John Hiatt: In Conversation

Transcript of interview done in June 2022.

John Hiatt

MW: Thanks for your time today, I’ve been a fan since 1979, when I saw you open for Ian Hunter at the Berkeley Community Theatre.

JH: Right, Mick Ronson was in his band then.

MW: Yes, he was, and Nick Gilder was on the bill playing his song, “Hot Child in the City.”

JH: Yes, of course, how about that?

MW: How long has it been since you’ve toured with the Goners?

JH: We did a tour in 2018 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Slow Turning, played that record top to bottom, and some songs from Bring the Family, which are the two records we toured pretty extensively back in the late 80s.

MW: How easy is it for the Goners to slide back into form?

JH: Well, we’ll see, but it seems like, yeah, we don’t like rehearsing too much. Save it for the night. We’re kind of a weird, I don’t know, punk band, except for Sonny who’s a virtuoso, but the rest of we’re good at what we do but we just do one or two knuckleheaded things. So it seems to work.

MW: I understand from your biography that Sonny brought the band to you.

JH: He did, originally Ray Benson was the guy who called me about Sonny and he spoke of him in terms of “he’s the other slide guitar player” – he knew Ry wasn’t coming out with us so he was recommending Sonny as the other guy who could do the job and indeed it turned out to be the case.

MW: What’s your favorite cover of one of your songs, and what’s the strangest?

JH: Wow, a bunch of them. We could be here for a while. It’s hard to say, I found just as you said that I was thinking of the Neville Brothers ‘cause I love them so much and them doing ‘Washable Ink’ was kind of a thrill, but there’s been a lot of thrills, and spills and chills getting songs covered.

MW: Yeah, Bob Dylan covering you, that’s gotta feel pretty special.

JH: It was pretty nice, yeah.

MW: Do you have a favorite song of your own?

JH: Well, no, they’re like kids, you know? You don’t have a favorite child. It’s against the law, isn’t it? I love them all, they grow up and go out, and some of them excel in different ways than others, but again it’s like children, you love them all until the bitter end.

MW: Well as a father of three, I heartily concur.

JH: There you go – I’m about to be a grandpa. It will be our first. Our youngest, Georgia Rae, we’re thrilled for her, and her betrothed, Aaron, is a wonderful guy and yeah, we like them.

MW: As you head out on tour are there any songs you want to bring out that you haven’t touched in a while?

JH: Yeah, and I wanted to keep it to stuff that we recorded together. So we’re extending out to them with the exception of the first A&M album, Bring the Family, but we toured that so extensively, it feels like it’s theirs in my mind. We’re taking some songs from Beneath This Gruff Exterior, which is a record we made in 2003 together and The Tiki Bar Is Open, which we made back in 2001. Mainly drawing from those four records. And there are there are things included in those records that I haven’t played in a long time. So we’re kind of excited about that.

MW: You mentioned the Tiki Bar is Open, and the first time I heard it was at a Jimmy Buffett concert and I didn’t even quite connect it to you and I thought, did you write that with Jimmy Buffett in mind?

JH: No, I don’t often have Jimmy Buffett in mind, but that’s just me (laughs). I daresay he doesn’t have me in mind very often either. No, no, I’m just joking. I think it’s great but no, I didn’t but I was very grateful that he recorded it and he was delighted to do so and it came out just really good.

MW: Speaking of records and recordings, your most recent record is Leftover Feelings, made with the great, inimitable Jerry Douglas. A wonderful, wonderful record – any plans to follow that up and I also wondered what it was like working in RCA Studio B with that band?

JH: Studio B was a thrill. We made a really cool little documentary out of it and it’s making the rounds of the film festivals and actually getting selected in many of them, people seem to like it, but yeah, we did almost fifty shows last year with that iteration, Jerry and his band and he and I have talked about maybe going out, and doing some duo shows, so who knows? As far as making another one, you know, time will tell. I got all kinds of records I’d like to make until I can’t anymore.

MW: One of the questions I was going to ask you, with such a monumental catalog of songs is the muse harder to summon, or easier? Does having written so many songs make it easier to write more?

JH: Yeah, you know I don’t know if it’s changed that much. The biggest problem I think you have to get by is you gotta get past that guy, John Hiatt, who writes songs, you know what I mean? Maybe that’s getting easier as I get older, it’s like, so what , let’s write a song, you know, but, but I do remember when I was younger and I got a little bit of notoriety, the sort of modest career that I’ve had, you kind of get scared by your own ghost, you know? So in that respect, I think it’s easier. But they’re maybe fewer and farther between, but dammit, Jesus, I don’t think anybody’s on top of their game, so to speak right out of the gate coming out here after two and a half years of craziness. So, but that being said, I’ve almost got enough for a new record and talking about going in the studio sometime in the next six months.

