[Interview] John Hiatt

Bonnie Raitt and Three Dog Night are among the many who have recorded his tunes

John Hiatt grew up in Indianapolis dreaming about making music for a living, instead of selling cabinets in the Midwest, including “Cincinnatuh” like his dad (and his pronunciation). He dropped out of high school and headed for Los Angeles a few times, but never made it. He did, however, make it to Nashville where he carved out an award-winning career as a songwriter and performer. And he still enjoys visiting Cincinnatuh.

2011 - Album Release Interview

Maybe it’s because John Hiatt has spent so much time on the road that he can write and speak so eloquently about a sense of place.

On his latest album, “Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns,” Hiatt sings about Detroit cars, 9/11 in New York, a train to Birmingham, leaving California and the Nashville flood.

Although there isn’t a song to commemorate his visit to the Taft Theatre tonight, don’t rule out a future tune from the Indianapolis-bred singer-songwriter.

“I’m lookin’ forward to the Cincinnatuh show. Do people still call it Cincinnatuh? Hiatt said, with a throaty chuckle that punctuates much of his conversation. “That’s what my father used to call it. ‘Goin’ to Cincinnatuh, got to sell some, peddle some cabinets.’ ”

That was more than 40 years ago, before Hiatt was in business for himself writing and selling songs. Only he knows how hard he had to peddle his tunes, but the short list of those who have covered him  include Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton and B.B. King, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and Gregg Allman, all accomplished writers in their own right.

“Dirty Jeans” is Hiatt’s 23rd album (unofficially), recorded primarily with his touring band (guitarist Doug Lancio, drummer Kenneth Blevins and bassist Patrick O’Hearn). The songs have the familiar hybrid sound of rock, country and blues, yet ring brand new.

Some are specific. “When New York Had Her Heart Broke” recounts Sept. 11, when Hiatt was in New York recording. “Down Around My Place” began with the news that floodwaters were heading toward his house outside of Nashville where his wife Nancy was alone.

“When (events) are close to home, it can change your thinkin’. I mean it’s traumatic, it’s trauma when people go through things like that,” he said.

“(Writing songs) has always kind of been my way of dealing with anything. The illusion of control, you know I’ve always kind of accepted that I don’t have much control. Still, you try, I do, you think you have some control.”

One thing Hiatt can control is the quality of his work. The deluxe edition of “Dirty Jeans” has a DVD that offers a peek into the recording process. It shows a relaxed, yet always vigilant group going over each detail.

On the other hand, there are things Hiatt can’t control. Time, for instance. The young kid from Indy is now staring at 60 and celebrated his 25th anniversary this year. The song “I Love That Girl” is his gift to Nancy.

“(In) the game of numbers, you notice most of the time is behind you,” Hiatt said. “(But) you’ve got two choices: You can bitch and moan about it or feel good about the time you have left. You live every day because who knows, you’re beatin’ the clock.”

Here’s hoping that Hiatt’s clock keeps ticking for a good long time. At least until he writes that song about Cincinnatuh.


2009 - Concert Preview

When Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt played the Aronoff Center a couple of years ago with their friends Guy Clark and Joe Ely, it was fascinating that four guys could entertain a crowd of more than 3,000 with nothing more than acoustic guitars and a lifetime’s worth of stories.

Lovett and Hiatt return Thursday to try their hand with half the ammunition. That doesn’t mean the show will be half as much fun.

“It gives us twice as much time for our own songs and lies and stuff,” Hiatt chuckles.

The veteran singer-songwriters have successful careers making records and leading their own bands. The acoustic shows provide a change of pace that appeals to Hiatt (and the others).

“People seem to like it because it just seems real,” Hiatt says. “The stories are different each night. Lyle – you know he studied journalism in college – is the conductor. He starts asking the questions, and I feel like I’m always dodging those questions.”

The camaraderie of old friends reaches beyond the stage. As thrilling as the music can be, the stories seem to strike that real chord with the crowd.

Hiatt can tell tales about growing up in Indianapolis (“We used to look longingly at Cincinnati and Columbus from Naptown as we called it in those days”), dropping out of school to play music, and trying to travel to the West Coast to launch his career.

