John Hiatt doesn’t croon a love song with spit and polish any more than he writes one with generic sentimentality. But make no mistake, he is a romantic through and through.
Sure, he can be as cheery as the next love-struck guy. Listen to “Thing Called Love,” a jubilant Hiatt tune that revived Bonnie Raitt’s career more than two decades ago.
Same Old Man
(New West; US: 27 May 2008; UK: 26 May 2008)
Master of Disaster
(New West; US: 21 Jun 2005; UK: 27 Jun 2005)
The Best of John Hiatt (Millennium Collection)
(Millennium Collection; US: 16 Sep 2003; UK: 20 Oct 2003)
But with a singing voice that wears the creases of life experiences like badges of honor, Hiatt also writes about love that is often not so easily earned.
Take one of his most heralded songs, “Icy Blue Heart,” beautifully covered in the late ‘80s by Emmylou Harris, among many others. The tune’s barroom come-on and its subsequent rebuff (“his beer was warmer than the look in her eye”) eventually find a crack in almost impenetrable romantic isolation.
And on “Same Old Man,” Hiatt’s most recent album, “Hurt My Baby” embraces new love even as past romantic battle scars heal.
But if any contemporary writer has truly discovered true love by traveling a troubled road, it’s Hiatt. By the time he was 12, Hiatt, an Indianapolis native, had to deal with the suicide of his older brother and the extended illness that eventually killed his father.
After tenures in Nashville and Los Angeles, when his songs were being covered by artists as varied as Three Dog Night and Rosanne Cash, Hiatt became ensnared in alcohol and drug addictions. His estranged second wife killed herself in 1985.
By 1987, Hiatt had kicked his addictions, resettled in the Nashville area, married his third wife, Nancy, and released the breakthrough album that renewed his career, “Bring the Family.” The record’s warm references of love, redemption and overall domestic bliss have carried over into a string of remarkably consistent albums that hit an even dozen with the release last fall of “Same Old Man.”
“You know, I kind of signed up with the idea that writers are supposed to write about what they know,” Hiatt said in a recent phone interview. “Not that I know any damn thing about love. But I came from a place of such despair back when I was an addict and alcoholic. I was freakin’ out of my mind. To come from that into putting a family together with a woman who cared for me and who I cared for, and now being with her for 23 years ... it is a continual source of inspiration. And so that just seems to be what I’ve decided to write about.
“Love’s a different thing when you’re 30 than when you’re 40. And now, at 56, there is a whole other difference to it. The kids are grown (Hiatt’s daughter from his second marriage, Lilly, provides harmony vocals on “Same Old Man”). There is just a whole other thing to it that you don’t hear much about in songs. So I’m happy to cover that beat.”
Hiatt’s onstage partnership with Lyle Lovett has coincided with much of his personal and creative renaissance. The two began playing as a duo relatively recently, but they began touring alongside two other esteemed Lone Star songwriters, Joe Ely and Guy Clark, as far back as 1989.
Lovett, it could be argued, is a bit of a romantic himself. One of his seminal works, “L.A. County,” details a man who guns down a former lover on her wedding day - at the church, no less.
“He is a great writer,” Hiatt said. “Very precise. His songs are sometimes askew, sometimes dark. But they’re always very human.
“We have a great time together. And I think audiences dig the whole looseness, the stories and just the whole un-showlike quality of what we’re doing.”
Outside of a few more weeks of touring with Lovett in October, Hiatt plans to stay off the road for the rest of 2009. It will be his first extended break from touring in nearly 15 years.
Hiatt won’t be entirely idle during that time, though. He is at work on a follow-up to “Same Old Man” in his garage studio. But recording with his touring band will be done at his own pace, with no pressure or deadlines.
“I sort of set the scenario,” he said. “We’re all in the garage. We’ll say it’s the garage mom reluctantly decided to let us practice in. After a while, she comes out and tells us to turn the music down. We’re all really excited, but we’re not very good. But we really love and really care about what we’re playing.
“That’s sort of what we’re going for.”