John Hiatt

Beneath His Gruff Exterior

Music Features John Hiatt
Share Tweet Submit Pin

“So, tell me why you deserve this job?” John Hiatt jokes as I sit down across a borrowed desk in his manager’s Nashville office. But the joke is lost on me. It’s not until I’m back in Atlanta at the Paste office that someone explains this bit of office humor. At the time, my reaction was, “Crap. He thinks I’m some punk kid with little life experience and no sense of his history, and he’s wondering why he’s wasting his time with me.” Although I’m in my 30s, I suddenly felt like William Miller in Almost Famous, and I wondered if the squeaky voice of adolescence would emerge from the dark shadows. In that split second pause, I recalled the story of a reporter literally running down the road, chasing Van Morrison after he bolted due to the journalist’s youth. It’s all falling apart (I think) and I’ve just sat down. Fortunately, someone interrupted with a cup of coffee for Hiatt and we moved on.

My intimidation stemmed from more than Hiatt’s status as a songwriter’s songwriter. Sure, this 51-year-old has been playing guitar since he was 11, was a professional songwriter at 18, had his first hit (for Three Dog Night) at 22, and has released 18 (mostly) critically acclaimed albums over 29 years. Sure, he’s been covered by dozens of artists, from Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Willie Nelson to the Neville Brothers, Paul Abdul and Iggy Pop. Not to mention Bonnie Raitt with her comeback “Thing Called Love” or the title track to the B.B. King-Eric Clapton Grammy-winning collaboration, Riding With the King. Or his own Grammy nomination in 2000 for Crossing Muddy Waters. Or the fact that he gathered a legendary collection of musicians—Nick Lowe, Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner—for Little Village (and one of his solo albums before that).

More than all of that, it’s Hiatt’s life experience that intimidated, as if I were interviewing a younger (and, truth be told, more cerebral and sardonic) Johnny Cash. Hiatt’s struggle with alcoholism and drug addiction is famous;. within a two-year period in the mid-’80s, Hiatt had his first child, was dropped by his label, entered recovery and got divorced. Then his ex-wife committed suicide. It was the second suicide close to Hiatt; he’d already lost his brother. Newly sober, with a new marriage and the responsibility of raising a young daughter and a stepson, Hiatt brought a hard-earned maturity to his next record, the seminal Bring the Family, still regarded as his high-water mark by many critics and fans. Throughout 18 years of marriage and sobriety, Hiatt has consistently delivered his rare blend of seasoned wisdom, wit and magnanimity.

Hiatt’s latest release, Beneath This Gruff Exterior, continues that tradition and delivers Hiatt’s most consistent set since the trio of albums following his sobriety: Bring the Family, Slow Turning and Stolen Moments. (This is not to dismiss his intermediate works, especially The Tiki Bar Is Open, overlooked in a September 11, 2001 release date). Hiatt returns with The Goners, the core musicians for both Slow Turning and Tiki Bar that includes guitarist Sonny Landreth, bassist Dave Ranson and drummer Kenneth Blevins.

This time out, however, The Goners play without the help of other studio musicians. “I mostly just wanted to get The Goners on tape,” Hiatt explains. “The last record … was a really good record, but it wasn’t just The Goners as a quartet. We’ve been back together since about ’99, after a 10-year layoff, so we kind of had a head of steam going back as our original scheme, which is sort of ‘the little quartet that could.’… So I felt like, ‘Man, let’s get this on tape before one of us dies or something.’” To fully capture the band’s chemistry, Hiatt and The Goners recorded the album live in the studio in eight days. “Was it hard not to tinker, to not go back and correct things?” I ask. “Nope. It’s not hard at all,” Hiatt says with a laugh. “I think we’re lazy by nature, so it was pretty easy. … And you can’t fix a vocal when you’re flailing on your acoustic; it just bleeds all over everything. So, I couldn’t have fixed the vocals if I wanted to—and I really didn’t want to. I mean, I’ve sung while I play guitar since I was 11 years old. That’s how I sing. So when you send me out there, ‘OK, overdub your vocal now,’ and I’m not playing, I don’t sing the same.”

