Celebrated Songwriter John Hiatt Shares Stories Talks Triumph & Grief, Shares Stories New & Old (INTERVIEW)

Songwriters are our gateways to the subconscious. They provide the words and feelings for all of our emotions when we can’t find the words to express them on our own. Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Johnny Cash were angels of mercy when we felt anger, sadness, exhilaration, frustration, loneliness and pure joy. Without them, we may have just exploded from the inside out. There are hundreds of songwriters that speak to us and John Hiatt has to be on that list, whether you realize it or not, as his compositions have been covered by everyone from Dylan, Gregg Allman and Joe Cocker to Jeff Healey, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton and BB King. But in all honesty, the best person to do a soliloquy of John Hiatt’s words is John Hiatt.

With his scratchy vocals that reverberate with a realness and honesty, Hiatt is the everyday Joe. He tells his stories from a human point of view that sounds like every other normal person. But the way he tells them, the layout of the words, the pitch in his voice, can make us feel, can cause us to react, can connect to us. Not many artists can do that song after song after song. Hiatt can. And he can do it with a laugh, a wink, a crack in his voice. He may be singing about being down and out but darn it, he’s going to spin a line in there somewhere that might look serious on paper but once it’s out of his mouth, you laugh and your mood starts to change. 

Hiatt was born and raised around Indianapolis, one of the youngest of seven siblings. Once he picked up a guitar, he was writing songs and he hasn’t stopped yet. Not after family tragedies, not after years of trying to make it in Nashville, not after finally gaining some success, and certainly not after simply growing older. His first album, 1974’s Hangin’ Around The Observatory, may have been a fun record with some New Orleans musical twists and electric guitar shenanigans, but it just didn’t sell; although Three Dog Night did score a hit with his “Sure As I’m Sittin’ Here.” But Hiatt kept going. In 1987, Bring The Family finally brought him more recognition and a larger audience. And still he kept writing and recording and touring.

And then the pandemic hit in 2020. Hiatt wrote some more songs, was hooked up with dobro master Jerry Douglas and lo and behold one of his best albums was recorded in just a few days at Nashville’s famed RCA Studio B. Who knew these two gentlemen would be each other’s firecracker. With their reputations, it’s a wonder they had never really worked together on a project before. But better late than never and Leftover Feelings is one heck of a good album. Top to bottom, Hiatt sings his ass off alongside Douglas’ band, which was so good they didn’t even have need of a drummer. Douglas with his big laugh but spot-on production helped bring these eleven songs into pristine perfection. “Light Of The Burning Sun” brings a lump to the throat with it’s stark reality of a sad day in Hiatt’s childhood; while tables turn and this time he’s the elder father adjusting to his daughter’s colicky nights on “Little Goodnight.” “Mississippi Phone Booth,” “All The Lilacs In Ohio,” “Buddy Boy,” “The Music Is Hot,” “Long Black Electric Cadillac” and “I’m in Asheville.” There isn’t a dud in the whole bunch. Did you actually think there would be?

I caught up with Hiatt recently to talk about his latest album, a few of his older compositions, working with Jerry Douglas, Ry Cooder and Sonny Landreth, and the art of songwriting.

I was just talking with Jerry Douglas and he said you live down the street from him.

Yeah, he is about a mile, maybe a mile and a half from my house. And we didn’t know that until we got together to make this record. I’m going to move into his house next but don’t tell him yet (laughs).

How did working with Jerry Douglas make Leftover Feelings a better album?

Well, Jerry, besides being the best dobro player alive currently, he is just an amazing musician. He’s gone so far beyond just the instrument, the dobro, and he can play any style of music on that instrument, which is saying a pretty good deal. It’s not a fretted instrument, it’s a slide instrument, but he’s just incredible. And the group of musicians that he put together, these young guys that have played with him for the last five or six years, are equally talented, just amazing musicians. So the level of musicianship is pretty high, speaking from my vantage point, which I’m pretty basic, kind of a primitive stylist, if you will, on the guitar, sort of a blues-based, pretty academic kind of approach. But these guys can play anything. 

That being said, oftentimes, musicians that are that well-versed, they might have a lot in terms of vast knowledge but sometimes they are lacking in terms of song sense, being able to get the instruments to actually speak or sing. They’re technically proficient but maybe not so much covering the longest distance known to man, which is between the head and the heart. But these guys are. They know how to play a song. It was just a wonderful experience. 

