On Wednesday, Sept. 24 at 6 p.m. PT/9 p.m. ET, Yahoo Live will live stream John Hiatt's show from Ram's Head on Stage in Annapolis, MD. Tune in HERE to watch!
To say John Hiatt has been around the block a few times is putting it lightly. When asked about the current state of the record industry and the struggles facing major labels, the veteran singer-songwriter quickly responds, "I've been on all of them."
While that might seem like an exaggeration, it's not far from the truth. He made his debut in 1974 with Hangin' Around the Observatory on Epic and recorded one more album with that label before moving to MCA, for which he recorded a pair of albums, before shifting to Geffen, where he released two studio efforts and a live album. It was on A&M, in the late '80s, where he had his biggest success with a four-album run that included his 1987 breakthrough Bring the Family. During that time, his all-star collaborative effort Little Village, featuring Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe, and Jim Keltner, released its one and only album in 1992 on Reprise Records. After that, Hiatt turned up on Capitol for a two-album deal in the mid-'90s, but since then he's been going the indie route, including his current deal with New West, which has resulted in seven albums since 2003.
"Technically, I've been independent since 2001," he says. "I own my own records and we lease them to New West, and it works great. My feeling about all those labels I've been on is they gave me the very best chance to be successful and it just didn't work. I had every possible chance I could have, but it just didn't work. A lot of them, I f---ed up, and the others, who's to say?"
While Hiatt's albums haven't been blockbuster sellers, his releases have garnered a steady stream of critical accolades over the years. "It's better to be critically acclaimed than critically injured," he quips. And, his peers have appreciated his work. His songs have been covered by a wide range of artists, from Bonnie Raitt, who scored a hit in 1989 with his "Thing Called Love," to Eric Clapton and B.B. King, who won a Grammy for their 2000 collaboration Riding With the King, featuring the Hiatt-penned title track. Others who have covered his songs include Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, the Jeff Healy Band, Iggy Pop, and even animated singing bears in the 2002 Disney flick The Country Bears.
The latest artist to delve into the Hiatt catalog for a hit is veteran rocker Bob Seger, who just released his studio take of Hiatt's 2011 track "Detroit Made," after playing the song as the opener on his 2013 spring tour. "I was really tickled about that," Hiatt says. "I'll never forget the first time I heard 'Ramblin' Gamblin' Man' [the title track of Seger's 1968 debut album] on a station out of Fort Wayne, Indiana, called WOWO. I said, 'F--- me, I wanna do this.' And here he is recording one of my songs. I'm so thrilled."
Of course, Hiatt continues to record and tour with his own material. He's currently on a solo acoustic trek. Terms of My Surrender, his latest album released in July, has him delving into acoustic blues with accompaniment provided by his longtime backup band, the Combo, with guitarist Doug Lancio also taking on the role of producer.
"All I know is I don't want to be the producer. I know that for sure," says Hiatt, who has produced two of his previous efforts. "It's a lot of work. I'm lazy. I like working with ideas. I like to bring the songs in and see what the musicians are gonna make happen. I like magic. I don't want to hear what's in my head. Jesus, I hear that all day long. It's like hearing your own thoughts. I can't think of anything more boring."
Some of that magic happened when Lancio suggested Hiatt put down an electric guitar and instead make the album playing acoustic. "I came in and had a little dinky amp and this s---ty plywood guitar, and I was making a particular sound and I thought, 'Let's make it with this.' But then he pulled down one of his old Kay acoustics and we plugged that in instead, and that became the sound."
The album features the trademark Hiatt wordplay in songs such as the title track, "Baby's Gonna Kick," "Face of God," and "Old People." The latter is slightly reminiscent of Randy Newman's "Short People," but Hiatt takes a more sympathetic view of the elderly than Newman's sardonic skewering of the vertically challenged. "I'm becoming one," the 62-year-old Hiatt says of the aged. "Unless you're going to die young and leave a beautiful memory, you're going to be one, too."
As for "Face of God," Hiatt admits he copped the lines "They say God is a devil/Until you look him in the eye" from a Kenneth Patchen poem. "That's why I say, 'They say God is the devil,'" he explains. In "Baby's Gonna Kick," Hiatt's female protagonist isn't going to die, rather she's going to kick the song's male character out someday. "I'm certain of it," he quips.
Hiatt, who's been nominated for a few Grammys, but hasn't won, is OK with the fact that he's had more success as a songwriter than as a performer. "Everything's just right. I've had a nice career. I'm perfectly grateful. People come to see me play. I get to make records. I get to write songs and I love what I do. I have a wonderful following, wonderful fans. It's just right, because if I would have been a big success, particularly when I was younger, it probably would have killed me, so I'm glad I wasn't," says Hiatt, who survived the suicides of his 21-year-old brother when he was a child, and his estranged second wife in 1985, as well as his own battles with drug and alcohol abuse. "Things have worked out just right."