Hot Licks and Fast Cars: The John Hiatt interview

John Hiatt
Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns
New West

John Hiatt has loved racecars almost as long as he’s loved the guitar. The songwriter first picked up a guitar at the age of 11 and has had his songs covered by artists as diverse as Three Dog Night, Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt, Iggy Pop, and Bonnie Raitt. Still, he grew up in Indianapolis in the 1960s with the roar of the track in his ears and his head.

“The Indy 500 was such a big deal,” he remembers. “The whole month of May was devoted to it. My buddies and I would go out two or three times during practice weeks and then to all the qualifying matches. We were just totally enamored by the whole deal. In those days it was the all the front engine Offenhausers, but just the sound of one of those on the straightaway…” His voice trails off in a reverie of adrenaline, exhaust and decibels. “I just loved that stuff. And the race car drivers were every bit as heroic as Otis Redding or Lightning Hopkins or any of the music heroes that I had.”

Hiatt moved to Nashville at the age of 18, embarking on a songwriting and performing career that has now spanned more than four decades. Along the way, though, he’s retained a fascination for fine automobiles — he even raced cars himself for a while. So it’s no surprise that his 20th full-length album, Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns, dedicates one of its best, most rocking songs to a four-wheeled phenomenon.

“Detroit Made”, a blues-y rampage, is about the Buick Electra 225, known colloquially as a “Deuce and a Quarter”. Hiatt recalls his relationship with the car fondly, thirty years later. “When I lived out in Los Angeles, I bought one from a friend. Unfortunately, the one I owned was … this was 1983 and it was a 1972, I think, and it was beat to death. I think I paid $400 for it. It was well past its glory days.”

“But that period, at the time, the Detroit cars were like cruise ships,” he says. “They were enormous. Even in its beat-to-death state, I remember taking that car out on the interstate and you just felt like a ship’s captain. Like you were out on the high seas or something. As ragged as it was.”

Hiatt says that the song “Detroit Made” is not just about the car, but rather the sense of limitless possibility that such a vehicle can foster. “It’s about movement and the push West. I think it’s part of the American psyche,” he ventures, adding that these themes are also intertwined with conspicuous consumption. The Buick Electra 225 was one of a long line of vehicles that used more fuel than it needed. “Our journey, American’s journey started in Europe probably in the 1400s. We started running out of stuff over there and we said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to find more stuff. Go find us a new place.'”

Yet, Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns is as much about the dwindling of possibility as it is about wide horizons. Many of its songs, the dark-toned anthem “Damn This Town”, the heart-broken “Down Around this Place”, the minor-chorded strumming of “Hold on For Your Love”, describe families in crisis. The lyrics are grim, with people losing land, running into trouble with the law, retrenching, trying just to survive. The album was recorded in the spring of 2011 in Nashville, with the recession still hanging heavily over the country and filtering into Hiatt’s work. Even the album art, which shows a beautifully weathered, abandoned 100-year-old church in Adams, Tennessee, seems to speak of past glories, rather than future possibilities.

“They are tough times. That’s for sure. A lot of people are scared. I’m one of them, probably,” Hiatt says. “I get scared. I get scared about my own family, what’s going to happen next and so on and so forth. I’m sure that’s affected what I wrote about.”

Still, he bridles a little at the idea that his album is “about” the economic downturn, explaining that the lyrics come more or less instinctually and only after the music. “The music is still my number one inspiration. The music kind of dictates the melody and the melody will hopefully pry something loose that resembles a lyric,” he explains. “It’s sort of at that point, whatever’s sort of floating around in my head tends to get shaken loose. It can be anything. Something somebody said. Something I read. Something I heard. Whatever. And sometimes there’s shards of about 20 different stories that you kind of put together.”

And the music? Where does that come from? “It’s been the same since I was 11 years old. I just started playing guitar. I’d just sit down and play,” he says. “I’ve always done that. Less so when I was younger and had … was busy chasing the sideshow of it all. But certainly as I’ve gotten older, it’s just what I do every day. I pick up the guitar and play. And because I’m a songwriter, rather than a hotshot lead guitar player, [songs are] generally what comes out. I’ll get a chord structure or a little riff or something and then I’ll start singing something to it. It’s just become a habit. It’s what I do.”

Not all of the new album is downbeat. A good third of the album’s tracks are love songs, written from the perspective of a man who has been married for 25 years. Asked how it’s different, writing a love song now, Hiatt speaks movingly of long-term love. “You never know. It might end tomorrow. But so far … we’ve been committed for 25 years,” he says. “You get deeper into it. That’s about all I can say. It’s richer and richer and richer every damned year. You go through more shit together and get through it. You reach places you never thought you could reach, you know, with another person.”

Most of the material for Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns is new. However, one song, “When New York Had Its Heart Broken” was written almost a decade ago, after Hiatt found himself in New York City in September of 2001. “We were there just coincidentally. We were supposed to tape a TV show and then one or two days later play a show there,” he recalls of 9/11. “It was just so bizarre. Deathly still, of course. Awful.”

Hiatt wrote his song within a week of the terror attack, played it a few times at New York City dates and set it aside. Later he learned that his Dirty Jeans producer Kevin Shirley had also been in New York City that day, had lived there, in fact, and had spent a terrified day trying to locate his children at their downtown school after the towers fell. Shirley liked the song and urged Hiatt to record it. “I’d never recorded it and didn’t really want to. But it meant a lot to him, so I recorded it,” he says.

Shirley was part of the seasoned team that helped Hiatt record Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns. He also worked with long-time drummer Kenny Blevins, guitarist Doug Lancio and ex-Zappa bassist Patrick O’Hearn. “It’s a fantastic band,” Hiatt says. “I’ve been playing with these guys for about three years now, except Kenny. Actually I’ve played with Kenny, on and off, for 23 years. He’s a fantastic drummer from Louisiana. He’s definitely got a Louisiana approach to drums. A real, sort of … he sort of pushes the beat along rather than pulls it along.” The band recorded 19 tracks in ten days, and 11 of them made the album. “It was so fast and so organic,” says Hiatt. “That’s the way I like to work.”

The songs sound great in Hiatt’s cracked and creaking voice, yet you have to wonder, since the man’s work has been interpreted by so many other artists, whether are any he’d like to hear covered. He seems tickled by the question and spends a few seconds considering the possibilities. “Goodness gracious. Yeah, sure. Man, all of them,” he says. “‘Till I Get My Love Back’ would be a beautiful song for, oh, Emmylou Harris, for example. Or hmmm … I don’t know. ‘Adios to California’, she could do that, that song. ‘Detroit Made’, I think, would be good for some rabblerousing young fella with gasoline in his veins.”

The possibilities, it seems, are endless.