide. That certainly lends an entirely new perspective–and deeper meaning–to the album. Thanks for filling in the gaps!