And Jerry also produced it and he’s a great guide, very easy to work with. It was a delight. I mean, four days of recording and we pretty much had it. He did some overdubs subsequently at his little home studio. He played some lap steel on one or two things and the guys, the fiddle player and the bass player, got together and put a little string quartet on a couple of tunes. But other than that it’s all what we played in those four days.

John Hiatt and Jerry Douglas Photo By Patrick Sheehan

Was there an instance where maybe you wanted to spice a song up more but Jerry wanted to kind of keep it simple, or vice versa?

No, never. I mean, I think we kind of had a sneaking suspicion that the combination of players and me and my songs, that it was going to be something really interesting but we didn’t know what it was going to be. And we went in with that spirit. It was kind of like, let’s uncover it, let’s just find out. There weren’t any kind of preconceived notions for how things should go. The first thing we cut was “All The Lilacs In Ohio” and I remember sitting around, and I think we got it on the third take, and we were sitting around in the control room – and we were all wearing masks; we wouldn’t wear masks out in the room but when we came to listen back we all wore masks cause it was close proximately. So even though we all had masks on, you could see everybody smiling just by looking at their eyes with what we were hearing because it was not anything any of us expected and yet it was more than we could have possibly hoped for. And that was kind of the experience we had with all the songs.

I understand that you wrote some of these songs during the pandemic. What song on here do you think really showcases what you were reflecting on during that time?

Oh wow. Well, I think probably the one that hit closest to home would be “Mississippi Phone Booth,” which is basically the telling of a tale that is sort of based on my last drunken road trip that I ever took, back in the summer of 1984. I was coming from New Orleans back home to Nashville and I was a wreck. I had just hit a wall with my alcoholism and drug addiction and I’ll cop to it, I was drinking and driving and drugging and every other thing that you shouldn’t be doing. It’s a wonder I made it. But at one point I stopped at a phone booth in Mississippi – they had them back then – and it was actually the gas station, and I describe that in the first verse. This poor pitiful guy is calling home and trying to say, don’t give up on me yet, don’t hang up on me this time. And that was kind of chronicling that. 

So I think it encapsulates this year, that at the age I’ve hit, which is sixty-eight, and spending a year at home off the road, it was a time for reflecting over my life and how far I’ve come and how far I need to go. And I think that was the case with a lot of us. I think a lot of people were reexamining their lives and it helps to go back to a starting point, to where a big change occurred, and that was a huge change for me when I got sober in 1984. It was really the beginning of my life as I subsequently came to know it. The hearty had left the party a long time before I was able to quit drinking and drugging (laughs). It hadn’t been fun for a long time.

We’re glad where you are now

I am too. It’s a distant memory but I keep it up in the front of my mind because I don’t want to ever go back there. It was thirty-seven years ago so I was thirty-two at the time. And it really was the beginning of my life and it’s all good.

There’s a great line in that song: “Tell Jesus I’m out of dimes.”

(laughs) It’s like, somebody help me please! Nevermind that the kids wouldn’t even know what a phone booth is and making a call and then paying a dime to make a call (laughs).

What is something you did not want to infiltrate into these songs?

I don’t think we were consciously aware of something we wanted to avoid. I think the main thing we wanted was we wanted it to be fun. Because fun had been hard to come by for most of the world for that last year. We made it in October and they didn’t even have the vaccine yet but we were starting to see some daylight. The tests were getting better and more regular and we felt like it was safe to make the record, with all the precautions we put into place. So I think the thing we wanted to leave out was any kind of angst or indication of how hard the year had been. We wanted it to sound joyous, even the songs that are dealing with difficult things like “Light Of The Burning Sun,” for example, which deals with suicide. That’s tough stuff to deal with. But even with that, we wanted to approach it with love and tenderness. A song like “I’m In Asheville,” which was kind of a heartbreaking type of song. These are all the things that make up a life well-lived, you know, so we wanted to capture all that.

What does “I’m In Asheville” symbolize to you?

For me, and I talked with Jerry about it, it’s like every guy that we know has made one of those monumental mistakes at least once if not more than once. I mean, the guy is leaving her and he can’t even believe that he is leaving her, as he’s doing it. It’s like casting out the fishing line and you’re trying to reel it in, like something you’ve said that’s so stupid you can’t believe you said it. Know what I mean? This is monumental dumbass – “To hell with it, I’m just leaving!” It’s one of those and he can’t actually believe he has actually gone through with it. It’s broken her heart, it’s broken his heart and yet there he is doing it, this incredibly stupid thing.

