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John Hiatt: American Master

Updated: Jan 26, 2019

Over the past 45 years, musician and songwriter John Hiatt has shared it all: joy, mortality, love, freedom and eternal, radiant life. At 66, he says the sharing process is not complete. Everywhere he looks he says sees the mystery of life and death, of creation and decay and regeneration.

“I still wake up every morning with the same cast of characters running around in my head,” says Hiatt. “I just keep sitting them down and giving them a good talking to. I say, ‘C’mon, now, let it go.’ But they have plans of their own.”

Indeed, four decades into his recording career, Hiatt titled his 22nd studio album, Terms of My Surrender. Hiatt’s 23rd studio release, The Eclipse Sessions, was released in October.

Surrender is a word that surfaces frequently in conversation with the well-prized troubadour.

To some, surrender may have off-putting connotations, implying defeat, giving up, failing to rise to the challenges of life. Rightful surrender to Hiatt is something entirely different.

“I surrender to music, and, to me, music is mental health,” says Hiatt. “Music is a beautiful, healing, wonderful thing. The more into the music I am, the more healthy that I am. Music is the best and that’s all.”

There is no profound wisdom in Hiatt’s words, just a man who performs unconditionally and without reservation.

“I just play, man,” says Hiatt. “I do the same thing I’ve always done. When you are young, you worry about labels, fitting in and all of the other dances that we do. People are afraid so they call stuff something. This is that and that is this. We are fearful people...if you specialize in something and can do wonderful things, you just enjoy it, right?

Hiatt says he yields to rather than opposes the flow of life.

“I understand that I will never be comfortable,” he says.

“I am shaky. I have a little peace. I like peace. I have family and friends who I care about and care about me. I can see good things in other people, and that gives me peace. I like simple things now. Life is good, despite all of the insanity all around us.”

Influenced by Elvis

“Elvis was always a big deal growing up, though I was a little young,” says Hiatt.

“My brothers brought his music around. At nine, I was a fat kid and when I heard Elvis, I would imagine that I wasn’t a fat kid, and that I was cool like Elvis. My mom was crazy about him. We would go up to this cinder block cabin in the woods, my grandfather’s cabin on a lake. There were lots of kids, many cousins, and we would stuff everyone into this cabin. Mom had seven kids. Her sister had nine. There was one room with a kitchen divider and a couch. We would stay the whole summer, swimming and fishing, taking out a 30-horsepower boat. We would see Elvis movies at the local drive-in. He was my first big influence.”

The inadequacy of being different dominates Hiatt’s earliest memories. Being ‘cool’ was a vision, a dream, the stuff of a handsome truck driver and GI from Mississippi who shook his pelvis, oiled his hair and became the delegated idol of many an inferior boy.

“I was self-excluded as a kid, fat, and not cool like the other kids. In the sixth grade, some kids and I picked up our guitars and we had a band in six months. Short guys have to fight everybody but the fat kid, he is either shunned or he is funny. I had to be a comedian. At 15, I lost a 100 pounds in one summer. I wanted a girlfriend. I have empathy for people who don’t fit in for Christ’s sake, and there’s plenty of us. I don’t feel for a person who ain’t been hurt.”

At 18, he left his hometown of Indianapolis for Nashville, Tenn. Folksy regionalism pervades the opening lines of Hiatt’s “Real Fine Love” (1990): “Well, now I never went to college, babe, I did not have the luck. Stole out of Indiana in the back of a pickup truck. With no education higher than the streets of my hometown, I went looking for a fire just to burn it all down.”

Hiatt’s early days were marred by alcoholism and drug abuse. He was abandoned by record labels in the 1970s and early 1980s, a consequence, he said behind the scenes, of being “a bad alcoholic and addict.”

Hiatt straightened out and his eighth album, Bring the Family (1987), sold nearly 200,000


Hiatt’s blend of rock, country, gospel and rhythm neatly coalesced with Slow Turning (1988) and Stolen Moments (1990). Since then, he has had a mixed-bag of triumphs and delinquencies.

“Music is such a big part of who I am,” says Hiatt. “I’ve been doing it since 11. It’s what I do. It’s me. It is really kind of a miracle. I spent the first half of my life trying to fuck it all up, and I did. And I nearly died in the process. In the second half, I’ve been tied to good work, and I put it out and the people are coming out.”

Tears of Song Writing

Hiatt says he still enjoys toying with the mystery of song writing and that a successful confluence of words and thought is a love too large, too deep ever to be truly measured or understood.

“It’s a big deal,” said Hiatt. “It can make you cry. Sometimes you get one in, and you walk out into the middle of the field and you burst into tears. You don’t know where it came from. You just know that you are a fortunate receiver.”

The beauty of Hiatt’s music is that it is eternally honest and understandable. There will always be a strong thread of his own life history in his work but his tales emphasize transferences and conflicts all can relate to.

On the same afternoon as our phone interview, Hiatt is about to close on a new property in the city; Hiatt and his wife are empty-nesters (two blended, one together, all adults) on the farm they own outside Nashville.

“We spent a nervous night in an Atlanta hotel on our honeymoon, while her mom kept the kids,” said Hiatt. “Being in love without the kids is different. And now we are moving to the city.”

Standing in the pasture, overlooking the hills and meadows of the country, Hiatt said he feels every bit the unclassifiable loner.

“I am not easy to get to know,” says Hiatt.

“I put up walls and keep to myself. I’ve been fortunate to have people who showed up in my life, who have led me along, whether I wanted it or not. I guess I was sick and tired of being lonely all the time. Willingness is about all you need in order to open up a little bit.

Trust implies risk, though. The fact is that you can trust and be let down — that’s part of the package. The truth is that I’ve let people down and will continue to let some people down.”

American Master

One thing Hiatt hasn’t done is let the listener down or fail to scratch at the spirit. From opening to close on one of his most recent albums, Terms of My Surrender, he richly evokes frustration, self-critique, sadness, regret, anxiety and, at times, disagreement.

“When the moon is rising

and the night is still

Some of my delusions have the power to kill

Scared I’ll get what I deserve

Or maybe scared I won’t.”

The album transmits the faintly haunted sound applicable to a man who has survived not only alcoholism, drug abuse and recovery, but the suicides of his second wife and an older brother. Hiatt’s square, clear vocals tap into the realization that a full life will be full of pain.

Rich in its wholeness, trustworthy and distinguished in its sincerity, the 11-track offering is robustly alive, meaningful and significant, an essential piece to the musical chess board of an American master.

Is there weariness? Are his critical faculties touching and convincing? Does this personal approach stir a raw reaction? Yes, yes, yes.

Indeed, nothing that’s real ever eludes Hiatt.

“It’s all a lifelong learning curve, and it’s steep,” said Hiatt. “I’ve walked through the fire...and only the song survives, right?”

John Hiatt performs alongside Lyle Lovett February 6, 2019 at the Wilma Theater in Missoula and February 7, 2019 at the Alberta Bair Theater in Billings.

—Brian D’Ambrosio

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