Sometimes the singer takes a backstage to the song. If you think about it, I bet you could name half a dozen amazing song writers with awful voices but words so compelling that the pitchy, twangy, nasally, scratchy, atonal vocal qualities are hardly noticed. Do the names Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, and Neil Young come to mind?
Add to that list John Hiatt. He’s a musician, yes. A singer? Not really. Someone who captures human angst and energy in pithy, wry and honest verses? Absolutely. Sometimes a performer becomes more literary than musical, or perhaps flips the genres making the literary more musical. I always picture Tom Waits and Charles Bukowski as sharing the same muse. Or Willie Nelson and John Steinbeck. Jack Kerouac and Jerry Garcia. Ever since I first heard Hiatt decades ago, he has been married in my mind to Southern writer Larry Brown.
Like Brown’s body of work, Hiatt’s songs bring to melody three basic and universal metaphors of life – particularly dominant in a rural or Southern life. The road, the train and the river. Symbols of leaving something behind and looking for something ahead. Even if you’re stuck and moving nowhere, the road, the train and the river offer some way out. They even let you turn around and go back home.
The Open Road released on New West records earlier this month is one of those albums that I like to listen to alone. I drive 45 minutes each way to my day job. That’s a lot of time to get lost in music and your own thoughts. Hiatt’s thoughts somehow get threaded into mine and pull me into a story that makes me want to read the next page.
The album takes you on a twisting journey set to Hiatt’s unique blend of rock, blues and country. I call it white man’s blues. I guess anyone who’s gone through family death and suicides, multiple marriages, drug and alcohol addiction and child rearing can sing any kind of blues he wants.
That’s the draw to Hiatt’s music. It’s real and not always pretty. One of the tracks, “Wonder of Love,” tells the story of a man who finally comes to appreciate how love can bring him through rough times. The ironic twist is that by the time he makes this realization, his woman is gone – “gone in the next day’s sun, That’s the wonder of love.”
But Hiatt, like all good writers, takes the human drama and turns it into a celebration of stubborn triumph. “Go Down Swingin’” gives a steady rolling stream of allusions to boxers, batters, Duke Ellington and trumpeting angels.
And just when you think you’re back on top of the world, Hiatt hits you with a lonesome electric guitar twang in “Like a Freight Train” that would make even the driest teetotaler drink alone in a front porch rocking chair while helplessly succumbing to blood-sucking mosquitoes.
Just to set the record straight, John Hiatt isn’t really from the South. He was born in Indiana but has lived most of his adult life in Nashville. What many people on the East and West Coasts don’t realize is that much of what they think is the Midwest like Indiana, Ohio, Illinois and Missouri has a distinctive Southern culture along the river valleys. If you listen to Hiatt’s songs, you’ll get to know I-55, the Ohio River and the Mississippi River like they’re your own backyard. Regardless of the map lines, you’ll know you’re in the South when you still get served biscuits instead of toast and the last song of a high school dance is “Free Bird” instead of “Stairway to Heaven.”
I wouldn’t say that “The Open Road” is Hiatt’s best work. My personal favorite is “Walk On” (1995 Capitol Records). But if you’re a Hiatt fan, it’s like slipping in through the kitchen back door of the house where you grew up. If you don’t know Hiatt as a solo artist, you’ve no doubt heard a long list of his songs covered by other artists going back to Three Dog Night’s 1974 hit “Sure As I’m Sitting Here” to Bonnie Raitt’s 1989 hit “Thing Called Love” and a myriad of covers of his “Have a Little Faith in Me.”
Hiatt keeps good songwriting company, recording frequently with Nick Lowe and Ry Cooder. You don’t find those names on the BillBoard top 20. You don’t find them labeled with a particular genre. But anyone who appreciates a good story set to a pure and unpretentious music knows these names, including Hiatt’s, as well as they know their favorite authors.