“I would usually get as far as Arkansas, then go home,” he laughs.

After a few false starts, Hiatt made it to Nashville where he began to write songs that turned into hits for other people (Bonnie Raitt won a Grammy with “Thing Called Love”) before his star started to rise on its own. His body of work was honored last fall when the Americana Music Association gave him its lifetime achievement award, and he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

That’s pretty impressive. But it might not be Hiatt’s biggest accomplishment recently.

“Yeah, I got my GED (equivalent of his high school diploma) in 2006, the same year that my youngest daughter graduated from high school,” he says. “At her school, it was part of the parents’ role to take on a challenge for themselves.

“So I went to the little county adult education place here where we live, and worked with a delightful woman who helped my through the curriculum.

“I felt I made my peace with the nightmare that was high school for me,” he says. “It was very satisfying.”

That’s an inspiration for anyone. But for a man who has won so many awards for his writing, it adds a special resonance.

And it makes a great story to tell from the stage. It should be interesting to see how his pal Lyle will phrase the question.


2009 - Concert Review

Lyle Lovett is an award-winning singer and songwriter who fronts His Large Band and acts in films. John Hiatt is the reigning Americana Music Association Lifetime Achievement Award winner for songwriting who fronts his own rock band, the Goners.

Thursday night, they were just two guys with guitars who shared a couple of hours of songs and stories with more than 2,000 people at the Aronoff Center. Although it’s likely most folks came to hear the music, it’s also likely that most of them were as entertained by the tales as by the tunes.

Lovett kicked off the evening by recounting his early encounters with Hiatt beginning in 1981. Somehow that segued into a story about Hiatt walking around downtown Cincinnati earlier in the day in search of a cigar (“Everyone needs a nasty habit,” he said). During a brief interruption in the laughter, Hiatt sang the first song of the night, “Perfectly Good Guitar,” a title that foreshadowed a later discussion about Hiatt’s guitar prowess (Lovett envies his talent), his process and his gear.

You get the idea. The longtime friends treat these shows as a chance to catch up with each other, and delve deeper into the past. For example, when Hiatt mentioned that he went to Catholic school as a kid, it seemed to both surprise and delight Lovett, who explained that he was raised Lutheran in Texas and also raised to make fun of Catholics.

That led to some back and forth on the lifestyle of nuns, took a detour into short version of “Happy Birthday” for a local beer distributor, then returned to a just-as-short version of “Penguins,” Lovett’s tribute to the women who struck fear into Catholic schoolchildren for generations.

Until a DVD of the performance is produced, the stories about Skyline Chili, Punxsutawney Phil, moving to Boca, Elvis, Bonnie Raitt and the role of fish in the Hiatt household when John was growing up will have to be told by your friends who were giggling in the audience.

Amid the humor, however, was a career retrospective that showed why the awards were bestowed.

Hiatt’s list is longer and probably more familiar if only because many of his songs have been hits for others: Raitt won a Grammy with “Thing Called Love” and Eric Clapton and B.B. King named an album “Ridin’ With the King.” Add soulful versions of “Real Fine Love,” “Tennessee Plates,” “Drive South,” “Buffalo River Home” and “Have a Little Faith in Me,” and the price of a ticket seemed like a bargain.

Lovett held his own with “Good Intentions,” “I’ve Been to Memphis,” “If I Had a Boat,” “My Baby Don’t Tolerate” and “She’s No Lady,” among others.

Even when they seemed to be concentrating on the music, however, neither was very far from a gag. Before “I Will Rise Up,” Lovett asked Hiatt if he would be willing to play on the song. “It occurs to me that you’re a lot more help to me than …,” before breaking into a wide grin that he wore much of the night, not even needing to finish the thought:  “But I’m OK with that.”

Everyone in the theater seemed to OK with both of them.



Each week, Bob Hust and Bill Thompson feature the best songs – old and new – from artists they have loved for many years and others they have just discovered. The best songs transport people to a time and place. That’s the foundation of BS&B.

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