While Hiatt addresses a range of topics on Gruff Exterior, most songs offer the reflections of someone looking back on life, putting a half-century of experiences into perspective. Driving his oldest daughter to college propels “Circle Back,” and “Missing Pieces” examines the toll of life on the road.

The opener, “Uncommon Connection,” paints the protagonist as a curmudgeon looking for “that little special something that isn’t always on the cover of a book,” as Hiatt describes it. “I just remember I had this old buddy, who recently died of cancer. We used to talk in our 20s about our aspirations toward curmudgeonhood, and how great it will be when we finally get there, and we can just say any f---ing thing we want; we don’t give a shit anymore. So this song is kind of about that. To be able to say, ‘I’m tired of love, damn it. [laughs] It never works out; it’s not what they advertise.’”

In the pop of “My Baby Blue,” Hiatt recalls growing up in Indianapolis with lines like, “We discovered love / In the basements of / Some of my best friends / I’ve never seen again.” Hiatt explains, “I was thinking about friendships that we formed when we were 15 and 16. We spent the ’60s in various friends’ basements, turning on, drinking bad wine, passing the guitar and playing songs, smoking bad dope and just learning what life is all about. Going to parks, hanging out, discovering life and love and sex and all that stuff. … And the bonds that we had—it’s just this kind of strange feeling that that leaves you with, all these years later and trying to connect. … Where are they?” Lost in reflection, he describes the “girl I couldn’t live without” who slept with his best friend, and the mysterious “Joan Baez-like” girl he never got to know.

His reflections take a much different tone in “How Bad’s the Coffee?” “It is kind of amazing,” he says, “how quickly this country went from really bad coffee and delicious homemade pie to really great coffee and things like pumpkin scones and shit like that [laughs]. How the hell did that happen? Isn’t that weird? … The song’s sort of an ode to waitresses around the country who still serve you a 50-cent cup of joe and a great piece of coconut cream [pie] with a smile—‘there you are, hon.’ It hasn’t all been Starbuckified, you know. Which is not to say that I don’t drink that stuff, because I do. But the pastry does leave something to be desired.”

Several of the songs on Gruff Exterior tackle the topic of depression. While his substance abuse problems are well-documented, Hiatt’s battle with depression has received considerably less attention. “Depression’s not something a lot of people talk about,” he says. “A lot of people just kind of think of it as, ‘Get over it. Straighten up and fly right. What are you complaining about?’ That kind of shit. People are much more forgiving when it’s drug addiction. So it’s kind of a tough subject.”

“The Nagging Dark”—with the beautifully simple closing line “Hope is your finest work of art”—documents his coming out of a particularly dark bout and finally seeing the other side. He explains, “The thing about depression is once you get treated for it, and you know there’s hope, you never quite go back to those dark [days] when you didn’t know there was any other reality.”

However, that doesn’t necessarily ease the experience: “In some ways, it’s more hellish. Because when you used to go there, you didn’t know. You just all of a sudden found yourself in your robe and you haven’t been out of the house in a month and your wife’s weeping, trying to sit you down and tell you that you’re in trouble. And you don’t know what she’s even talking about. But now, you know that you can feel better, so you know that you’re feeling bad. So, it’s kind of a catch-22.

“But I’m a firm believer in modern medicine. Geez, there’s no need to suffer. That’s my words for the day. Pain’s inevitable; misery’s optional.”

In spite of my initial trepidation, sitting and talking with Hiatt is easy. He is generous. and the conversation winds naturally through his songs, growing up, racing cars, the state of the record business—the same range of topics he generally cover in his songs and then some. He’s refreshingly natural and unassuming. I wonder if it’s part of a Midwestern and now Southern ethic he’s steeped in. “I guess I do sort of have a simple sense of the working man ethic,” Hiatt replies. “My dad was a salesman; it’s a Willy Loman sort of thing—your average guy who has these illusions that a good idea and hard work is the right way to go. It’s the kind of stuff that doesn’t float anymore, in other words. Come to find out it’s not the way business is being done anymore; it’s not the way countries are being run anymore, even.”

He applied this ethic at his first full-time job as a songwriter for Tree Publishing. “It was great,” Hiatt recalls. “I was 18, making 25 bucks a week. It was like Bohemian Rhapsody. Man, I was living the life. I was a songwriter. Living on Music Row. In those days, you didn’t have all these big grotesque buildings that they’ve built since. It was all little houses. The publishing business would be in one house and then next door, 10 songwriters would be renting rooms. I lived in a house with five or six other songwriters.

