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Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011

John Hiatt Taps His Earthy Side

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Looking back, it was obvious that John Hiatt was born to be a songwriter.

“The first thing I did when I was 11 and learned how to play guitar was learn two chords so I could write a song,” Hiatt recalls. “My friends were learning Jimi Hendrix riffs and I was learning chords from a Mel Bay book because I wanted to sing a song over those chords.”

Almost as soon as he figured out those few chords, Hiatt took the next step.

“I wrote a song within a month of picking up the guitar,” he says. “I was lucky. I had a couple of kids in my class who played guitars, and there were two of them that wanted to be songwriters, too. And they wrote good stuff. I was real fortunate. I had kids in my sixth-grade class and we formed a band. There was one guy who wanted to be lead guitarist, and that's where he went. There were two others of us that played chords and wrote songs. We were one of the few bands playing original songs when we were 12 years old.”

Hiatt hasn't stopped writing and playing since then, and today he is regarded as one of the great songwriters of his time.

Hiatt emerged in 1974 with the album Hangin' Around the Observatory, but serious drug and alcohol problems stalled his career as he headed into the next decade. In 1987 Hiatt returned clean and sober with a record that stands as one of the finest albums of that era, Bring the Family. It wasn't a major commercial success, though it included the original version of “Thing Called Love,” which Bonnie Raitt turned into a hit years later. The album's follow-up, Slow Turning, reaffirmed Hiatt's place among the top ranks of songwriters.

Since then, Hiatt has churned out new records about every other year. If he has never quite eclipsed Bring the Family or Slow Turning, he's nevertheless had his share of excellent efforts, including Perfectly Good Guitar, Walk On, Crossing Muddy Waters and last year's The Open Road.

His latest, Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns, returns him to the familiar territory of Crossing Muddy Waters, exploring earthy folk and blues sounds.

Songs like “I Love That Girl,” “Detroit Made” and “Train to Birmingham” set the tone with their easygoing tempos, sturdy melodies and finely honed lyrics. Hiatt also hits the mark with the ballad “Hold On for Your Love.” The song that rocks the hardest, “Damn This Town,” is the album's best, as a darkly humorous Hiatt tells the tale of a guy who blames everything but himself for his discontent.

To tap his folkier side for the album, Hiatt forged a seemingly unlikely partnership with producer Kevin Shirley. Hiatt first met Shirley roughly a decade ago, after he had been impressed by the producer's work on a remastering of Bob Dylan's Street Legal.

“I said, 'Man, this guy is great,'” Hiatt says. “I just love this guy. But for whatever reason, we didn't work together.”

The two hadn't been in touch in the intervening years, until Shirley contacted Hiatt in November.

“He said, 'Hell, I've been listening to you and I've been hearing what you're doing. I've always loved what you do. I hear what you're trying to get after and I think I can help you get there,'” Hiatt recalls. Shirley offered to meet with Hiatt in Nashville and record a song for free—a first for Hiatt, and an offer he couldn't resist.

After the test run, Hiatt hired Shirley to produce the album. Not only was Shirley adept at recording and mixing, Hiatt says, he was also great at capturing the performance from Hiatt and his band (guitarist Doug Lancio, drummer Kenneth Blevins and bassist Patrick O'Hearn), and he worked with a speed and efficiency that Hiatt still marvels at.

“These were all live takes,” Hiatt says. “We cut 19 songs in 10 days, top to bottom, done.”

John Hiatt performs at the South Milwaukee Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, Sept. 13, with opener Lilly Hiatt.