JOHN HIATT - AMERICA'S TROUBADOUR

 

Over the past three decades, John Hiatt has emerged as one of America's most inventive songwriters, covering the genres of rock, blues, acoustic, folk and new wave. As Hiatt was developing his own songwriting techniques, artists as diverse as Bob Dylan, The Everly Brothers, Three Dog Night, Iggy Pop and Paula Abdul have taken notice and covered his tunes. In the late 80's, both Jeff Healey ("Angel Eyes") and Bonnie Raitt ("Thing Called Love") hit platinum with Hiatt-penned tunes. Most recently, Eric Clapton and B.B. King chose Hiatt's "Riding with the King" as the title track for their Grammy-winning cd, and Hiatt himself was named artist/songwriter of the year at the 2000 Nashville Music Awards, as well as being nominated for a Grammy for his last cd "Crossing Muddy Waters."

A musician who has always surrounded himself with great talent including slide players extraordinaire Ry Cooder and Sonny Landreth, Hiatt recently reunited his longtime backing band "The Goners" to record his latest effort "The Tiki Bar is Open", his debut on Vanguard records. Joining Hiatt and Landreth in The Goners are bassist Dave Ranson and drummer Kenneth Blevins. The resulting effect on "The Tiki Bar is Open" is one of both raw energy and melodic charm.

A longtime collector of both vintage and oddball guitars, VG recently caught up with John Hiatt on the eve of a fall European tour supporting "Tiki Bar." Despite the entire free world being placed on alert following the recent attacks against the United States, Hiatt is going ahead with the tour to "lift people up" during these trying times.

VG: Congratulations on the new cd with The Goners. What made you decide to reunite the band after thirteen years?

JH: No real reason, but there was no reason we broke up for that matter. I just started thinking about them, and thought about wanting to make music with them again. We started recording again, and wound up having a lot of fun making the new cd!

VG: "The Tiki Bar..." is very rootsy, but has a variety of styles including straight ahead rockers, melodic ballads, and a few cosmic touches. Any particular common thread behind the new cd?

JH: There really wasn't any common thread behind writing it, since a few of the songs were already written... Once I got The Goners back together I wrote about 4 or 5 more songs, so the band really influenced a lot of it...so I guess the common thread musically is working with that band again. We have a good thing when we get together. Coming from Louisiana, they don't have the same boundaries as far as music as the rest of us. Down there, the fact that it is so multi-cultural has influenced music in so many different ways. And it definitely seems that Louisiana musicians tend to mix it all together. This serves my music well, because I work in four or five different styles.

VG: "Farther Stars" is an incredible tune... with a kind of psychedic, atmospheric double-tracked Eastern type of vibe. What inspired this one?

JH: Its all those acid trips finally paying off (laughs)...I wrote this tune about three years ago, and as far as the musical part, it was written around that repeating, underlying riff. The way we cut it, was that I showed the guys the chord changes, and while I was doing that Jay Joyce, who was the producer, as well as a musician himself, was cooking up one of his drum loops, and we started rolling tape, and what you hear is what we did. On Sonny's slide, its called a space station, a weird pedal by Roland which allows you to mix the effect. Its kind of orchestral...

VG: Going back to the early days, what got you into playing and songwriting in the first place?

JH: So many influences, really. I first picked up a guitar at age 11, a piece of junk Stella. Within 6 months, I started a band with two other kids in my school who also had started playing around the same time. Its interesting that you ask because I recently stumbled across a playlist from that period that my mother had saved. On that songlist, there was a lot of tunes by The Kingsmen (laughs), not only "Louie Louie" but their version of "Little Latin Lupe Lu" and a few others. We did some Beach Boys stuff, some Mitch Ryder. Basically a lot of white guys with black influences...

VG: Did you write your own music from the get-go?

JH: Yes, also on this early playlist were songs that I had written; one was called "BethAnn" which was about a girl in sixth grade that was sort of an early developer (laughs)!!! Something to get her attention!

VG: Do you remember the first good guitar and amp setup you had?

JH: I sure do. Within a year of starting to play, my father bought me a Gibson ES-175, single pickup from the 50's, so it was already vintage! He bought that with an ancient tiny Gibson amp with an 8" speaker, $100 the combo. And within about two years, it got stolen. That was traumatic!

VG: Do you typically prefer vintage instruments to new ones?

JH: On the acoustic side, most of the guitars that I play live are newer Gibsons. Len Ferguson at Gibson has really been responsible for them making great acoustic instruments again. One of my J45's is from the late '80's Bozeman period, and its just great. Most of the acoustic stuff I'm doing is with these newer Gibsons...

For the electrics, I've played the same one since 1983, it's a 1957 Fender Telecaster, all original except the pickups have been gone over. Nick Lowe actually gave me that guitar, and its white with a white pickguard and a maple neck. It's a great guitar...

VG: Do you have a collection and if so, what are some of your prized pieces? You had mentioned the last time we spoke that for awhile you were seeking out the old "pawnshop specials" ...

JH: I was really on a tear four or five years ago buying old low-end stuff... I've got a few old Harmonys, both a Stratotone and Meteor. These guitars have great pickups on them, the ones with a gold mesh grille underneath three chrome stripes. These pickups are real howlers! Ry Cooder uses one of these on one of his slide Strats. They just scream. Also, I've got a few old Silvertones with the lipstick tube pickups, an old Kay from the '50's that's two tone and its just like a chunk of wood in a small Les Paul shape, with just one pickup and it is also quite a howler! I've also got a Silvertone hollowbody that looks like a Country Gentleman, and its got two DeArmond pickups on it. I've got a couple of Danelectro convertibles, which I call my "kitchen table" guitars...And my main "writing" guitar is my 1947 Gibson LG-2. I didn't know until recently, but this stands for "Lady Gibson"...for the girls! So I play a "girlie-man" Gibson! (laughs)...

