John Hiatt: Still After That Big Old Catfish

“I pick up the guitar at least once a day to see if anything’s there."

Photo by David McClister

John Hiatt’s new album, The Eclipse Sessions, is so named because a total solar eclipse rolled through Tennessee on August 21, 2017, during the making of the record. The singer-songwriter and his band took a break from recording when the time came; they went out on the back porch of the Rock House, producer Kevin McKendree’s farmhouse studio outside Franklin, Tennessee. It was one of those singular moments when your understanding of the world shifts a bit on its axis.

“We were looking up at this hillside of trees,” Hiatt remembers, “when it suddenly got really dark. All the deer ran out of the woods and looked at us as if they were saying, ‘It’s dark, but it’s daytime — what’s going on?’ The birds went spiraling up from the trees; the insects and frogs went crazy. This whole cacophony of nature was going, ‘What the hell?’ I had this real connected feeling. It felt like old Nashville: No one was on their phone or Facebook; we were sharing something.”

Hiatt chuckles in wonder at the memory. He’s sitting at a conference table in the Music Row offices of his representatives, Vector Management. He wears a blue-and-white checkered shirt and black-frame glasses; his thinning dark hair is combed straight back between his large ears. Even at 66, he has the wiry leanness and irreverent gaze of a scrapper.

He has released 24 studio albums over a long career, not including his album with Little Village, the supergroup that also included Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner. His songs have been recorded by Bonnie Raitt (“Thing Called Love”), Eric Clapton & B.B. King (“Riding With The King”), Iggy Pop (“Something Wild”) and Bob Dylan (“The Usual”). Hiatt may have cut back on his touring schedule, but he’s still out on the road. He’s still writing songs and recording them. He’s still looking for those singular moments.

One such moment came when he was still a little kid, growing up in an Indianapolis home full of alcohol, suicide, illness, silence and Catholic guilt. The youngster was enthralled by the radio stations beaming the Beatles, Stones, Motown and Stax like a promise of salvation to the little transistor radio in his bedroom. And one Sunday, he tuned in WLAC, the legendary R&B station out of Tennessee.

“They had a Sunday Gospel show that they’d recorded that morning at one of the black churches in Nashville,” Hiatt explains. “I listened, and I said, ‘We don’t carry on like that up here. This isn’t ‘Kyrie Eleison’; this is the shit. This is how I want to make music.’”

He started writing songs at 11, formed a band at 12 and moved to Nashville at 17. He was in the audience the night Bob Dylan played The Johnny Cash Show in 1969 and met fellow new arrival Leonard Cohen. He soon fell in with a songwriting crowd presided over by Guy Clark, his wife Susanna and Townes Van Zandt. A few years later, that gang included Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell and Steve Young. They would convene at Guy and Susanna’s house for dinner, drink and a chance to play your latest song — and it had better be a good one. You can see a good example of such a party in the documentary film, Heartworn Highways. It was another moment to remember.

“Moving from Indiana to Nashville,” Hiatt remembers, “I might as well have moved to Mars. I was humbled immediately; there were all these Texans hanging around, and it seemed like every song they wrote was a masterpiece. To see Guy and Susanna dressed head-to-toe in denim, walking around town like they owned the place was a sight to behold. You’re rubbing elbows with these people and you feel like you’ll never measure up. But you try. You try to have a good new song to play at the next party.”

There was a detour to Los Angeles from 1979 through 1984, where he got a deal with MCA as a new-wave rocker, a kind of American Elvis Costello — smart, edgy and irreverent. Ironically, it was Costello’s original producer, Nick Lowe, who wrung the Britishisms out of Hiatt’s music and returned him to American roots music while producing half of Hiatt’s sixth album, Riding With The King. Soon after, Hiatt sobered up at age 32 and returned to Nashville with a one-year-old daughter named Lilly and a new sense of direction in his music.

“I spent five years in L.A. one night,” Hiatt jokes. “Riding With The King is where I finally got focused. It took me a long time to get good, though I slowed myself down with alcohol, drugs and fear. I wrote some good stuff, but it was spotty. I was 10 years in before I got a handle on things.”

None of his first seven albums made it into the Billboard top-200, but they contained some songs that started getting covered: “It Hasn’t Happened Yet” by Rosanne Cash, “Washable Ink” by the Neville Brothers, “She Loves The Jerk” by Rodney Crowell, “When We Ran” by Linda Ronstadt and “Something Happens” by Dave Edmunds. Hiatt wrote two songs for Ry Cooder’s Borderline album and joined the support tour with drummer Jim Keltner.

Hiatt hired Cooder, Keltner and Lowe for Bring The Family, his breakthrough 1987 album that included some of his most memorable songs: “Thing Called Love,” “Have A Little Faith In Me” and “Memphis In The Meantime.” That quartet reunited in 1992 as the band Little Village. The one and only album under that name disappointed some listeners because it wasn’t the singer-songwriter sequel to Bring The Family they’d been expecting. What it was instead was a terrific groove album, uniting the rockabilly of Sun Records and the Southern soul of Stax Records. It was as if Hiatt had taken his own advice and had gone to Memphis in the meantime.

