As a professional performer, gritty voiced songwriter John Hiatt maintains a low profile, but he's perfectly comfortable and content with his status as a veteran songwriter and bandleader. Well known among critics and roots music record collectors, his star shines brightly. As an enthusiastic songsmith, his creativity, wit, and open-minded approach has led to exuberant artistic success.
"Why would I be discouraged by anything? I think this is the most amazing, wonderful time we've ever lived in," Hiatt says. "It's unprecedented in what you can do. Music always wins. Do I care that some corporation can't sell five million copies of a piece of crap that had one good song on it? No, I don't care about that. I care about music. Music speaks the unspeakable. It always wins. So we're in great shape. I'm excited."
Armed with a terrific new album titled The Open Road — his sixth studio effort in 10 years and his 19th studio album in all — he and his backing trio head to Charleston this week for an intimate two-set concert at the Charleston Music Hall.
"I'm old, I'm 57, and my body aches," he says. "But I wouldn't do it if I didn't love it. And I love it."
As with his previous collection, 2008's Same Old Man, Hiatt recorded his new batch of tunes at his home studio. It's a clean 'n' mean mix of guitar-driven rock 'n' roll, blues, and soul. Twangy and hooky, The Open Road is a neatly arranged, wry, deeply rooted concept album with melancholic themes — as moody, confessional, and self-effacing as anything he recorded in his lengthy career.
"You try to make a record fit together, you know?" says Hiatt. "I've always liked albums that kind of hang together well. I wrote this bunch of songs together, and they kind of felt of a piece. Then you get the band together and get a music feel and vibe of the piece. With half of it, the music dictates things, and with the other half, you sort of help it along a little and get some cohesiveness."
Originally from Indianapolis, Hiatt played in a number of rock and roots bands growing up. In the late '60s, he dug the R&B slant of the Rolling Stones, the inspired lyrics and simple stylings of Bob Dylan, and the straight-talking rumble of Johnny Cash. After moving to Nashville, his songs were recorded by the likes of Conway Twitty, Tracy Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Ronnie Milsap, and Three Dog Night. In 1974, he released a solo debut titled Hangin' Around the Observatory.
Hiatt became an independent free agent in the early 2000s. Each of the last three albums he's done with New West have been single album deals.
"Around 2000, that's when I started paying to make my own records" he says. "I made them the way I wanted to make them and stopped worrying about how someone else wanted me to do it. New West has been wonderful about it all."
Many of the stories within the song lyrics on The Open Road feature characters dealing with frustrating life experiences — big-hearted men in the midst of conflict and confusion. The main protagonist on the album seems to be someone who's enjoyed some good times, but is currently dealing with some rough times, unsure of where he's heading or how to best keep things emotionally together along the way.
"That'll do nicely," laughs Hiatt at this notion. "Aren't we all in the middle of something?"
One song finds an amusing balance between pessimism and optimism as the next veers suddenly into either tender positivity or total nastiness. In the bittersweet and romantic ballad "Wonder of Love," Hiatt closes the final verse with a few lines about "trying to live together and not run ... that's the wonder of love." A few seconds later, the next tune, "What Kind of Man," kicks off in a stark contrast: "I cheated on my love/I cheated on my taxes/Burned bridges, ground axes."
Of the main character in "What Kind of Man," Hiatt explains, "At that point, the guy's in a marriage. It's the honesty that comes with it. If you're going to sustain a relationship for any length of time, you're going to have to 'fess up — that's what that song's about. Who we think we are, really? If you wanna feel sure and risk trust, that's it. It's like nobody knows hope like the hopeless. You can't have it without being hopeless, and you can't have trust with having that trust broken."
Hiatt and drummer Kenny Blevins have been collaborating in the studio and on stages for 23 years. Bassist Patrick O'Hearn has been a part of the combo's rhythm section since 2006's Same Old Man. Lead guitarist Doug Lancio joined in 2008.
Throughout the album, Hiatt's steady rhythm guitar work strikes a sturdy balance with Lancio's tasteful electric guitar embellishments and solos.
"Kenneth and I are pretty locked in. I'm like his tall high-hat," says Hiatt. "Patrick came in a few years before we got Doug, who's just great. The quartet is one of those little bands that's greater than the sum of the parts. We play the stuff that implies other stuff ... you hear things that aren't there, and it's good. I've always preferred just the guitars, bass, and drums. I dunno why."
While Hiatt's colorfully poetic lyrics dominate the songs, the straightforward style of the band supports and propels each track. According to Hiatt, the musical chemistry between him and his mates is strong enough to allow for the best on-the-spot moments.
"These were not carefully arranged tunes," he says. "This was very serendipitously recorded. Our motto is, 'You don't want to know the song.' Once you know it, you don't play it very well. So this was all pretty spontaneous. It happened naturally."