By Barry Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch


From left, Kenneth Blevins, John Hiatt, Sonny Landreth and David Ranson

August 28, 2003

When John Hiatt takes the stage at the Pageant on Wednesday night, listen for the aural equivalent of a gourmet sauce.

Because, the singer-songwriter says, the musical goal is "distilling this thing down to its simplest form."

"It's like in French cooking," he says by phone during a tour stop in Baltimore earlier this month. "It's the perfect sauce, the reduction, the sublime, the one taste that makes you go whooooooaaaa. As in everything, simple is not easy, but simple is the thing. That's what we're always shooting for, to hit that one chord, the killer thing."

Hiatt, 51, says he likes it when the music's messed up "in a very human, direct way. I'm not the guy that gets the model and can have (just) one drink and live a perfect life. It's the struggle. When I catch a sliver of that, it's good. But it's hard to do."

Hiatt and his band the Goners -- slide guitar virtuoso Sonny Landreth, drummer Kenneth Blevins and bassist Dave Ranson -- are touring behind their new CD, "Beneath This Gruff Exterior," which was recorded live in the studio in only eight days.

It's Hiatt's 18th album, in which he deals with turning 50 and observes other family mileposts, such as taking his daughter to college. Few artists can write about happy times and familial bliss without piling on the goo or resorting to cliche. But Hiatt pulls it off.

"It's tough to do, it's hard to do," he says. "I guess what rescues a cliche is when it's heartfelt. I think a simple melody played by Coltrane can move you, but played by Kenny G it's another kettle of fish. It's kind of like that. When you mean it, it's recognized."

Hiatt will have been off for a couple of weeks when he comes to St. Louis to begin a new leg of a tour he's sharing with blues man Robert Cray. Hiatt and Cray each play for about an hour and a half and take turns opening the show.

While Hiatt and Cray might have different constituencies, Hiatt doesn't see a big problem with the pairing.

"I guess there are sort of sections that come for us and sections that come for Robert, for sure, but they seem to get along," he says. "It's not like liberals and conservatives. I don't think we're that far apart."

In a sense, Hiatt has had two careers. Beginning in 1974, he made albums that nobody bought. Later, starting with "Bring the Family" in 1987, he blossomed as a performer and finally made the charts.

But even during the lean years, which were marked by addictions and depression, other artists recorded his songs. In fact, more than 50 artists -- from Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt to Rosanne Cash and Paula Abdul -- have covered his tunes, and a trio of tribute CDs are in the racks. Songs that made a splash for other people include "(Thing Called) Love" by Raitt, "She Loves the Jerk" by Rodney Crowell and "She Don't Love Nobody" by Nick Lowe.

Hiatt says he was "fortunate that, when I was starving as a performer, I was always on somebody's payroll. I either had a record deal or a publishing (songwriting) deal, so I had someone believing in me, and I'm forever grateful for that."

When he was 18, he moved from his hometown of Indianapolis to Nashville, Tenn., and got a deal with Tree Publishing that allowed him to "write songs every day for five years -- for 25 bucks a week. It was a great thing for me."

Hiatt today is a mass of tics and motion on stage. He has a rubber face. His eyebrows jump, his eyes bug out, his lips gyrate like a slinky. He yips, and he moans. And he never loses touch with the audience. But it wasn't always that way.

"I spent '76 and '77 (after the Nashville songwriting job) on the coffeehouse circuit and played a lot of colleges, a couple of hundred dates a year, and learned how to be a performer," he says. "It was very painful. I had no performing skills. I'd sit on a chair, and I couldn't even look at the audience, I was so scared."

Next, Hiatt moved to Los Angeles and got his first record deal. Unfortunately, he says, his drug and alcohol habits "kicked into high gear. From '77-84, I was trying to make music but I had those nasty habits constantly undermining any forward progress I was making.

"I was basically dying," he says. "I had word from the doctor, I was 31, that if you keep it up, you'll be dead by 40. And that didn't sound like a bad deal. Because by then I couldn't get drunk, I couldn't get sober, I couldn't get high. That's how far I'd gone -- nothing was working.

"Ultimately, I couldn't stand the guy in the mirror, that's really what it came down to. I was so overcome with self-loathing that I had to do something or give up. That was sort of the moment when I chose life."

Hiatt says he nearly found his voice in 1983 with "Riding With the King." The title song was a hit recently for B.B. King and Eric Clapton.

"But I couldn't sustain it because I was so screwed up," he says. "But then I got sober, and 'Bring the Family' was the fist time I was present and accounted for when we made a record."

Earlier in his career, he'd recorded in the styles of music that he liked during those periods: power pop, new wave, LA bands like X and the Plimsoles. But on "Family," Hiatt recorded with slide master Ry Cooder, in whose band he'd played rhythm guitar for a couple of years; bassist Lowe, whose work with Dave Edmunds and Rockpile helped to define rootsy pop; and drummer Jim Keltner. Together they produced a stew of folk, country, blues and rock that has kept Hiatt on a roll ever since.

Hiatt also has suffered from depression for many years. But he deals with it, physically with medication and emotionally with the humor and honesty that are the trademarks of his songs.

"I'm comin' out, babe, I'm outin' myself," he laughs when asked about it.

"It's a tough thing. I got diagnosed 12 years ago, and, along with my alcohol and drug addictions, it's another thing I have to deal with. They've got all these wonderful medications now, but it's tricky. They'll work for a couple of years and stop. So you've gotta regulate it, and that's no fun. Every few years I kind of fall apart and have to be put back together again."

In "Uncommon Connection," Hiatt sings: "It takes every drop of energy just to run my brain/Took a long time to learn that it's only a waiting game/Some people call it depression/I call it a song."

He laughs again when that line is quoted back to him, and he's asked about depression's role in the creative process:

"Well, you never know where the songs are coming from," he says. "I've been writing so long I don't even think about it anymore. I don't consider the creative process as something I'm fortunate enough to have happen to me. All I know is that, if you get around a guitar or piano and start playing, something is liable to happen.

"When a song comes, I'm grateful," he says, laughing. "It's kinda like sex these days."

"Bring the Family" also was a turning point because it led Hiatt to Landreth, a Louisiana slide guitarist who has a distinctive rhythmic style and sound.

"Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel put me on to Sonny when I was looking for a band to tour (behind) 'Bring the Family,' so I needed a great slide-guitar player. Sonny came up and played with me in Nashville and just blew my mind."

So many artists have covered Hiatt's songs, it stands to reason he'd have a favorite.

"My recent one is on that little tribute album ('It'll Come to You: The Songs of John Hiatt'), the one of Buddy and Julie Miller doing 'Paper Thin,' and Patty Griffin doing 'Take It Down' -- that's really chilling," he says.

According to the All Music Guide, Hiatt's "Have a Little Faith in Me" has been covered by musicians as diverse as British rocker Joe Cocker, jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, modern popster Jewel, jazz diva Chaka Kahn, Texas roadhouse rocker Delbert McClinton and country mainstay Kenny Rogers.

"It's the funniest little song," Hiatt says. "Everybody knows it, but it's never been a hit."

The newest version of "Faith" -- and this really cracks him up -- is by teen dance-pop wannabe-diva Mandy Moore. It is likely to be the first single from her next album, "Coverage," scheduled for release in October.

"She could be the one to bring it home!" Hiatt cackles. "I'm rooting for you, Mandy!"