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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
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
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
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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