John Hiatt

Wrestling With Maturity

Music Features John Hiatt
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After over three decades in the music business,

John Hiatt pretty much knows who he is; knows just where his fine folk-hued craft can take you. This laconic tunesmith’s new set, Master Of Disaster, proffers the same wry wordplay, catchy jangle-strummed melodies, and charismatic nasal vocals that finally hit paydirt with breakthrough late-’80s releases Bring The Family and Slow Turning. At this point in his career, Hiatt comes across like an old friend, the nice-guy-next-door who’s always firing up his Weber for the neighborhood cookouts.

And the irony is that Disaster was a departure for this master. Intent on making an album with veteran producer Jim Dickinson (who was originally slated to engineer 1987’s Bring The Family), Hiatt simply packed up his newest batch of 25 songs, drove down to Memphis and sequestered himself in the studio. A bonus: Dickinson’s sons, drummer Cody and guitarist Luther (of the North Mississippi Allstars) sat in for the bare-bones sessions. “It was time to make a record with Jim,” Hiatt drolly notes. “’Cause he’s in his 60s, we’re both getting old, and one of us is gonna die pretty soon. So I just phoned him up. And Master wound up with this warm feel, even though it’s a digital recording.”

PASTE: So that’s you in the leather Mexican wrestling mask on the Master cover?

HIATT: You are the first one to notice that. And well, y’know, I did pump up a little bit.

P: Did you ever wrestle in school?

H: No, I never did. I was actually always too fat to wrestle when I was a kid. But I played football as a youth, up until eighth grade. But I didn’t play in high school. I was a dropout—high school was just too much for me. But I learned I was good at music.

P: The “Master Of Disaster” title track talks about a frustrated guitarist, playing legendary L.A. punk clubs like Madam Wong’s. Autobiographical?

H: Partly. It kinda started out as ruminating, then developed into a bigger picture.

P: But before you tried L.A., you hit Nashville as a songwriting teen. What was it like then?

H: Yeah, back in ’71. And, actually, there was a pretty interesting scene. Kris Kristofferson, a guy named Chris Gantry, Barefoot Jerry, The Charlie Daniels Band was just getting started. And they were a rock band. So there was this whole underground scene. And then Guy Clark and people like that would always come into town, so I stayed for five years. Then I went to San Francisco for a year, and then I went to Los Angeles.

P: You were one of rock’s definitive Angry Young Men. Where does the anger go as you mature?

H: Ha! That’s a damn good question. I don’t know. But I’m not angry today. Not angry about a darn thing. But [my change] pretty much coincides with when I got sober.

P: Given your remarkable catalog of standards, do you feel any pressure when it’s time to piece together another album?

H: There’s no pressure, because I’m not signed to a record company anymore. I pay for my own records and make ’em when I’m ready to make ’em, then we license ’em. And we own the masters. We just started doing it about five years ago, and it works great. We did the first two with Vanguard, and the last one and this one with New West. And New West is a great label—they do what they say they’re gonna do, spend what they say they’re gonna spend.

P: And they just signed Alice Cooper.

H: Did they really?! Well, there ya go!

P: If you had to wrestle Alice Cooper, who would win?

H: Hey, man—that’s a tough call. She’s no creampuff.

P: Alice is actually a HE.

H: I know, I know. But hey—Dude looks like a lady to me!