VG: When it comes to songwriting - how do you know when you're inspired enough to write a tune? What usually comes first... Lyrics? Music? Hooks?

JH: Its always the same process, I just sit down and start playing because I like playing, and more often than not, it leads to some kind of melody or chord changes. The songwriting process is just so ingrained in me that it just sort of happens. But I don't push it, meaning I don't sit down and try to write stuff. It comes when it comes, and sometimes I'll go a couple months without writing things. Of course when I was younger, that used to scare me, but I don't worry about it anymore.

VG: You've had everyone from Bob Dylan, who I understand was another early influence, to Paula Abdul cover your songs... What are among your favorite versions?

JH: As far as people who have covered my tunes, I have a lot of favorites. You are right in that Bob Dylan was totally a major influence...and his singing of "The Usual" was a thrill, I thought he did it really great. I liked Johnny Adams, the singer from New Orleans who died a few years ago. He sang a couple of my tunes and I thought they were great. I love Buddy Guy's version of "Feels Like Rain". I love Willie Nelson doing "Original Sin", of course Bonnie Raitt, who has done three of my tunes. I love B.B. King and Eric Clapton doing "Riding With The King"...that was really great for me.

VG: As far as on the stage vs. studio, what are you playing these days for acoustic and electric? How about amps?

JH: For the acoustic live, I use the Fishman pickup system on the Gibsons. I have for about 10 years, and I'm really happy with it. I use the little Fishman outboard preamps going direct into the board. In the studio I'm also using the Gibson acoustics, mic'd. For the microphones, I use Shure 57's for a scratchy, Rolling Stones type of acoustic sound, but we've also used Shure SM7's, Shure M49's, and old Neumanns. We also use a number of different vocal mics and we've been running a lot of them through an old RCA tube mic mixer, which looks like a piece of military gear with big knobs and one huge VU meter on it. This works great particularly with ribbon mics... what a wonderful sound! I found out about this mixer through Michael Wadd, a guy I buy a lot of old mics from. He befriended Les Paul at one point, who said that these old RCA mixers are the key ingredient in getting a great sound out of a ribbon mic.

My electric setup for live and the studio is just the '57 Tele through a reissue Vox AC-30. We did a few mods on it to help it out a bit. I love this amp, especially with the Telecaster. That great Tele midrange rhythm punch really comes through with it. I've also recently used Ampeg Rockets, but they are just not quite enough watts so we went to the AC-30.

VG: Are there any instruments you'd like to own?

JH: On man, sure. I'd love to have another 1957 Tele, and I've been on the lookout for one for awhile. It doesn't have to be perfect, I want a player. I'd like to get another just like the one I have, white pickguard on a off white body. Acoustically, I'd love to have an old J200, a buddy of mine's got a '57 tobacco sunburst one, and it just sounds incredible. And maybe another Gibson LG-2.

VG: You've been blessed to play with some amazing musicians, including Ry Cooder, Jim Keltner, and Sonny Landreth?...what drew you to them and what do you look for in a musician?

JH: For guitar players, I like working with those who play it like they're singing it. Like another voice, and Ry and Sonny are perfect examples of that. You can hear it in their playing.., it IS their voice. And of course, their rhythm based playing is most important, since my whole thing is based on rhythm. There are an amazing number of great lead guitarists who are terrible rhythm players...

VG: Ry's slide playing on "Lipstick Sunset" (1987's "Bring the Family") has got to be one of the finest on record...

JH: It is beautiful. Its funny you mention that too, because when we were listening to the playback of that song, he started criticizing himself. He said "I'm playing "Danny Boy" for Godssakes!!!" I said "Well, it sounds great, whatever the hell it is!"

VG: What event (or album) do you consider among the highlights of your career?

JH: Well, gee whiz, there are a lot. I am really proud of the number and varied types of artists who have cut my songs over the years, so that's sort of something I'm proud of. Having B.B. King and Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop and a number of others do my songs is just a great feeling. Playing with Little Village, especially making that first album "Bring The Family" with them kind of set me in the right direction in terms of how to record and a number of other ways... Being on the bill with B.B. King and Buddy Guy on the latest tour ("Lloyd's Blues Music Festival") and being able to rub shoulders with those two giant men...and they are giants in all aspects of manhood!

VG: Are there any milestones that you've yet to achieve in your career?

TG: Oh man...you know I'm not really goal oriented in that respect, I tend to just look at things in terms of chunks of time and where I'm moving and where I'm at. Right now, I feel like I'm running on all eight cylinders, and I've got a great situation with Vanguard records. We do a new deal with them each time we make a record, so I love that. We own the masters for the last few albums, so it's a new era for me in that respect, I'm really enjoying it and I've got a great bunch of people around me, a great band. What's not to love?

Right now we're finishing the B.B. King tour, picking it up after the past week (week of the terrorist attacks on America). Then we go to Europe...we feel a renewed vigor to go out and playing for people, if we can help take people's minds off of things for an hour or two, we'll be doing a good thing. We want to go out and lift people up, because they need it right now...I mean, I was in Manhattan getting ready to do a TV show that day, and it just breaks my heart to see New York in such a state. So, its had me down, but I'm trying to keep my head up and go on...as entertainers we need to go on and help keep people's spirits up.

VG: Well, congratulations on the success of your cd, and best wishes in the future.

JH: Thank you!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: East Coast guitarist/songwriter Tom Guerra is working on the follow-up to his debut cd "Mambo Sons" on The Orchard Records.



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