Home' Rhythms Magazine : November-December 2018 Contents 34
By Brian Wise
One of my fondest memories of the New Orleans Jazz Fest was seeing
John Hiatt nearly two decades and nine albums ago. Halfway through
his set, Hiatt performed a brand new song that he wouldn’t record for
another six months or so and a friend, who just happened to work for a
major record label, turned to me and marvelled,“He’s amazing. Where
does he pull these songs from?”
It summed up the regard that everyone had for Hiatt as a master
songwriter. That scene stuck in my mind because in the intervening
years, Hiatt’s ability to make the songwriting seem easy seems to have
“Thank you,” said Hiatt when we recently met up in Nashville to talk
about his new album, The Eclipse Sessions. “I remember playing Jazz
Fest that year. It was great fun.”
“I don’t know where they come from,” he continues about his songs.
“I was doing an interview and the guy was saying every songwriter he
talks to thinks that their last song was the last one they’ll ever write. I
have that sense every time that I sit down. It’s like I’ve never written a
song before. You know, so it’s hard to say where they come from really.”
Over the years Hiatt’s songs have been recorded by numerous artists
including Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Iggy Pop,
Rosanne Cash, Eric Clapton and B B King (who titled their album
together after his song ‘Riding With The King’). Hiatt has also received
his own star on Nashville’s Walk of Fame, the Americana Music
Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting and has
been inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
On the strength of Hiatt’s latest album, The Eclipse Sessions, Hiatt’s
songwriting prowess is set to continue for some years to come. While
it might have been a difficult gestation for the album, taking four years,
the wait for the eleven new songs has been worth it.
“It just took a little time, you know,” explains Hiatt of the songwriting
process over his hiatus.“We toured Terms of My Surrender for two
years and I didn’t write anything during that time, which is kind of
unusual for me. It just took a minute to get back in the songwriting
groove and I just attribute it to [the fact that] I was in my mid 60s. I’m
66 now. It just took me a minute to get my bearings in terms of, I don’t
know, just what I was going write about or where the songs were going
to come from.”
I suggest to Hiatt that it seems to the observer that songwriting should
become easier, the older you get and the more experience you have.
“I don’t think so,” he responds.“I think you’ve got less working for you.
There’s fewer brain cells. There’s more patchy ground up there. So,
more rabbit holes to slip down in. I think maybe it was easier when you
were younger: you just had more to work with.
“And your life changed. I mean, my life has changed a lot in the last
five years. I’ve had deaths in the family, friends dying, moving, selling
the farm, moving into town, kids growing up, various and sundry
difficulties and successes.
Eclipsing The Past
John Hiatt’s latest album has been worth the four-year wait.
“So there’s been a lot of changes in my life recently - and just dealing
with ageing. I ’m 66, maybe I got 20 years, I don’t know. Then you
realize that 30 years just flew by and you go, wait a minute! What
happened? So you get a weird kind of sense of.........and at my age, a
month seems like a day.
The good news is there are some classic John Hiatt songs on this new
album. So it doesn’t sound like he has had four years off and it certainly
doesn’t sound like he has lost any of his superb skills.
During our recent trip to Nashville we were lucky enough to see Hiatt
reunited with The Goners, featuring Sonny Landreth on guitar. They
have been touring this year to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their
album Slow Turning. In fact, Hiatt sees a connection between that
album, 2000’s Crossing Muddy Waters and The Eclipse Sessions.
“ I just had a feeling that they all were kind of a piece you know,” he
explains. “They hang together in a certain way. They sound sort of
whole to me. Also, the way they came together. Very sort of, almost
accidental you know.”
Hiatt recalls a conversation with his friend, producer and booker for
McCabe’s Guitar Shop, John Chelew, who died in New Orleans in
2016 at the age of 65.
“ Bring The Family was, my buddy John Chelew saying, ‘ How would you
make a record?’
I said, ‘ Well I don’t know.’
‘ Who would you get?’
I said, ‘ Ry Cooder, Jim Keltner.’
He said, ‘ I ’ll call ‘em.’
I said, ‘ What are you crazy?’
‘And then who would you get on bass?’ he asked.
I said, ‘ Well, Nick Lowe’s my favourite.’
‘ Well, call him up.’
The next thing you know, we got somebody to come up with $20,000,
I think, or 30. It was Andrew Lauder from Demon Records in England
and the next thing you know, we’re in the studio for four days. It just
happened like that.”
“Then, Crossing Muddy Waters was a very similar thing. I didn’t know
what kind of record to make. I had the songs. I’d been playing with
Davey Faragher and David Immergluck. I got in touch with Justin
[Niebank], a local producer and he said, ‘ I have a studio, why don’t you
come in and just try some stuff?’
“ I just had the idea, I think, to try something kind of acoustic-y and it
just sort of happened. And so that’s how we made that record. And this
record kind of happened the same way. It was Kenneth just said, ‘Come
on out and let’s try some stuff ’.”
The Eclipse Sessions got its title from the fact that Hiatt and his band
were working on August 21 last year when a solar eclipse crossed the
USA. They were in a studio on a farm south of Nashville owned by
Kevin McKendree (who plays keyboards with Delbert McClinton and
Brian Setzer) when the event occurred. The sessions have elicited fond
memories for Hiatt.
“ It was me, and Kenneth Blevins, my old drummer from Slow Turning,
and Patrick O’Hearn on bass and we cut the tracks,” says Hiatt. “ We
got a performance with the three of us, including my vocal and my
guitar playing and then Kevin would come in and put organ or piano
or both as need be. Then we’d go home at night and Yates McKendree,
his son, who was fifteen at the time - he’s a child prodigy as a musician
- he would put a guitar part on, electric guitar. He’s a fricking brilliant
musician. That’s how it got made.”
“ Well, it seemed like it was,” replies Hiatt when I say that he makes
it sound as if it was easy. “ You know, it’s weird ‘cause when we got
the idea to maybe try some songs out there, I wasn’t really thinking,
oh we’re going to make a record. It was just, ‘Okay, I got some songs.’
Kenny Blevins called me and said, ‘ You know, Kevin’s got this cool little
studio. Let’s go just try some stuff. And that’s how it happened. Kind of
serendipitous you know.”
As Hiatt suggests, the new album ponders aging, his past and also
offers songs about love. The opener ‘Cry To Me’ hits the classic Hiatt
loping groove as he sings, “ I ’m probably going to let you down.” On
‘ Hide Your Tears’ he sings “ I don’t spend too many days/Thinking
about the reckless ways/A man tries to outrun his death/Or a broken
heart runs out of breath.” This is the sound of an adult contemplating
his past relationships.
In fact, the album closes with the very personal and extremely emotive
reflection ‘ Robber’s Highway’ which gently explores some major
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