Though John Hiatt‘s recording career has spanned the last 30 years, he did not truly receive critical acclaim until he got clean and sober and moved to Nashville where, in 1987, he recorded Bring the Family. The album was recorded in a legendary four days with some of rock’s and blues’ finest musicians: Ry Cooder on slide guitar, Nick Lowe on bass, and Jim Keltner on drums. The follow up to Bring the Family was Slow Turning, which many believe to be Hiatt’s finest album. The Goners, with an extraordinarily unique and talented slide guitarist by the name of Sonny Landreth, first worked with Hiatt on Slow Turning, then, over a decade later, on 2001’s The Tiki Bar Is Open. Hiatt has never gone wrong with a competent slide guitarist. In fact, due to the heavy dose of Delta blues in his song writing, his music seems almost barren without the whine and wail of a bottleneck on steel. In short, Hiatt’s best albums have been guitar albums. Beneath This Gruff Exterior is a guitar album.
Hiatt’s music has bordered on rockabilly, country, folk, rhythm and blues, and pop rock a la Elvis Costello and Tom Petty. But over the years, one strain has remained consistent — the funk and howl of down-home blues. As he matures, Hiatt seems to rely more and more on the blues. (Fittingly, he has recently toured with B.B. King, and on the second half of his upcoming tour he will be sharing the bill with Robert Cray.) Hiatt’s vocal on the first track, “Uncommon Connection”, a denial of growing old (Hiatt is fifty) is grumbled and mumbled, more guttural than ever, and reminiscent of old acoustic blues singers like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Son House. The song is chock full of minor profanities and wonderful Hiattisms such as “You can say what you want, I’m not gettin’ old / I’ve slowed down time and nearly stopped it cold”. Hiatt’s guitar solo is funky and bluesy. The next track, “How Bad’s the Coffee?”, is a burning guitar tune on which Landreth tears it up with his bottleneck and choked harmonics. Hiatt, once again, exhibits his lyrical genius on the chorus when he sings “So how bad’s the coffee / How good’s the pie / If you call me honey, honey, I’m gonna cry / A whole lotta sugar / A little pinch of salt / Oh, you cut my bitter with your sweet talk”. The song is an ode to the truck-stop diners of the southeastern portion of our great nation.
Hiatt’s pop sensibilities rear their not-too-ugly heads on “Nagging Dark” and “My Baby Blue”, the first single released from the album. Two songs, however, that I could do without are “My Dog and Me” a tribute to, you guessed it, Hiatt’s dog, and “Almost Fed up with the Blues”, a bluesy tune, which pretty much leaves you fed up with the blues. Unfortunately, these tracks are back-to-back and fall smack dab in the middle of the album, disrupting any flow that might have been achieved.
Luckily for us, Hiatt comes back strong with songs like “Window on the World”, which gives the listener some insight into just what makes John Hiatt tick and “Circle Back”, a song inspired by dropping his oldest daughter off at college.
Beneath This Gruff Exterior closes with a track originally recorded by Willie Nelson for his Across the Borderline album titled “The Most Unoriginal Sin”, another lyrical masterpiece. Hiatt does a lot of things well; he can sing his tail off, play a burning blues guitar solo, play piano and harmonica, even produce records, but what he does best is sum things up in a few well chosen metaphors. On the second verse of “The Most Unoriginal Sin”, Hiatt sings “At the wedding we smiled while some devil played wild violin / Soon after the chapel she offered me that apple / One bite and I was gone with the wind”. And the chorus: “Now this love is a ghost for having played host to the most unoriginal sin”.