John Hiatt Has Seen It All

Music Features John Hiatt
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Twenty-five years ago, John Hiatt seemed a broken man. He was already a widowed parent in his mid-thirties. His estranged second wife had committed suicide by hanging. Worsening matters was the fact that Hiatt’s record label, Geffen, refused to promote the man’s music despite his excellent critical reputation.

Toiling in obscurity, Hiatt’s life was ravaged by a fierce appetite for drugs and alcohol. The folk-rock legend even considered, for a time, taking his own life.

“If I understand alcoholism as a disease, malcontent is part of our chemical makeup,” Hiatt says now. “I’m not unique in that sense. …You’re going to have to grow as a human being if you want to grow as an artist. Alcohol was severely stunting for my growth as a human being. I didn’t how to function with or without it and wanted to die.”

At the behest of his management, Hiatt entered a Los Angeles rehabilitation center in 1985. What followed was a quarter-century of personal and professional triumphs with a latent dark side. He’s been sober for decades, but there is still a touch of hedonism audible in his vinegar-soaked, quietly thunderous voice. More than most, this man has lived.

“It’s the fool that seeks his own counsel,” Hiatt says with a lovely, wizened laugh. “I sought my own counsel for many, many years.”

Blessed with a vibrant new lease on life, Hiatt recorded what may still be his defining album, 1987’s Bring the Family. That sturdy, spiritually tinged LP, highlighted by the piano ballad “Have a Little Faith in Me,” set the tone for a career’s worth of divulging introspection, often with full-bloodied melodic runs, acoustic accents and distinct gospel overtones.

On record and in conversation, a picture emerges of Hiatt as grounded and eternally self-deprecating. He also appears fragile and a touch insecure. “A little encouragement goes a long way,” he says, half-quipping. “When people started coming to my shows, it was a huge moment in that I felt I was really resonating with them.”

Although prone to modesty and understatement (“I’ve come to terms with the fact that what I think is often misguided,” he says), Hiatt likely wouldn’t contest that his standing in the music industry, such as it is, goes almost without parallel. Everyone from Buddy Guy to Roseanne Cash, Three Dog Night to Bon Jovi, has covered his songs at one point or another in the last 40 years. The wryest eccentrics in rock—that means Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, and Iggy Pop—have endorsed Hiatt unblinkingly. Indeed, it’s telling that the 58-year-old has never really alienated fans or critics despite more than a few episodes of career reinvention.

“I’m not jaded,” he says, laughing. “I wake up every morning totally amazed that people record my songs. I mean, I didn’t set out for this to happen.”

Hiatt’s commercial profile has stalled since the early 1990s, but that’s given him free rein to pursue his headiest ideas. In 2000, he released the brilliant but unheralded Crossing Muddy Waters, a stripped-down take on folk and Americana. Each of his subsequent albums have been spaciously produced and large in scope, revealing a thoughtful, introspective side to the once rebel-rousing rocker.

Released on August 2, Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns is another in a long line of gorgeous John Hiatt records. Most striking is the gallows humor woven into many of these songs. Hiatt maintains a bemused disposition about his tumultuous past. His voice has a seen-it-all lilt—it’s the sound of a jagged old gunslinger. Yet he’s not depressing in the least. Even first single “Damn This Town,” about incarcerated relatives and small-town lives gone awry, is blackly humorous in its way.

“Don’t Wanna Leave You Now,” the track that most straightforwardly recalls Bring the Family, shimmers with graceful melancholy. It’s the prettiest song on Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns by a mile, but it feels stilted and sentimental, lacking the humor that informs so many of Hiatt’s greatest compositions. The gooier ballads on the album are redeemed by his deep-throated baritone. Otherwise, Hiatt is at his best on less sentimental offerings like “Hold on for Your Love,” which sketches a broken romance in some decimated, anonymous Midwestern mill town. Harmonizing luridly with a gospel chorus, Hiatt brings the characters he sings of to empathetic life. “Down Around My Place,” particularly, is full of terse, weary detail. “They’re bitching about no cable,” the Indiana native sings of his children in a moment as funny as it is painfully sad.

Credit also goes to Kevin “The Caveman” Shirley, a producer whose credentials include Rush, Aerosmith, and Led Zeppelin. For the last few decades, Shirley has specialized in a particularly bombastic strain of arena-rock. (Mr. Big, anyone?) Here, though, he scales it back in favor of a less clean, less immediate sound that includes rifles of organs and guitar burbles. His résumé would hardly indicate it, but Shirley has a great ear for folk and rockabilly sounds.

“Working with producers can be so hit-or-miss, it’s a difficult task,” Hiatt says. “But I had gotten my ya-yas out self-producing and was tired of hearing just my own ideas. Thankfully, Kevin knew what I wanted to do and how to help me.

“I love that it looks weird on paper, too,” he adds. “He’s worked with Iron Maiden, for Christ’s sake.”

Free of his old demons, Hiatt now describes the process of making music as organic. The result is the strongest album Hiatt has released in a decade. “Every record I’ve made, I’ve wanted to fine-tune ever so slightly,” Hiatt admits. He chuckles, then adds, “But with this one, I’ve made a real film instead of the little iMovies I’ve been making.”

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