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This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the July 17, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

John Hiatt: Roots Music, Renaissance Man

Although he’s known as one of America’s premier roots-rock

and Americana singer-songwriters, guitarist and singer John Hiatt

has always had a close affinity with the blues. Hiatt and his band,

the Goners, which includes the brilliant Louisiana-based Sonny Landreth

on slide guitar, are reunited on Hiatt’s current album, "The Tiki

Bar Is Open" (on Vanguard). But Hiatt performs solo here at the

State Theater this Wednesday, July 17, on a show with Loudon Wainwright

III.

Hiatt and the Goners were slated to open for B.B. King and Buddy Guy

last September 14 at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel. Hiatt’s

new album was released on a fateful day — Septemper 11 — the

same day that new albums by Jimmie Vaughan, "Do You Get The Blues?,"

and Bob Dylan’s critically acclaimed "Love and Theft" were

released. The Arts Center’s September 14 B.B. King Blues Festival

was cancelled for obvious reasons, but it was also reported that King,

at age 76 and suffering from diabetes, wasn’t feeling too well as

a result of that week’s terrorist madness.

In addition to Landreth, whose exquisite slide playing lends a whole

new dimension to Hiatt’s music, the Goners include Ken Blevins on

drums and Dave Ranson on bass. Hiatt’s pre-September 11 acoustic album,

"Crossing Muddy Waters," was nominated for a Grammy Award

for best contemporary folk album in 2001.

In a recent interview, the Nashville-based Hiatt speaks about how

he came closer to the blues. "I accepted the invitation to go

on tour with B.B. King and Buddy Guy because I realized I’d be the

youngest guy on the tour," he says. "And that’s unusual. You

don’t have to go deep into my catalog to find a bunch of stuff that

draws from the blues or is the blues outright."

Although he’s usually described as a singer-songwriter, Hiatt’s American

roots helped nurture a passion for blues music. "I’ve always connected

with that music and I’ve never thought you had to be a certain color

or from a certain place to be able to understand the blues. I think

it’s pretty universal," he says.

"I really connect with that music structure — three chords

and something to get off your chest," he says, "that whole

cathartic quality that singing the blues has, I subscribe to that

whole-heartedly."

Hiatt got back together with the Goners in the summer of 1999 and

may do some more periodic touring with the quartet. Previously, he

had recorded just one album with the group, yet Hiatt’s fans kept

asking about a "Goners’ reunion tour" everywhere he went.

"I called Sonny Landreth on a whim, and I said, `The century is

coming to a close, should we give it another go?’ And they were all

up for it, and so we got together and did a couple of shows, and it

was like getting back on a bicycle, it was wonderful," he says.

Hiatt’s songs have been recorded by dozens of America’s top roots

music purveyors, including B.B. King and Eric Clapton, who had a hit

with his "Riding with the King;" Bonnie Raitt, who had a megahit

with his song "Are You Ready for a Thing Called Love?"

Others who have recorded his songs include the Everly

Brothers, Dylan, Joe Cocker, Three Dog Night, Conway Twitty, Iggy

Pop, the Neville Brothers, Jewel, Emmylou Harris, Paula Abdul, Don

Henley, and Ronnie Milsap.

"When I’m writing, it’s all about the work," says the gifted

songwriter. "I’m clueless as to what’s going to happen to these

things. I get so involved in writing the songs and making the records,

I don’t really think about that. It’s great when they connect, when

the audience says, `Man, I love that song!’ That’s the payoff, but

I think if you start thinking about things like that in the studio,

how somebody’s going to take something, the next thing you know, you’re

not really making music, you’re just showing off."

Hiatt was raised in Indianapolis, one of seven children. At 19, he

moved to Nashville. "I like Nashville for the feel of the place,"

he says, "there are all these great players, kind of the underbelly

of the top session musicians, so there’s always been a scene within

a scene here."

Raised in a family that encouraged his earliest musical

efforts, he began playing guitar at 11. Not long after he arrived

in Nashville, he found success when Tracy Nelson, the former lead

singer from Mother Earth, recorded his song "Thinking of You."

"It was a song I wrote when I was 17," he recalls, "and

I remember how thrilled I was, just getting a song that you wrote,

getting the record and taking it home and listening to it and realizing,

`Oh My god, that’s my song.’"

Two years ago, Hiatt says it was particularly gratifying to have one

of his old — and he thought, forgotten songs — "Riding

with the King," recorded by King and Eric Clapton, who collaborated

on an album of the same name. Proud of his double platinum selling

record, he now has it on the wall in his home studio in Nashville.

"Getting that song recorded after all these years, I just remembered

what my Mom said — `Don’t ever give up.’ It was a real thrill

to get that song recorded."

Other top 20 songs penned by Hiatt include blind Canadian guitarist

Jeff Healey, who had a hit with his tune "Angel Eyes," and

Three Dog Night, which had a hit in the 1970s with his song, "Sure

As I’m Sittin’ Here."

Although more than 100 of Hiatt’s songs have been recorded by other

artists, he makes no claims to writing with anyone other than himself

in mind. "I’ve tried to write songs for other people and the results

have always been pretty bad," he says. "I think what other

artists connect with is that they’re just getting a John Hiatt song.

I think my songs are simple, but I’m always looking for that little

sick twist. That’s kind of what appeals to me — a twisted way

of saying the same old thing."

— Richard J. Skelly

John Hiatt, State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue,

New Brunswick, 877-782-8311. The singer songwriter gives a solo concert.

Veteran folkster Loudon Wainwright III shares the concert bill. $20

to $34. Wednesday, July 17, at 8 p.m.


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