You’ve never done anything stupid, have you, John

No, not me! (laughs) All my moves are of the highest quality! (laughs)

“Little Goodnight” has this really cool crunchy guitar on it. 

You know, that’s the oldest song on the record. Our youngest child, who is now thirty-three for goodness sakes, I wrote it a couple months after her being born and she was, as they used to call them, a colicky baby. She had colic and we could not get a night’s sleep for the first three or four months. It will make you crazy, the lack of sleep from a baby screaming 24/7. It was something! (laughs) But I wrote that song sometime within that first year of her life and I just never recorded it. So when I was putting together songs to send to Jerry for consideration for the record, I thought, well, I’ll throw in a couple of old ones and that was the oldest one, actually the only real old one, and he loved it and we cut it and we played it how it came out. We ran through it once or twice and that’s how the guys played it and we were having so much fun playing it. It’s sort of the rockingest track on a record that doesn’t have a drummer. But I do remember having to change up my rhythm guitar part. I had a different acoustic and it just wasn’t making the song pump along. And then I started playing it, I think, the second or third time we did a take, I played it different, sort of reversed the patterns somehow and made it sort of get along a little better.

Jerry told me I needed to ask you about some new guitar of yours.

Really? How about that. He’s so funny (laughs). The other day he made a gift of this old, something from the thirties, painted plywood acoustic guitar. They called it “The Plainsman” and it’s got a picture of a cowboy on his horse on it. It doesn’t even have a fretboard. It’s not the kind of thing you could play but he brought it over thinking I’d hang it on the wall. It’s really cute. It’s the kind of guitar you bought your kid, you know, back in the forties if he was thinking about playing guitar. 

Speaking of guitars, when you first started learning to play, what was the hardest thing for you to get the hang of?

Well, I started when I was eleven and it went like this. I went to a downtown music store in Indianapolis. I begged my mother to let me take lessons and part of the deal was you had to rent a guitar from them to take the lessons if you didn’t own one. So we rented the guitar and I think the rental of the guitar came with two lessons a week, and I think it was $6. I had a guitar teacher and I think he was a gypsy. He was from Italy and his name was Olindo Masterpolo and he was the most exotic guy you’d ever lay eyes on in Indianapolis in 1963, I assure you (laughs). He had a mustache like Salvador Dali and he wore a leather vest with a pocket watch in it and some sort of, I don’t know, one of those European string ties that Django Reinhardt might have worn. He was the coolest guy I’d ever laid eyes on. Well, I’m left-handed and the first thing he said was, “You play guitar right-handed. I teach you the right one.” I said okay and then he wanted to teach me how to read and write music and this went on for, I don’t know, about a month. And I just couldn’t bear it anymore. All I wanted to do was learn a few chords and play songs. So I quit taking the lessons and you had to turn in the rental guitar. 

So I went about another month of moping around the house and I finally talked to my mother. I had fifteen bucks saved, I think, and I could buy a guitar for $32. They had a red Stella, which is kind of like a Kay or Silvertone, and it was a plywood acoustic guitar and she coughed up the other seventeen bucks and I bought that and a Mel Bay chord book; you know, that had the tablature in it. And that’s how I learned. As soon as I learned two chords, A and E, I wrote my first song, which was a song about a girl in our fifth grade class named Beth Ann and essentially it said, “Beth Ann, oohh, she’s a woman.” And that was it! (laughs) That was my dubious debut.

Why do you think it took you so long to write “Light Of The Burning Sun”? 

It’s just a process. Any kind of loss, and I know there are all kinds of clichés about grief, but it is true, it has it’s own timetable and you deal with it. I was eleven when my brother killed himself, which was the year I picked up the guitar. So it was traumatic, for the whole family as the song would suggest, but it just took me a long time to just kind of work through it. As they say, the trauma is baggage you lug around with you. At some point you unpack parts of it. You can’t unpack it all at once, is what I think it all comes down to.

