September 5, 2008

Hiatt Not Letting Age Get in His Way

By Kathaleen Roberts Journal Staff Writer

John Hiatt teetered at the edge of stardom for so long, you couldn't blame him for feeling just a tad resentful.

His songs have been turned into hits by artists ranging from Eric Clapton and B.B. King to Bonnie Raitt and Buddy Guy, Roseanne Cash and Willie Nelson.

"People ask that all the time, but no," Hiatt said in a telephone interview from a tour stop in Rochester, N.Y. "You can't imagine what a thrill it is when somebody cuts a song of yours and you hear it on the radio.

"If I was in my 20s and chasing a hit, I'd have been lying," the 56-year-old songwriter continued. "There were times when if I had that kind of success it probably would have been harmful -- I was so crazy."

Hiatt and the Ageless Beauties will perform at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Santa Fe Brewing Company.

His latest album "Same Old Man," released in May, is less a meditation on aging than a collection of love songs, he said. Many of the songs emerged from empty nest syndrome as Hiatt's youngest daughter, Georgia, 20, left home. "Love You Again," sung with his 24- year-old daughter, Lilly, is key.

"She sings so well on it," Hiatt said. "It's kind of the point we were at; the kids were gone -- it was that period -- the kids were grown, and it's like, who are you again? We went through kind of a rough period for a year or so. Some second chances had to be given. It's more about me and my wife. Letting go of the last kid was not easy. It was like, 'Wait, don't go --we don't know who we are without you,' and she's going, 'Screw you,' " he added, laughing.

Hiatt has often used personal turmoil to fuel his creativity. He turned to writing after a traumatic Indianapolis childhood; within a two-year span, his father died and his older brother committed suicide. He chased fame and fortune by working his way up from a $25- a-week staff songwriting job in Nashville. As he descended into the final throes of alcoholism in 1985, his estranged wife committed suicide, leaving him a single parent to the then 1-year-old Lilly.

Hiatt's raspy yowl has often been compared to Bruce Springsteen. His songwriting melds heartland rock, blues, folk and a countrified swing in melodic storytelling, often with an ironic twist, that has been compared to short story auteur Raymond Carver. Often sprinkled with outrageous rhymes like "And baby you know you ain't no Queen of Sheba.../But baby, we can choose you know/We ain't no amoebas" on "Thing Called Love." Hiatt will be honored by the Americana Music Association with its prestigious Lifetime Achievement in Songwriting Award on Sept. 18.

Hiatt penned most of the songs on "Same Old Man" in his "writing room/race car shop" in the home he shares with his wife, Nancy, outside Nashville.

"I think we recorded 16 songs for this," he said. "You just kind of find the ones that fit together."

The title song features the indelible lines "A few less brain cells/A lot less hair/Honey tell me you still care."

Hiatt says he really doesn't feel old; the word refers to the old hippie incarnation of the phrase.

"I guess people kind of misunderstood," he said. "I'm not old; I'm like 12 -- maybe 17.

"Although my wife bought me one of those WiiFit (exercise game) machines. My WiiFit age is 66. It's lying."

Experience hasn't made songwriting any easier, he said.

"I guess I just want to write stories, and my mind gets mushy; that's what I hate," he said. "It gets slack. I just have a harder time holding onto things. It's no easier to write, that's for sure. Every time I do, it's like the first time."

Hiatt's songwriting career started almost from the day he picked up the guitar at 11 or 12. He tried formal lessons but got frustrated when his teacher tried to teach him to read music one note at a time. So like all good rockers, he bought a chord book and taught himself. His first song was inspired by a classmate named Beth Ann.

"She had developed a little bit further than the other girls," he explained.

Although he may be a bit mature to write about girls and cars, he still starts with the guitar.

"You just sit down and start playing," he said. "Sometimes I'll have a lyric idea, but not often. I get a chord progression or a melody to go against it. Usually, the music will evoke some sort of feeling. Then the story will come out of the feeling."

"Old Days," for instance, came from the days when he shared a manager with blues giants like John Lee Hooker, Brownie McGhee and John Hammond Jr.

"I was in my 20s," he said. "It was like going to school. All these little stories are true; Brownie really did drink Dewar's whisky with milk.

"He was not a happy camper," Hiatt continued. "He was a wonderful man, but he was really bitter. He and Sonny (Terry) sat as far apart as the stage was wide. They loved each other, and they hated each other.

"I didn't know what the hell I was doing," he added. "I didn't have anything together at all. You see these guys making music and making a show of it. Even Mose Allison; he wasn't given to whoops and hollers. But the fierceness with which these men performed and the commitment ... "

Hiatt still listens to the classic performers. Sister Rosetta Tharp wails through his iPod and a Chess Records boxed set is stuffed inside his Honda Accord glove box. So far, no one that he knows of has decided to record any of his new songs.

"It's tough out there," he said. "The writing today has gotten so formulaic. They write by committee now. It's peculiar."

Those stories about Hiatt possessing a storeroom of unrecorded songs are unfounded, he said.

"If I have, I'm in trouble; I've forgotten them," he said. "I'm very disorganized. I'm not one of those guys that when he dies you're going to find fabulous stores of songs. My life's chaos. It always has been." If you go

WHO: John Hiatt and the Ageless Beauties

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday

WHERE: Santa Fe Brewing Company, 27 Fire Place

COST: $37 advance/$40 door

CONTACT: 988-1234 or

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