John Hiatt settled in Nashville for the second time in 1985, leaving California in the wake of his wife’s death and a career that seemed headed nowhere. So, on the 25th anniversary of that auspicious move, he could be expected to offer an album about settling down on the farm with his wife and kids. Instead, the infinitely clever singer-songwriter will be “chewin’ up the road like biscuits” — to quote a lyric on his new album, The Open Road.
Hiatt says the title track was the first one he wrote for the sessions, setting the tone for the rest of the album. “It has that sense of desperation,” he says during an interview in his manager’s office, “that restlessness that we all have. I like the chorus: ‘The open road where the hopeless come to see if hope still runs.’”
Clearly, it does. Just a few days earlier, Hiatt warmed up his touring band with a small showcase at a Nashville club — “just to shake it out,” he says. “It’s a really formidable quartet. The older we get, the more we seem to enjoy playing together. There’s just something about this band. It’s got that elusive thing that you look for in small groups where you tend to hear the things that aren’t playing. And I hear that with this band.”
In a live setting, the ensemble has no shortage of material. Hiatt’s most prominent writing credits are “The Thing Called Love,” “Have a Little Faith in Me,” “Angel Eyes,” “Riding With the King,” “Drive South” and “Slow Turning.” In the late ’80s and early ’90s, country artists such as Emmylou Harris and Ronnie Milsap were clamoring for his material and Rosanne Cash won a Grammy for “The Way We Make a Broken Heart.” In 1987, he released his landmark album, Bring the Family, which finally realized the potential he showed in 1971 as an 18-year-old songwriter fresh out of Indiana.
He and a buddy drove down to Nashville in a ’62 Corvair that cost $35. (“It burned about as much oil as it did gas. It had no floorboards in it.”) Hiatt found a humble place to live on Music Row and hustled for a publishing deal. He says his homemade cassette demo with him playing every instrument didn’t impress anyone. Thus, during a meeting at Tree Publishing, he pretended he didn’t even have a demo and asked if he could just perform his songs on the spot. Larry Henley, one of the writers of “Wind Beneath My Wings,” offered him $25 a week, and Hiatt’s career as a professional songwriter began in earnest.
“I’d spend as much time in there as I could with all those demos, these crazy songs that nobody had any use for,” he recalls. “Hundreds, but you know, I was learning how to write. I didn’t know that I was among these amazing songwriters. … Man, there was Bobby Braddock, Curly Putman and Red Lane, these guys who were churning out these great classic songs like ‘D-I-V-O-R-C-E’ and ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ and ‘Green Green Grass of Home.’ And here was a kid from Indiana who didn’t have a clue, writing these personal, really bad navel-gazing songs. But just being around the stuff, hopefully, some of it rubbed off.”
That knack for classic country wordplay reveals itself in many of Hiatt’s tunes. Take, for example, this line from “When We Ran,” recorded by Linda Ronstadt: “Besides the buttons on our shirts, darling, what else did we leave undone?”
“As a writer, you are always looking for a cool line,” he says, “but I kind of look for them less and less these days. I’m more interested in trying to catch a feeling instead of a clever hooky line. But when they do come … .”
Hiatt’s career since Bring the Family has proven fruitful. “The Thing Called Love” was a cornerstone of Bonnie Raitt‘s Grammy-winning album, Nick of Time. (It also became the name of a movie about aspiring songwriters in Nashville.) With guitarist Ry Cooder, bassist Nick Lowe and drummer Jim Keltner, he formed a short-lived band called Little Village in 1992.
Hiatt spoke directly to music geeks with “Perfectly Good Guitar” and earned Grammy nominations for his albums Walk On and Crossing Muddy Waters. Keith Urban recorded “Slow Turning” as a bonus track on some editions of Love, Pain and the Whole Crazy Thing. (“How cool is that?” Hiatt says proudly.) In 2008, he joined the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and accepted a lifetime achievement award for songwriting from the Americana Music Association.
Already this year, he’s completed a European tour and the Cayamo songwriters cruise — the latter being a positive experience he refers to as “a floating Branson,” because the audience can’t really escape the music, nor would they probably want to. He’s asked if playing in front of people, rather than just composing and recording demos like some Nashville songwriters, has changed the way he writes.
“You know, I have never really thought of that, but it must, in terms of getting a reality check on what the hell it is you’re writing,” he says, laughing. “It definitely is a gut check — ‘Are these songs really connecting with anybody?’ For sure you’re taking it to the people and not necessarily to the biz folks or the radio programmers or whoever. Of course, you have to have a record that somebody will spin, for people to hear, so that’s very important. But once you take it out and play it, it tells you something.”
Asked if he often meets musicians who don’t really care for the open road, Hiatt lets out a big laugh. “You know, Little Village wasn’t exactly a touring band. That was part of what put an end to it. A couple of guys liked it OK and a couple not so much.”
He seems to like it, though, right?
“Oh, yeah! I love it,” he confirms. “For me, writing songs, then recording them, then going out and playing them is sort of the natural progression. I’ve always done that. The big payoff is to go out and play them.”