John Hiatt has long occupied a singular place among American singer-songwriters. He's an artist who twists rock and soul and blues and r&b into rhythmic shapes that echo the deep and surprising way he sees things. "I'm a songwriter, " he says, "but I'm also a guy who has to perform his own material. I write my own stuff, but it's ultimately all about music, melody, my technique. I'm always interested in sound. You've got to inhabit the right sonic space for the song to resonate with any meaning."
Motion, Hiatt says, gives him a lot of ideas. On Walk On, his outstanding debut for Capitol Records, Hiatt barrels through a tune about leaving, about heading on out even when it's not your fondest wish. Highlighted by The Jayhawks' background vocals, "You Must Go" is a deliberate rocker enervated by stinging mandolins and soothed by harmonica. It describes rambling, wandering, wondering through briars and brambles, wittily concluding that "Even when you're six feed under/There's a place/That you must go." It's a song that anchors Hiatt's new collection for a reason.
"This record has a different story from my others," he explains. By those "others" Hiatt refers to a series of albums that go from idiosyncratic '70s explorations like Overcoats and Slug Line to more rip-roaring mid-'80s excursions like Riding with the King and Warming up to the Ice Age, to the subsequent Hiatt music that refound and refreshed itself beginning with 1987's watershed Bring the Family, which sparked a trilogy of albums about masculine eccentricity and domestic responsibility... Hiatt lives on a farm in Franklin, Tennessee where he raises 3 kids, 9 horses, 5 cats, 3 dogs, and has lately taken to auto racing. Styles and subjects vary, but the songs are grounded in an articulate way of seeing both comedy and drama yoked to obsessively hummable tunes which distinguish them all. Such compositions inspired cover versions from artists as diverse as Iggy Pop, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Rick Nelson, Willie Nelson, The Neville Brothers and Rosanne Cash.
"This time," Hiatt continues, "all of the songs were written on the road. The band and I were out for about 13 months in Europe and North America. I always carry a guitar and a notebook with me (the tools of the trade are always close by) and I was bored on the road, so I started pulling them out. I rarely write on the road, but for some reason I did this time. Next thing I knew, I had this little subplot going, this drama of writing all these songs at all these tour dates. I was a wandering folk singer in my room by day, a band front guy at night."
On Walk On, a swamp groove like "Write It Down and Burned It" leads with dark, dry lines like "There's a dead girl's body/By the railroad track/she's waiting for a train," and strands a Camaro in the rain. A manic rocker like "Shredding the Document" rails against talk-show culture, refusing to take calls except "maybe from Larry King." More often, however, a kind of knotted simplicity sets the music's commanding tone. "The writing here is probably less storytelling than before," Hiatt says. "The songs are kind of folk-tellings, folk-groovers, where the language works almost as a groove in itself. They're conversational: I'm talking either to myself, to a woman, or to another guy. Much of the subject matter concerns transitions: coming to or going from somewhere, trying to get someplace, some trust being broken, some spirit you're trying to find."
The results are strong positions on emotional situations only John Hiatt can take and envision. "I Can't Wait," a vocal collaboration with Bonnie Raitt, shakes out as a soul confession where the two singers' voices give up extraordinary amounts of sensuous detail and finesse. The first single "Cry Love" unwinds and unwinds, taking concise flight over an unforgettable bed of repeating mandolin figures. "Mile High," a pretty pledge for a decidedly unpretty world, works like grunge Johnny Mercer.
Produced by the veteran rock producer Don Smith, (Keith Richards, Cracker, The Tragically Hip, Dramarama) the new album's rootsy swirl and expansiveness was originally meant to be the logical extension of Hiatt's well-rehearsed touring band. But in the end, they went into the studio with veterans Davey Faragher (bass & background vocals) and Michael Urbano (drums), and a new guitar player, "this character David Immergluck who sort of shaped the sound of the record. The wacky mandolin? It's not as though I sat down and said, 'You know what? I want to have a bunch of mandolin on this record.' It just happened that he played mandolin quite well. And then he played this wacked-out pedal steel on an early song we cut. It was unlike anything I'd ever heard anybody get from anything with strings on it."
"I've spent about 20 years developing this funny little career that kind of works," Hiatt says. "I've always moved forward, albeit slowly. But with this period in my life, I've come to a point where I really believe in what I do. I just feel like I'm so close now to more people coming to the party. I find that the older I get the more passionate I become about a lot of things. I'm getting into things I've never done before, like driving race cars for fun, you know, crazy stuff." Hiatt smiles. "I'm in a very outward time here."
John Hiatt Walk On (Capitol 33416) October 1995
Back to the SOR Archives.
Up to Unicom Systems home page.
Let us know your comments, corrections, additions, suggestions.
$Id: pr-95oct.html,v 1.7 1997/06/29 01:24:20 chip Exp $