“They were just taking chances in the early ’70s, thinking ‘Well, hell, we’ve got to stretch out.’ So they had all kind of characters. But then they also had the Curly Putnam’s and guys like Bobby Braddock, Red Lane—staff writers, who had their own offices right there in the house, and they were cranking out ‘Green, Green Grass of Home’ and ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ and ‘D-I-V-O-R-C-E.’ They’d write it on Thursday, they’d demo it on Friday, they’d run it over to [producer] Billy Sherrill, he’d cut it on Monday, and it’d be out the next week. And I saw it happen. That’s how the country music business worked in those days. It was hilarious. … And so some of that craft … seeped into my thick head, in spite of myself, even though I told myself, ‘I ain’t no hillbilly songwriter.”’ I had a real attitude. ‘I’m an artiste.’

“I know a lot of guys who are bitter because they gave up their publishing for peanuts. Yeah, I did. But you know what? I had five years where all I did was write songs and I didn’t have to worry about anything else, and they were real good, formative years for me. I got no complaints. … I would like to have those songs back, though.”

These days, life issues and their accompanying melodies find their way naturally into songs. “I’ll play and something’ll happen … or it won’t,” Hiatt says. “I’ve been through probably every phase there is, trying to trick the muse into showing up. So I kind of got over that. I don’t purse it anymore as a profession. I’ve maintained my amateur status at this point. I … do it when it shows up.” He adds with a laugh, “It’s kind of like sex these days. When it happens, I’m real grateful.”

Hiatt has always had a talent for deftly blending a variety of styles, from country-tinged rock and various flavors of the blues to folk, R&B and gospel. The wide variety of music on 1960s radio contributed significantly to Hiatt’s eclecticism. “The radio in those days happened to be pretty fabulous,” he explains. “We’d get anybody from the British invasion bands—The Who and The Beatles and the Stones and all that—to Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, the Supremes, the whole Motown deal, the whole Stax Memphis deal. It was all on the radio at the same time. So, wow, it was pretty heavy stuff.”

At night in Indianapolis, he could pick up Nashville’s WLAC, and he’d listen to “John R” during the week. “I never even knew who the hell I was listening to half of the time,” he recalls. “You’d hear all kinds of stuff.

“Then ‘Hossman’ Allen would play gospel on Sunday night. I sang in the choir at my Catholic church boys’ choir, but I heard this shit and I went, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute; we don’t sing like that. What is going on here?’ My friend Al Anderson said, ‘When you listen to black gospel music, you go, “Maybe there is a God.” Then you listen to white gospel music and you go “No, there’s not.”’ [laughs] It was so powerful and people carrying on and just stirring it up so much. That was my first big, ‘Whoa, the power of music.’ Even though I wept Christmas Eve when we’d sing that mass and the Kyries at midnight. But there was something unleashed and powerful about this black gospel music that just floored me.”

Then came Dylan on the radio. “I hear ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’” Hiatt recounts, “and I say, ‘What the hell is this?’ And then I start going back and discovering his earlier records and folk music, and then through him, I get into Leadbelly and Doc Watson and Lightnin’ Hopkins and Muddy Watters, and all those more roots stuff. And so I learned all that and Chicago blues and country blues, and the tendrils just sort of go out.

“Just like I’ve seen my kids do. I get this call from my 19-year-old daughter, and she just heard a bluegrass band and just about flipped her lid. So, she’s on the same journey. She’s just freaking out at this wealth of music that America has to offer. It’s pretty cool. And my stepson, he’s the same way. You know, he likes everything—he’s into moe. and he loves Hank Williams; he loves punk. He’s all over the map. Pretty cool. Kids that big corporate record companies underestimate and now they’re paying for it.

“…[But] they can’t kill music. God knows, they’ve tried. But music always wins. As long as there’s kids coming up that have a passion. All the bean counters in the world can’t kill that. You know? You just can’t. They can try, of course, to feed you the most puerile, benign horse manure, but some kid’s going to come along and demand something more than that.”

Recently in Music
More from John Hiatt