John Hiatt – Clear as Muddy
Hiatt also has come a long way from the days he dosed himself on so much booze and coke that he couldn’t move. An integral part of his cure was the love of Nancy, the Nashville woman who became his second wife, and the new family he formed with her stepson, his daughter by his first wife, and the daughter he had with Nancy. On what many people, including the artist, regard as his breakthrough album, Bring The Family (1987), he expressed the redemptive power of home and hearth — not with an outpouring of self-satisfaction or sentimentality, but a risky, go-for-broke intensity in asserting his perpetual need to understand the human heart and conquer his demons.
“When you have a stable environment going for you, it gives you the courage to look at yourself and put what you see into your songs,” he said. “That takes balls, creating art informed by your life. A lot of people don’t want to know who they are. When they look in the mirror, they look past themselves. But what are the tough times good for it not to learn something, if only that you don’t know shit?”
Bring The Family came at a crucial juncture for Hiatt. After discovering he had been dropped by Geffen following his move east, he considered selling the publishing rights to his song catalog. The people who administered his publishing convinced him to retain control, and Bug Music fronted the downpayment on his Nashville home. Subsequently, he was asked to record an album for England’s upstart Demon label, run by Jake Rivera, who managed Costello and Nick Lowe and lent his motorcycle to Hiatt for the cover of Riding With The King (1983).
The budget was small. For what he thought would be a throwaway album, Hiatt drafted John Chelew, who had booked him as a solo act at McCabe’s, a Santa Monica guitar store and club, as producer. Determined to capture the edginess of Hiatt’s live performances, Chelew assembled the dream band of Lowe, Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner, with whom Hiatt would go on to record and perform (and tangle) as Little Village. With Cooder departing from his usual eclectic approach to play killing rock ‘n’ roll slide guitar, Bring The Family soared. As on Crossing Muddy Waters, Hiatt soared in the absence of commercial fixers. Only after the album was recorded did A&M win a bidding competition for rights to it.
With Chelew again producing, Hiatt next went into the studio with a rather oddly matched all-star cast including session ace David Lindley, X’s John Doe and Fairport Convention veteran Dave Mattacks. Unhappy with the results, which struck him as too imitative of Bring The Family, he rejected them, much to Chelew’s dismay.
With old pro Glyn Johns at the helm, Hiatt recorded the more laid-back Slow Turning, including the sweetly lilting “Georgia Rae” for his younger daughter, and then the slick but winning Stolen Moments. That album boasted the buoyant “Child Of The Wild Blue Yonder” and “The Rest Of The Dream”, one of the most touching songs ever sung by a rock father. “When you couldn’t find the light at the top of the stairs/When you cried in the night/Well, you knew they were there,” Hiatt sings, signifying parental love. His ultimate promise: “The old man will come through for you.”
For all the personal and artistic strides he has made since embracing the family life, Hiatt disqualifies himself as a rehab poster boy. “I’ve been sober for 16 years, but I have all kinds of other problems,” he said. “I continue to screw up. I’m still a freakin’ nut. I remind myself of the character in those Updike novels [the Rabbit series]. I’m that guy. I’m driven by 100 forms of fear. Typical crap. I’m not good enough. I’m a fake. I take more than I give. I’m losing my hair. I’m not smart. That’s why music is my salvation. It gets me past that crap, gets me out of my head.”
His public profile has never been higher. The acclaimed “Sessions At West 54th”, on which he replaced David Byrne in the host’s chair after appearing on the show as a performer, has broadened his audience. And even for someone who has had dozens of his compositions covered, by everyone from Three Dog Night to Bonnie Raitt to Bob Dylan to Paula Abdul, having Eric Clapton and B.B. King recently remake the title track of Riding With The King as the title track of their first-ever collaboration ranked as a major coup — especially when their version took off commercially.
Never mind that the tune, which Hiatt described as a “slithery ghost type of deal,” was written with Elvis Presley in mind. When Clapton, with whom he had never spoken, called and asked him to tailor the lyrics for B.B., Hiatt tweaked the bridge, happy to trade one King for another. Having had his compositions also appear with increasing frequency on movie soundtracks including Michael and Phenomenon, he is used to letting them fall where they may. “My songs seem to walk along an edge and then fall one way or another, and I like that,” he once said in an interview. “I like being on ‘Hee Haw’, and I like the fact that Iggy Pop’s got a tune of mine on his new album.”
But Hiatt’s rising profile meant little to the new powers that be at Capitol, which, during the golden era of executive Gary Gersh, catered to distinguished singer-songwriters like Hiatt but now looks for excuses to shed them. Midway through recording his first album in a dozen years with the Goners, the Louisiana band featuring slide guitar hero Sonny Landreth, Hiatt got the cold treatment from label brass. “They said they weren’t getting it,” he recalls. “It was put at a standstill.” Not getting them, he gained control of the material and took it with him, with plans of getting it released by someone else.