John Hiatt’s Incomparable Legacy of Words
“I think you get a hand that’s dealt to you, and then you’ve got to figure out how you’re going to play it.
By Steve Houk livingonmusic.com
ALEXANDRIA, VA – The wonder and fascination of John Hiatt‘s seemingly endless supply of timeless songs is no secret to those who relish, revere and respect his songwriting and storytelling. And that’s a helluva lot of people.
For over four decades, Hiatt has enveloped and embraced and enthralled a devoted legion of dedicated fans and legendary peers alike — the list of who has covered his songs reads like a Hall of Fame roster – with consistently momentous lyrics that literally deposit you into the places, and alongside the people, he speaks of.
Whether it’s the adventures of Trudy and Dave who “took the money for the laundry and drove away clean,” the Child of the Wild Blue Yonder who was “born in an angel’s wing,” the perp with the Tennessee Plates who “landed in Memphis like original sin,” or the aching of an Icy Blue Heart and the beauty of a Lipstick Sunset, John Hiatt takes you there. No matter who or where or what he writes about, Hiatt has been, and continues to be, a treasured lifelong piece of people’s psyches, mainly because of, yes, his words.
When he is asked about why his songs have resonated on such a personal level for so long, this eternally gifted, now 67 year-old songwriter even wonders a bit himself why what’s in his beautiful mind has meant so much to so many people.
“It’s a mystery to me. As mysterious as the inner human condition can be,” Hiatt told me as he prepared for his solo Eclipse Sessions tour which stops at The Birchmere for a sold out show on November 12th. “I do just love the fact that my songs can connect on some kind of level. It’s just a thrill as a writer, to be able to tell a story or paint a picture that people can connect with and relate to. That’s sort of what you want to achieve in any kind of a work of fiction or art or any other kind of thing. It’s always been a special feeling when somebody, anybody, sings your song.”
Hiatt has been cranking out captivating records basically every year or so ever since his debut with 1974’s Hangin’ Around The Observatory, but he uncharacteristically took a little more time of late between 2014’s Terms Of My Surrender and his most recent effort, 2018’s The Eclipse Sessions. It was clearly a necessary break for him to take stock and reboot.
“Oh man, yeah, it just took me a minute,” the quiet, engaged and affable Hiatt said. “After Terms it was kind of, I don’t know, trying to catch my breath, reconsider where I’m at, and all that sort of stuff. Just about getting older and kind of resetting your map and the things on it and what might be in store. So it just took a while to write songs and try and get my bearings. Not that I ever really know what the hell I’m doing.”
The vast and wandering scope of Hiatt’s work over the last 45 years is inescapable when you look at even just his song titles, whether provocative and unique like “Seven Little Indians,” “The Wreck of the Barbie Ferrari” or “The Night That Kenny Died,” or poignant and emotional like “Have A Little Faith in Me,” “Learning How To Love You” or “Bring Back Your Love To Me.” For nearly every song he pens, Hiatt looks out over the wide horizon of life for his motivation, never really knowing when inspiration will grab and take hold of his fascinating brain.
“I draw from all kinds of different sources,” Hiatt said. “A lure can come from anything, a little newspaper tidbit, or these days on the internet, which I don’t spend all that much time on. But maybe it’s something somebody says in a group of people when they get together, or it could be the way my wife looks at me one day that turns into a song, or some crazy thing I did today and I can’t believe I did it but I managed to get through it anyway. I’m always going in different places, but it’s fiction. Telling a story, and not necessarily my story.”
It was very early on as he was rising into his teens when Hiatt began his musical journey, and like many first bands of great musicians, it was just about finding common ground, and a shared love of music.
“I remember when I first started playing guitar, I was 11 years old and I had a couple guys in my grade and we kind of all picked up guitar at the same time, and by the next year, we had a real combo together. I actually found a guy who could play a little bit of drums, the toughest thing was getting somebody to play bass, it wasn’t a very glorious instrument and back in those days it wasn’t cool to play bass. So we spent a lot of time just finding bassists, like ‘Here’s the root of the chord, just play that.’ But it was fun. Yeah, I love playing with people.”
It was soon after dabbling with his elementary school pals that Hiatt started to see the real creative underbelly of music, as he began gathering his influences to learn more about the roots of songwriting. And like so many before and after him, it was the magic of the blues that grabbed hold of him first.
“I guess I was about 14 or 15 when I started hearing more of the sources of this kind of music that I now root around in, it got to be a little more about singers. And it was the country blues, what I started hearing in Lightning Hopkins, and Odetta was a big early influence, just the way she would sing a song just killed me. Mississippi John Hurt and Blind Willie McTell, people like that. Ya know, when you start learning all that, you realize, ‘Oh, the Rolling Stones‘ ‘Little Red Rooster’ is Willie Dixon,” and you start to find the soul of music.”
Although he is most often considered a solo artist, Hiatt has performed and collaborated with a host of great musicians, from his own band The Goners to Luther and Cody Dickinson, to the supergroup Little Village with Ry Cooder, Jim Keltner and Nick Lowe as well as many others. So even though he may appear to be in somewhat of a songwriter’s silo when it comes to his career, his collaborations started early on and have flourished and enhanced his work ever since.
As far as out on the road, Hiatt has toured by himself, as he will on this current run, but also as a duo of sorts with another artist like on recent turns with Lyle Lovett, and of course with a full-on band. And although he loves any live ensemble, he recognizes the intimacy of going solo.
“I love playing solo, I love playing with a band. But it’s two different things. The solo thing is like there’s no net, it’s just you playing solo, so it can be thrilling. It can be kind of rough on you some nights, but for the most part, it’s a thrilling approach. And it’s the way the song was written, it’s how it sounded essentially when I first wrote it. So in that respect, it’s not gilded in any way. It’s just the song, the singer. I’ve always enjoyed it. And I’ve heard so many great solo shows over the years, I’m thinking of the time I heard Lou Reed. It blew my mind how great he was. It’s not like people think of Lou Reed and think of a great singer, but he delivered his stuff in such a way that the crowd was just enthralled. It was amazing.”
Like many people who love his music, Hiatt has had a life full of both triumph and tragedy, and to him, it’s really all about how you deal with what’s laid on your plate.
“I think you get a hand that’s dealt to you, and then you’ve got to figure out how you’re going to play it. For some people it takes longer than others, and I’m no different than anybody else. I had stuff I had to go through to get to the next point, the next jumping off point. To me, it’s always about the excitement of creating your life, that’s kind of how I’ve seen it in all the whatever you want to call them, tribulations or rough waters, it’s all to a purpose I think. It’s all good stuff.”
Whether it’s music he wrote four decades ago, or just last week, John Hiatt continues to delight and engross not only his large fan base, but new listeners who latch on to the stories he tells and the emotions he unearths. And bottom line? At almost 70, he just wants to keep on keepin’ on, making music in the same way he has done for so long, music that will undoubtedly stand the test of time and become part of many people’s lives.
“There are three things about the songs: you write them, record them, and come out to sing them. It’s like a three legged stool, I guess, and I like sitting on that. None of those three has lost its luster to me. And as far as what I wanted to the music to do, that’s hard to say, I guess it was my way of communicating, so the fact that people have connected is a big deal. And yeah, the fact that I can just wake up in the morning probably makes me the most happy. It’s all gravy from there.”
John Hiatt’s November 12th performance at The Birchmere is sold out.
Read more great music interviews by Steve Houk on his website, livingonmusic.com