A year after Bring The Family, Hiatt had assembled another all-star roots-rock quartet: himself and the Louisiana trio known as the Goners, featuring guitarist Sonny Landreth, drummer Kenneth Blevins and bassist David Ranson. They made 1988’s Slow Turning, which featured “Icy Blue Heart,” “It’ll Come to You” and “Feels Like Rain.” And two days after our conversation in 2018, that same foursome brings the “Slow Turning 30th Anniversary Tour” to Nashville’s Ascend Amphitheatre.

Wearing an untucked blue-plaid shirt and jeans, the wiry singer demonstrates how even the best-written songs can be improved by a skilled and sympathetic band. The concert, like the record, begins with two songs about attempted escape via automobile, “Drive South” and “Tennessee Plates,” and the Goners motorize the narrative — not with volume or a blur of notes, but with a rhythmic tension that allows no direction but forward. Blevin’s fat tom-tom notes and Ranson’s reverberating plucked strings provide the torque, and Landreth’s dizzying mesh of fretted and sliding notes supply the giddy spin. When Hiatt shifts down for the whispery coda to “Feels Like Rain,” that brilliant ballad of anticipation, the contrast is exhilarating.

It was Blevins who suggested that Hiatt record The Eclipse Sessions at the rural studio of keyboardist/producer Kevin McKendree. Originally, it was meant to be a quartet session with Hiatt, Blevins and McKendree joined by bassist Patrick O’Hearn. But when Hiatt came back for a second day of recording, he found that the producer’s son Yates had added lead guitar to some of the tracks — and it was too good to leave off.

Hiatt usually begins a song by noodling around the guitar until he comes up with a melody and chord progression that sounds original. Then he’ll sing gibberish until something comes out that makes sense. For this album, for example, the phrase “Up late with hollowed-out eyes, all the way to the river” popped out. “I like that,” he told himself. “I’ve done that.” So he came up with a story to support the phrase, in this case the tale of a woman driving through West Nashville toward the Cumberland River with suicide on her mind.

“I don’t know if she goes through with it or not,” Hiatt says. “Maybe she jumps in the river or maybe she gives up and goes home. You’re tasked with telling a story, but I want to focus on what’s happening in the moment, not what’s happening before or after. The first person in my songs is not me in most of my songs; it’s just some crazy guy who will remain nameless. I’m telling a story about something that makes me feel more human. I’m saying, ‘Yeah, life’s this way. Don’t you agree?’ It’s a good thing to put yourself in another person’s shoes.”

It’s one of several songs on the album about Nashville, the town where Hiatt has spent most of his adult life. “Aces Up Your Sleeve” is a lament for the city he used to know, swept away by a gentrification that has replaced the shiny barroom dance floors with brightly lit upscale restaurants: “They say the north side’s humming now — big money and big dreams.” It’s also a requiem for a vanished youth, but with a eulogy blessedly free of self-pity. On the related song, “Over The Hill,” Hiatt sings with a decided bark, “I’m long in the tooth — what can I say? I take huge bites of life, and I eat the bones.”

“I had a set of chords,” he remembers, “and the line, ‘I’m over the hill and under the bridge’ popped out. I said, ‘That’s interesting; tell me more.’”

It had been four years since Hiatt had released an album, and he wasn’t sure he was going to make another one. He had had a long, two-year dry spell where he hadn’t written anything at all. The drought broke with “Robber’s Highway,” a song about the Natchez Trace, an 18th-century road that still runs from Nashville to Natchez, Mississippi.

“They called it the Robber’s Highway,” Hiatt explains, “because rafters would float their wares downriver to Natchez or New Orleans and then walk back along the Trace with money in their pockets. Thieves would be waiting for them. There’s a price you pay to go out on the road, and in the end, you realize how little you’ve learned. That one’s for all of us road dogs.”

Hiatt has spent most of his life as just such an animal, though he has recently cut down — down from 100-120 shows a year to about 60. The transition hasn’t been easy.

“I still want to play,” he says, “but I also want to spend more time with my family. For most of our married life my wife and I were like two trains going in the same direction but 30 miles apart. Now it’s like we’re dating again. As a traveling musician, you’re so jacked up on adrenaline that when you come home, you’re not really home — you’re still coming down from the rush. Then you’re gone again. There’s a protective coating that I’d put around me to survive on the road, but that’s starting to erode now. It’s new territory for me.”

The night before our conversation, Hiatt appeared on stage at the Ryman Auditorium during the Americana Music Association Awards to give a gushing introduction for Lilly Hiatt, the daughter he brought back from L.A. and this evening a nominee for Best Emerging Artist. She lost to Tyler Childers, but she delivered an impressive version of her song “Trinity Lane,” backed by Buddy Miller’s house band. It was another singular moment.

“The excitement was no different from what I feel for my other children when they graduate from college or whatever,” Hiatt says the next day. “I tried to warn her about the music business, but she had that passion. At least she didn’t have any delusions about it. It was never about the celebrity for her; it was all about the work. I call her a lifer like myself. What could I tell her about songwriting? I have no idea how to write a song except to keep at it with pen and paper and keep your guitar nearby. It helps to spend some time on it every day.

“I pick up the guitar at least once a day to see if anything’s there,” he adds. “It’s like reaching under the bank to see if a big old catfish is there. If one chomps onto your arm, you pull it out. But you can’t catch one if you don’t reach under the bank.”