John Hiatt, chasing songs 40 years after debut album, refuses to “Surrender”

Categories: Chicago Sun-Times


John Hiatt’s songbook is deep and vast. Born in Indianapolis and today living outside Nashville, where he moved when he was 18 seeking a career as a songwriter for hire, he ended up recording his debut record in 1974 and hasn’t stopped since.

Luminaries from the pop, rock, R&B, and country worlds have covered his songs over decades, which is a reflection of his ability to draw universal truths using conversational observations and humor. The everyday accessibility of his idiosyncratic music helps illuminate his common themes — redemption, growing older and making peace with the past — that have made the songs stand the test of time.

Hiatt is releasing his 22nd album, “Terms of My Surrender” (New West), in July, but will be previewing the new songs when he headlines Ravinia Sunday on a double bill with Robert Cray.

We talked recently by phone. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

You’ve been on a hot streak lately — four albums of new songs in five years, on top of more than 20 albums in 40 years.

It’s just all about time you know. I got less in front of me than I have behind me. It’s time to get going.

Has what you write about changed as you’ve gotten older?

I don’t really sit down and add it up. I’m just trying to get better at it, as always. There’s a lot of water under the bridge

I imagine that with many years behind you, there’s more material to pull from.

I’m not sure that matters. It’s still the same thing for me. The songwriting process for me has always been always been a sorting out of things for me, emotionally, and maybe spiritually. It kind of helps me, telling stories. It’s hooking up to that, or trying to hook up to, that ancient flow, that ancient traditional of storytelling. Kind of getting into that groove of trying to tell. Passing something along. I don’t know if it has any purpose other than, “here’s what’s going on in my neck of the woods today and here’s how I got here.” Sitting around the fire

When you started, was there a specific turning point for you in your writing that gave you more confidence?

I guess I was always trying to join in. I always felt kind of like I was outside. Everyone else was under the dome and I was outside of the dome. [laughs] So I think writing was sort of my way in. And as far as feeling like I was under the dome, that comes and goes, but I guess once I got clean and sober, that was a big step. I was kind of lost. So I think that helped a lot in terms of feeling like I was not alone. That was a big thing.

Did the process of writing songs deepen after after cleaning up, or that it mattered more to you?

It always mattered, but I got a little more courage about it all. That’s all. I got a little more courage. And more fear too. But the fear, it was more real. The whole deal, it was more real.

The most haunting song on the album is easily “Wind Don’t Have to Hurry.” There’s an apocalyptic tone to how the crashing drums and vocal chorus surround a single banjo as you sing lyrics like, “now the thought police are coming/right up to your door/they say you have no liberty/if it’s you they’re looking for.”

It is kind of creepy. I just got carried away. The music was written a different way, it was much more folky and sorrowful. And I came in the studio with it and Doug [Lancio] started playing that banjo thing. I was in the control room and I said, “that’s it,” and I just started singing the melody. I had the melody but I started singing it to his banjo riff. I sang the melody like it was. I said, “don’t change the chords.” We just left it there. So it’s one chord all the way through, which made it even more haunting. It started sounding like the wind. It was a freight train of events, but it was also slow, the tempo. It kind of captured the lyric better than the chords I had.

What about “Old People,” a song that humorously describes the graying years as defiant.

As you get up there, you start to get a taste. You start to realize old people get misunderstood. We’re not about to kiss your ass, we’re running out of time so [expletive] you. [laughs] We’ll do as we please, thank you very much.

You have always written about family: sons, fathers, wives, and kids populate these songs. Are people in your life still inspirational for writing songs?

All people around are inspirational. I hear the damndest, most wonderful things. Guy Clark has said, “you can’t make this [expletive] up.” [laughs] It’s true.

Your music has always had a mixture of blues and country. You live in the Nashville area, the commercial center of country music, but there was a time when country music wasn’t as segregated by region, or even radio playlists.

In those days, country music was of a people. Chicago was a perfect example of that. You had all these Southerners coming up to find work. Thus the blues, but the southern white guys were also looking for work and, of course, brought country music with them. Tennessee, same thing: you had emphasis with the blues in Memphis and in east Tennessee, you had more bluegrass and Appalachian music, that sound. And these guys all listened to each other and thus the cross-pollination. And the three-cord country song is similar to the three-cord blues song. The subject matter is all the same. It was all looped together.

Now it’s turned into a caricature of itself. The blues has turned into 12 bars and a hot guitar solo. That’s something different. The country music, is that even being made anymore? I don’t know. [laughs] Underneath the popular song, it is. And it’s kind of always been that way. There’s the mainstream, and then there’s the good stuff. And some of the mainstream is good stuff.

With so many of your songs covered by other artists, from Bob Dylan to Iggy Pop to the Everly Brothers to Buddy Guy to Bonnie Raitt, do you have a particular favorite?

I’m thrilled with lot of different covers, but it would take a long time. I’m thrilled, I like them better than mine. Hard to even start in on that.

Do you learn anything new about them when they’re coming out of somebody else’s mouth?

It’s more like they’re your kids. It’s like they’ve gone to work. Somebody else has put them to work in a really great way and they’re doing a great job and you’re thinking, “oh man, these people feel really good about my kids.” [laughs] It just makes me feel so great.

What’s your writing routine?

I don’t have a routine. My favorite routine is waking up in the morning. I love that. I love that. I am in love with waking up in the morning. It’s so wonderful to wake up. I am so grateful. I thank whoever is running this shebang. I say thank you. And everything is up from there. I generally pick up the guitar. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I need a break. I go through periods I don’t pick it up for a couple of weeks, then when I do, the three chords I know, they sound fresh. I generally pick up guitar when I’m usually humming something. And if a song is going to happen, that’s how it happens.

So there’s never the sense of needing to produce on the spot.

There’s professional songwriters that can do that. I’ve never been able to do that. I’ve tried. But I’ve never been able to do that. Professional songwriters write specifically on the dime for other people. I tried to do that. But I’m no good at it.

A lot of contemporary songwriting has shifted the emphasis on the melody to the beat. What do you make of that, having spent your life as a songwriter?

I think we’re just inundated, we’re kind of over-amped a lot of the time. The listening experience is changed, the way music is listened to. It’s changed for me. I got a million songs on my phone, it’s crazy! It’s just plumb crazy, Mark! [laughs] But I still sit at home and Bluetooth it to my little speakers and I listen. And I know there’s lots of people who do that. I just always believed in music. You can’t kill music. It can’t be done. We need it too much. It can be watered down and thinned out and be a pretty bleak bowl of soup, but eventually it’s going win out and be rich and creamy and delicious. It was always thus. Soon people hunger for something good. We can be fed a thin gruel for only so long. And then we gotta hear something that hits us. That’s always there. There’s wonderful music happening right now. It may not be the focus of the sales, but it’s happening and people are coming to hear it and people hooking up to it and talking about it and young people are making this music and it’s great.

That’s the amazing thing about where we’re at. There’s so much good stuff you can find. It’s like looking for real news. You gotta hunt for it. The news that may be slamming you in the face may not necessarily be telling you anything. But if you hunt, you may actually find something. Because it’s out there.


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