He’s shown up in your songs before

Well, death by one’s own hand has shown up in my songs before but I don’t know if I’ve mentioned him. Maybe so. But I had a second suicide in my life. My first wife took her own life back in 1985 so I’ve dealt with it twice. But you know what, it happens to lots of people and it’s a tragedy and it’s a traumatic event and as they say, the victims are the ones left behind. So we have to learn to live with it and it takes what it takes. I got to tell you, writing this song was so cathartic and such a good thing for me. It just seemed to come out of nowhere. I don’t even remember exactly the events that brought me to write it. I think it was 2019 and I’d come off a tour and I think I just had the blues and it just came up. I’d done some work around it, you know, with somebody that has helped me through this stuff, and it just popped out. And you know, all it is is telling a story of what happened. I sent it to Jerry as a song to consider for the record and I remember calling him going, “You know, Jerry, I don’t know about ‘Light Of The Burning Sun.’ It’s awful dark.” And he said, “No, people need to hear this, people deal with this kind of grief in their lives so people need to hear this.” So I said okay.

Going way back to your first album, it has some great boogie-woogie piano and New Orleans feel on the title track, “Hangin’ Around The Observatory.” 

He’s a great keyboard guy – now I’m going to forget his damn name – Shane Keister, how could I forget Keister (laughs). But he came over from Memphis in the early seventies with a producer named Chips Moman, who produced the Box Tops, he produced some soul records in the sixties and seventies, and he had a studio called American Studios down in Memphis and he brought his whole rhythm section up here. It was Shane Keister on keyboards, Reggie Young on guitar came up with him, Hayward Bishop, a great left-handed drummer, came up with him. Reggie didn’t play on this record but Shane and Hayward played on it. And yeah, Shane is great. He can play any kind of piano style. Still playing, I think.

Who do you like in New Orleans music?

Oh gosh, man, I love all the stuff that Allen Toussaint produced. Of course Fats Domino is one of my heroes; Professor Longhair, Dr John is a super-duper hero of mine, the Neville Brothers of course – Art the keyboard player, wonderful pianist. I mean, all those guys forever. It was one of the centers. It was New Orleans, it was Memphis, it was the New York style of rhythm & blues, the LA style of rhythm & blues, Detroit, Chicago, St Louis, Cincinnati, oddly enough. It was where all the great American music was made. And continues to be made!

I do remember I opened a show for Gatemouth Brown back in the seventies. It was a revelation. He was something else! (laughs) He was very quiet, smoked a pipe backstage, we shared a backstage area cause they didn’t have separate dressing rooms, and I seem to recall him being nice and he’d sit there and smoke his pipe between sets but he’d go out and burn the place down, between his guitar playing and his fiddle playing; just unbelievable.

On “Full Moon” from that first album, which part of that song came first – the front half or the back half?

You’re taxing my memory, Girl (laughs). I was twenty-one when that record came out. I have no idea where that came from (laughs). When I first came to Nashville, I lived on Music Row, this was 1970, and it was just little houses in those days. All the recording studios were in little houses and all the publishing companies were in little houses and then right next to a publishing company you’d have a boarding house with five or six songwriters living in it. That was what it was like back in those days and I remember I rented a room in one of the boarding houses right down the street from my publishing company. Eleven bucks a week and it was the classic bare spring bed with a hot plate and a bare lightbulb hanging down from the ceiling. I thought I was in Heaven cause Tree Music Publishing was paying me $25 a week to write songs. So if I didn’t write it there, I wrote it out on, about two years later I moved out to Little Marrowbone Road, which was near Joelton, Tennessee, and it was the other side of the Cumberland River and to the north. You used to have to take a ferry across the Cumberland – it was called the Judge Hickman Ferry – and if I went out to Ashton City Highway, that’s how we’d get home at night. If you stayed in town and drank past midnight, you missed the last ferry. You’d have to go home the old Clarksville Highway, which was the long way around. And many a night we missed the ferry (laughs). But yeah, it was a little six car ferry and this cranky old guy operated it and it was wonderful. You know, I was a kid from Indiana. I was a city boy from Indianapolis and to me, living in Nashville, it was like living in a fairy tale dream. It was just unbelievable, the way people talked and the way people acted and I’d never seen or heard anything like it.

In regards to “Thunderbird,” what is the true meaning of that song?

(laughs) Well, you know my father was a salesman and my brothers were salesmen and I guess in a way I’m a salesman, if you want to think that I go around and sell my singing and playing and my songs to people. So I kind of was inspired by a couple of things: the great big automotive machinery that was America in the thirties, forties and fifties, from Henry Ford on, and then I mention Willy Loman, the character from Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman. So it was a little bit of that. Just the American, I don’t know what you’d want to call it, a bit of a dream and a bit of a ride all kind of wrapped up together, as it would be, since we’re human beings; the heartbreak of it all. I like that idea, that it don’t get any better than a Thunderbird. “She’s the voice of the future, Baby have you heard, Tomorrow’s taken wing on my Thunderbird.”

