Slumming It With John Hiatt

19 March 2012 | 10:12 am | Michael Smith

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Once he started playing guitar aged 11, John Hiatt was sure about what he wanted to do – so sure, that he was soon playing anywhere he could pick up a gig in his native Indianapolis. So sure in fact that when he was 18, he upped sticks and headed for Nashville and scored himself a publishing deal, cranking out tunes for the princely sum of $US25 a week. Luckily, he also hooked up with a few other songwriters and, as White Duck, got out and gigged. In 1973, he was signed as a recording artist in his own right (at only age 21). As you'd expect, the road was never going to be smooth, but Hiatt has scored quite a few goals along the way, from Three Dog Night taking one of his tunes to #16 in the Billboard charts to working with Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Rosanne Cash and Ry Cooder, among others, as well as releasing twenty albums along the way.

Yet ask him about this whole songwriting thing and he'll admit it's all still a bit of a mystery.
 “Oh hell, I don't know whatever drives it,” he muses, on the line from his Nashville home, “other than my relentless pursuit of it. I've done it since I was eleven years old so I guess… I don't know. I kinda liken it to building a little ship in a bottle; I just keep tryin' to get it better. I still have the same sense that I don't have any idea how to write a song when I get an inspiration, which I think is probably good – I'd like to think I knew what I was doin'. But I don't worry about writin'. I used to worry about writin', you know, when I was younger – I just sorta write 'em when I write 'em – so a lot of the angst has been taken out of the process.

“Ideas and stories come from anywhere and everywhere laughs. Usually I steal 'em – if it ain't nailed down I'll take it. Sometimes it comes from other peoples' real life experiences, if it's somethin' I overheard or somethin' I read about in the paper… It'll be like one part of a cow and then I'll hear about a turkey leg and I'll sew that on and I'll hear about a chicken and I'll sew part of that… You know, it's like that and you create sort of a Frankenstein.”

There are the odd more personal songs of course, most obviously a track called When New York Had Her Heart Broke, which finishes his most recent album, last year's Dirty Jeans And Mudslide Hymns.
 “That one was about my own experience. We were in New York City on 9/11. We were there to do a gig and of course it got cancelled and I wrote that song a couple of days after – gut reactions as one of millions of people that were there in the city that day – and I just never put it out. I never really wanted to, but Kevin [Shirley, producer] lived there at the time and I played it for him and he got all emotional and said, 'Please record that,' so I said okay.”
Some of those other Frankensteins have done Hiatt proud, like 1983's Riding With The King, the title track of an album which, like so many of his albums, became a “critics' choice”, but which, when Eric Clapton and BB King covered it, won them a Grammy in 2000. Hiatt himself managed to reach #8 in the American mainstream charts in 1988 with the title track of that year's album, Slow Turning, but his biggest successes have been covers of his songs. Nonetheless, the respect of his peers has seen him working with not only the likes of Lowe and Costello, but contemporary musicians like North Mississippi Allstars, who featured on 2005's Master Of Disaster.

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These days he's an independent artist as Hiatt never quite sold enough albums for the majors who signed him to hang onto him. But for Dirty Jeans And Mudslide Hymns, he decided to forsake his own studio for a proper, professional recording studio and sign on producer Kevin Shirley.
 “I wasn't settin' out to do anythin' in particular with this record other than I was tired of workin' with myself as the producer and engineer – it was time to get a collaborator. That was the main thing and I ran into Kevin. We had talked years ago about workin' together and it never happened and he actually called me at the end of 2010 and said he'd love to try somethin' and could he come to Nashville and try a couple of things and he won't charge me and let's see what happens – that was an offer I couldn't refuse,” Hiatt laughs. “So we cut two songs and had a great time and so that's how it started.”

Joining Hiatt on this latest Australian tour are longtime offsider Kenneth Blevins on drums, Doug Lancio on electric guitars and mandolin and Patrick O'Hearn on bass – he once worked with Frank Zappa (and, according to Hiatt, laughing, “is playing way beneath his skills playin' with us. He's slumming but he enjoys it.”). Collectively they're The Combo and they play around 150 gigs a year, so the combination is obviously working.
 “I love tourin' now more than ever. I like writin' songs and I like makin' the record and then all I want is to go out and play the songs for the people. So as long I can keep writin' 'em and makin' records I wanna come out and play. We're goin' in to the studio with Kevin and makin' a new record when we come back from Australia.”