"Sometimes love can be so wrong," John Hiatt sings in his bluesy growl during a recent set at the Iridium in New York City. "Like a fat man in a thong."
The lyric, from the title song of his latest album, "Terms of My Surrender" (NewWest), due Tuesday, is typical of Mr. Hiatt, whose knack for finding comedy in heartbreak has won him renown as a songwriter's songwriter. Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen and Roseanne Cash are among dozens of artists who have covered his tunes.
"That's a very, very humbling deal," Mr. Hiatt says of his peers who have recorded his songs.
Mr. Hiatt's wry, sharp-eyed songs include "Thing Called Love," a hit single for Bonnie Raitt, and "Ridin' With the King" which Eric Clapton and B.B. King recorded.
Mr. Hiatt enjoys a devoted following in the U.S. and Europe, but over the course of a 40-year career and 22 albums, he has never scored a gold record for album sales or landed a song on the pop charts.
"When I was younger," Mr. Hiatt says, "I wanted the brass ring. 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."
Mr. Hiatt grew up in Indianapolis amid family tragedy. He was 11 years old when his older brother died, a loss he still doesn't like talking about. At 13, his father died. "It was rough, but it happened to plenty of other kids," he says of that event. "I was pretty much the wild child from then on."
Finding solace and escape through music, he took up guitar in fifth grade and wrote his first song, about a sixth-grade classmate named Beth Ann. "She had developed a little sooner than the rest of the girls, shall we say, and all the boys of course took note of that. The chorus was [sings] `Beth Ann ohhh, she's a wo-man.'"
That same year he and three friends formed a band, Joe Lynch and the Hangmen. "Our drummer's name was Joe Lynch and so it just seemed like a natural way to go. We wanted to make little nooses and hang them on the microphone stands but Joe quit the band before we got that far."
Playing Catholic Youth Organization dances, Mr. Hiatt and his bandmates mixed in original songs with their Otis Redding and Beatles covers. "It was a big deal for me to get up in front of people and sing and play because I was fat," he remembers. "By the time I was 12, I probably weighed 250. So it took some courage on my part but I was driven. When I was playing it was the only time I felt kind of normal."
By the time he left high school, Mr. Hiatt had slimmed down. "I was in love with a little gal and by golly she just wanted to be friends. I was convinced that she just wanted to be friends because I was fat. So I went on a strict hamburger and booze diet. I probably shed 100 pounds in a summer. I lost the weight but she still just wanted to be friends, dammit."
But it gave him material for his songwriting. "I probably got 100 songs from her," he says. "She introduced me to heartbreak."
And his weight-loss program—"I called it my marinated Atkins diet," he says— got him started on a drugs-and-alcohol go-round that it would take him more than a decade to tame.
Mr. Hiatt moved to Nashville, where at 18, he won an audition for a $25-a-week gig writing songs for Tree, a top music publisher. "I was a professional all of a sudden," he recalls.
In 1973, he was signed as an artist in his own right by Epic Records. Mr. Hiatt seemed set on a course to stardom the following year when his debut album, "Hangin' Around the Observatory" was released. The album's "off-center rock 'n' roll" impressed critic Robert Christgau and Three Dog Night's cover of Mr. Hiatt's "Sure As I'm Sittin' Here" became a Top 20 pop hit.
Then his luck changed. "Observatory" and its 1975 follow-up, "Overcoats," failed to crack the sales charts and Mr. Hiatt was dropped by his label. History repeated itself when he was dropped by his next label after two albums.
He moved to Los Angeles and recorded three albums in the early 1980s before being dropped once again. It was a period Mr. Hiatt remembers in a blur.
"I was at the very bottom of my drug and alcohol abuse during that record," he says. One album, 1982's "All of a Sudden" was an Elvis Costello-sound-alike New Wave rock album, tricked out with synthesizers. It was a near-unrecognizable departure from the bluesy, countrified rock he made before and the rootsy soul music that he has released since.
"In many ways I was not present during that recording," Mr. Hiatt says. "I was so hectic and so depressed by my many addictions, I was hampered to a large degree."
Two years later, Mr. Hiatt kicked his habits and in 1985, he left California. "I love Los Angeles," he says, "but I did most of my damage to myself out there. Those last two years had been pretty hellish." Returning to Nashville, where he has lived ever since, "was coming home for me," he says.
In 1987 he enjoyed a banner year when Roseanne Cash scored a No. 1 country hit with his song, "The Way We Make A Broken Heart." That same year he released "Bring the Family," a much-lauded album that he recorded with Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner. The four would later form a short-lived supergroup, Little Village. The album included the widely covered tunes "Have a Little Faith in Me," "Memphis in the Meantime" and "Thing Called Love."
Embarked on a two-month tour to promote "Terms of My Surrender," Mr. Hiatt salts his shows with fan favorites like "Perfectly Good Guitar," an amusing jab at rockers who smash their equipment.
"I was watching Nirvana on some show and at the end of the song Krist Novoselic, the bass player, threw his bass way up in the air and it came down and hit him in the head. I thought it was funny." And from that came the song.
"Old people are pushy," Mr. Hiatt, now 61, sings on another semi-autobiographic track from his new album. "They don't have much time; they'll shove you aside in the coffee shop; cut ahead in the buffet line."
"That one comes just from my observations," he says. "And from my own tendencies as I age."