What do you feel is the biggest mistake a songwriter can make?

(laughs) I’ve made them all so I don’t know which one is the biggest. I’ve made every one you could possibly make (laughs). I’ve been too wordy, I’ve been too verbose, I’ve not said what I wanted to say, I’ve made it a cloak and dagger when it should have been pretty straight forward. I’ve done it all but I think the biggest mistake, at the end of the day, it’s like fishing to me. If you feel like you got one in the boat, I think you had a good day. That’s kind of how I always looked at it. Even if the song isn’t that great, the fact is that you did it, the exercise, and the biggest mistake you can make is not writing. Because you’ve got to write. If you want to write songs, you’ve got to sit down and write them. I think it just takes that and you just got to stay at it and keep writing.

You’ve recorded over twenty albums. Which one do you remember as being the most difficult to get done?

Oh that’s easy. It wasn’t difficult for me because I was so drunk and high that I don’t remember making it but it was a record I made with Norbert Putnam called Warming Up To The Ice Age. It’s not a bad record, it’s got some moments, but I was hardly present. I was such a mess. And that was right before I went on my sort of last hurray, so to speak, down to New Orleans and coming back and making calls from the Mississippi phone booth asking for help (laughs). It was sort of my last debacle before I turned myself in, so to speak. But there’s some good stuff, like I said, but I just kind of waltzed through it. I wish I’d been more present, let’s put it that way. 

In terms of some level of difficulty, Riding With The King wasn’t hard but I had to do it in two pieces with two different production teams. I did Side 1 with Ron Nagle and Scott Matthews up in San Francisco. We cut a whole record but my A&R person at Geffen didn’t think I had a whole record. She said, “Who else would you want to try and go in and cut some more stuff with?” And I said Nick Lowe and she said, “Okay, let’s do that.” So it wound up being the first side was the best stuff I cut with Ron and Scott, and Side 2 was me and Nick Lowe over in London recording with his band, the Cowboy Outfit, back in 1983. So I guess that was the most labor intensive, if you will.

But Sonny Landreth, I was watching a live video of him playing with you on “Riding With The King” and he was amazing.

Oh, he’s unbelievable. I can’t believe I ever got to play with him. You know who put me onto him was Ray Benson, Asleep At The Wheel. We had made Bring The Family with Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner and Nick Lowe and they weren’t going to be able to tour the record. So I was looking for a touring band that could play that record. And Ray called me and said, “I hear you are looking for a band for the Bring The Family tour. I got a guy and his name is Sonny Landreth and he’s the other slide guitar player.” (laughs) That’s how he put it. So there was only two according to Ray and one of them was Sonny and the other was Ry.

Is your daughter Lilly doing anything right now?

She is just finishing off a record that they’re just going to put to the streaming services and she’s going to call that her new record for this year. Then she’s going to go in the studio again and work with a producer to make a record to put out next year. She just played the 4th of July thing here in downtown Nashville and she’s doing some other dates this year, going out here and there, some with the band and some solo. But she’ll have this record up on streaming pretty soon I think, within a couple of months, and then next year they’ll put out a brand new record.

John, how many of your original musical goals do you think you’ve met?

Oh, I’ve gone beyond my wildest dreams. I mean, I’ve played with people I’ve wanted to play with, I’ve had songs recorded by artists that I’m just flabbergasted they would even record one of my songs. It’s all gravy. You know, with Bring The Family, I finally had a little audience. It took me that long to kind of get a bit of an audience and it’s been all delight and wonderment ever since.

You never thought about giving up?

No, no, I didn’t know how to do anything else and I still don’t (laughs). I’m grateful and feel very fortunate that I get to do this and that has never left me. Ever since I finally got straightened out, I started realizing what was really important: family, friends, other people, and this wonderful music that just means so much to me. 

 

Portrait by Patrick Sheehan; live photos by Leslie Michele Derrough

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One Response

  1. Fantastic interview! Thank you for asking such great questions of this American treasure. I love that you had him reflect on Hanging Around the Observatory as well as Leftover Feelings.

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