MW: Any producers you’ll work with, you doing it yourself?

JH: You know, I’ve been thinking of all kind of ways. I mean I really haven’t settled. I’ve always had a home studio. When we lived out on the farm, it was a bunch of analog gear in an outbuilding that I sort of collected over the years and when we moved out of the farm in 2014, I sold all that stuff and then I set up basically a bedroom studio, but this bedroom had a closet which I turned into an isolation booth. I’m pretty into full on computer recording with the exception of a few outboard pieces, just a few analog pieces, but these plug-ins and recording systems that that have been developed over the last twenty plus years have gotten really, really good, so I could make a record right here at home, which I probably will do at some point. I don’t know what it would be, if I’ll do it acoustic, just me, a solo record, I’ve always wanting to make just a solo record. So but there’s also a couple of studios in town that I like, one way out in Pikesville, Tennessee where I made The Eclipse Sessions back in 2018. So I might go back into there and work with the McKendrees, Kenneth and Patrick O’Hearn, who played bass on a couple of my records. I don’t know. I have thought about getting The Goners back together with Glyn Johns and making a record.

MW: I imagine Let It Be inspired some of that.

JH: Wasn’t he amazing in that? And no different, no different, that’s what’s so great about him. I mean, you know, we’re no Beatles and he was a much younger man, but he was just as sort of forthcoming and easy going with us back in eighty-eight as he appeared to be on the on the Let It Be tapes. So he’s a great guy. He’s holding a lot of cards.

MW: Yeah holding a lot of cards. Now not only are you a great performer but you have given birth to a great performer, your daughter Lilly.

JH: She’s something else, man. We just went to her – they closed down this old rock and roll club here in Nashville called The Mercy Lounge after thirty-plus years, it’s unfortunate – she was there last night and I hadn’t heard her in about a year. And man, she just burned the house down. She’s got a great new band – well, the bass player has been with it for a while but the drummer and guitar player are pretty new – and she just tore it up.

MW: I was interested in knowing what it was like for you to hear her song The Imposter for the first time?

JH: I was very touched, yeah, it’s beautiful.

MW: You wrote a song for Leftover Feelings, Light of the Burning Sun, about your brother, and I wondered if your experience hearing Lily’s song and her honesty in dealing with that difficult subject informed the creation of that song?

JH: Hearing her singing about the Imposter, did that have anything to do with it?

MW: Yeah.

JH: I’m sure it did. It comes in one ear and comes out the other end a vocal or a set of guitar chord changes, that’s kind of how songs happen. But that was a song that that was I was due to write and it just took me 59 years. It just took me that long to put the story together and write it, and that’s all it was pretty much. Just telling the story of what happened. These things come when they’re due.

MW: I find it so powerful with the biography made public a lot of things that as a fan I didn’t know until I read them in that book and then listening to the song having read the biography, you’re right. It was almost like reportage in the form of a song.

JH: Yeah, it’s hard, you know, I tried it a couple of times when we were out with Jerry Douglas and it kind of goes over like a lead balloon. It’s just so dark, I guess people they don’t know what to do, which I understand.

MW: Yeah, it’s like having someone sing a William Faulkner novel or something.

JH: I don’t know, but it’s a bit dark for most folks, but I was happy to write about it because it’s stigmatized so much, you know, death by your own hand, and it happens even now, more so than we care to admit. People need to talk about that because they have had that experience, people they love, friends, family, have decided to take their own lives. So I figured I’m just going to put it out there.

MW: It’s powerful. Thank you for that, for all of the great work, the fun stuff and the serious. I remember driving from California to New Hampshire in 1987 with Bring The Family playing over and over, and my alternate cassette was Rosanne Cash’s Kings Record Store. I didn’t make the connection then.

JH: Great record, yeah, man.

MW: It helped expose your song The Way We Make A Broken Heart, and Rosanne was one of the earliest proponents of your records, covered a lot of things early on.

JH: God bless her, both she and Rodney supported me. I moved back to Nashville in 1985. I’d been in L A for a few years and I was welcomed like a prodigal son. I mean I was shocked, really, that people would even remember me, but anyway, it was very sweet and I remember she and Rodney. I was touring in Europe, we were in Italy somewhere and I get a call at the butt crack of dawn and it’s Rose and Rodney telling me that The Way We Make a Broken Heart had just gone number one on country radio. It’s still the only number one I’ve ever had, and so I was excited – a little something you can tell your grandkids, right?

MW: Well, I probably have taken up too much time. I really was excited to do this, and I hope I haven’t come off as a complete fan boy.

JH: Not at all. Nope, it’s been lovely and painless and I hope you come out and see the show.