We're All Doing Just a Little Bit Better Thanks to John Hiatt
Joanna Colangelo - Music journalist
Somewhere on a two lane state road where speed limits are a suggestion, about 150 miles from Phoenix and 300 miles from Albuquerque, "We're Alright Now," the leadoff track to John Hiatt's 23rd album, Mystic Pinball, is blasting through my car. Each time I try to let the album play through onto the second song, I can't help but hit the repeat button -- over and over again. It's not long until I've memorized the first few verses and the chorus. The volume has now well overpowered my own voice, and weaving between the rolling meadows and red rock mountains, I sing the chorus -- a hypnotic, energizing and inspirational anthem of rebirth and reassurance, reminding us to once again, have a little faith in ourselves, each other and times to come.
The song is ultimately a simple one: the drums drive its roaring heartbeat tempo, and the Nashville-twanged garage guitars hold it together with a looping pulse. But, it's up to the audience to round out the sound -- to clap our hands, stomp our feet and sing along:
We're alright now.
Got a love so strong.
Baby, we're alright now,
Even when it's wrong.
So, won't you stay with me tonight?
We'll cry some tears and sing some songs.
Honey, it's alright now.
All those battle days are gone.
And, just like that, after almost 40 years of recording music, John Hiatt has done it again. He has written a hit song, so relevant, so melodic, so universal, so human that it hooks deep within the listener's soul and takes you on a musical journey into the beautiful world of John Hiatt -- a world of love, heartbreak, hope and rebirth that we have come to understand, embrace and even anticipate, with each new record.
I eventually did allow myself to move on and listen to Mystic Pinball in full. As one of the most prolific contemporary songwriters recording today, John Hiatt continues to astound and humble the creative process by releasing albums, almost on an annual basis, that stand distinctly on their own and relevant to their own moment. Mystic Pinball is no exception; it paints its creator, yet again, as one of the true, authentic, romantic American troubadours, who may just be one of the few still thriving in a dying breed.
There's a certain comfort and familiarity with Mystic Pinball -- a sense that these songs tell the stories of the everyday folks whom John Hiatt has met during his 40 years on the road. "I Just Don't Know What to Say" and "Blues Can't Even Find Me," are lonely and heartbreaking with the gentle melodies to follow; "One of Them Damn Days" is a swinging blues bad-boy-good-girl standard, sure to catch you grinning amid the "unrelenting haze" of the scratchy-voiced narrator. And, yet, as diverse as these stories and songs may seem, they are rooted in what John Hiatt does so well; they are ingrained in the universal foundation of relationships -- friendships and otherwise -- and our collective soul journeys to explore them.
Until this past Saturday night, I had often wondered how John Hiatt could write with such frequency -- how he could churn out these musical tales with such authenticity and apparent ease. But then, my southwestern voyage brought me to the Crescent Ballroom in Phoenix, where he and his band of southerners were sampling songs from Mystic Pinball and taking requests for old classics -- "Crossing Muddy Waters," "Feels Like Rain," "Slow Turning," and "Memphis in the Meantime."
With a smile that never broke and an audience cooled by mist machines in the midnight desert heat, John Hiatt played with the enthusiasm, excitement and honor of what seemed like his first paying gig -- like playing music was a gift not to ever be taken for granted, and we were unexpected witnesses to a dreamer's dream come true. He can write these songs because less than writing about the everyday folks, John Hiatt, himself, is the everyday folk, and in him, we, as the audience, find an approachable, humble, traveling companion -- an old friend -- with whom we can roll down the car windows, sing songs off key and celebrate the simple joys, love and even heartbreak, of life.
Mystic Pinball will be released on New West Records on September 25, 2012.
Peter Cooper On Music: John Hiatt's passion hasn't dimmed
Posted on September 8, 2011 by Peter Cooper
It's supposed to get harder.
Not at first, when a fledgling songwriter is struggling to understand the intricacies of melody and meter, and working to pack away enough life experience to find something valuable and wise to say. It's supposed to get easier from there, for a while.
But after that, creation is supposed to become labored. Think of your longstanding favorite recording artists. Isn't the latest album the one with the songs that send folks in the crowd to the concession stands?
Isn't "I prefer his earlier work" the norm?
What's your favorite Rolling Stones record? Let me guess. ... It's not A Bigger Bang. (A note: Released in 2005, A Bigger Bang has some phenomenal songs on it, including "Rough Justice." But it's not your favorite. Beggars Banquet, from 1968, is.)
"How much longer can my brain set itself on fire?" sings John Hiatt, the Music City Walk of Fame member who has been writing and performing searing works of merit and consequence since before he arrived in Music City, 40 years ago.
Valid point, the fire deal. Most of us have a few go-to stories we can tell. Hiatt has hundreds of those stories, and they all need to rhyme, and to entertain, and to have moments of surprise and open-heartedness. Hiatt just turned 59, and at some point you'd think he'd run out of subject matters or out of initiative. Out of can-do or want-to. He's written about ne'er-do-wells and lucky ones, about cars (stolen and unstolen), about Elvis Presley and Ronnie Milsap and John Lee Hooker, about losers who win and winners who lose. He's written songs recorded by Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, B.B. King, Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, Rosanne Cash, Linda Ronstadt, Aaron Neville and so many more.
He's been a voice of reason, a voice of passion and the voice of animated animal Ted Bedderhead of Disney movie The Country Bears. (I think that's the only one of Hiatt's recorded vocal performances I haven't heard.)
And he figures he can go on setting his brain on fire indefinitely.
"She's sizzling as we speak," he says. "The work is just what I do. It's my habit of being. I still get grateful when I pull one down. Like, thanks to whatever power that be."
A Nashville icon
At this point, of course, the audience comes to him, whenever he chooses to leave his Williamson County home. (He moved back to the area in 1985; because Nashville "felt like home.")
Saturday night, audience members will file into one of Hiatt's favorite halls, Nashville's historic Ryman Auditorium, and they'll witness a Hiatt set that will include longtime favorites such as "Tennessee Plates," "Thing Called Love" and "Have a Little Faith in Me" along with songs from a fine new album, Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns. The new one is Hiatt's 20th studio album, and it stands with any of them.
To watch Hiatt these days is to wonder that he was ever a shoe-gazing folkie. These days, He prowls the stage, delivering the bluesy stuff in a whiskey-burn howl, shouting the rock stuff and fronting a formidable band that can turn on a dime, from ballads to bombast.
The new album opens with bombast, with a song called "Damn This Town," in which the sad sack narrator stews over his fate, proclaiming a noisy exit without ever going anywhere, bolted to the chair like Hiatt onstage before that Denver night. Hiatt burned that character out of his brain after coming up with an insistent guitar riff.
"I had that riff, and kept singing nonsense over it," he says. "The first line just popped out: 'They killed my brother in a poker game/ Damn this town, I'm leaving.' And that's all I needed to jump in and take a trip. Now, we've got conflict. The guy's restless and irritable and he's ready to blame everyone and everything, but he never leaves, for reasons we don't really know."
Hiatt has been that guy at times, but not in a long while. He's a settled kind of fellow; It has been a long time since his voice's whiskey burn involved actual whiskey. In his Nashville years, he has gone from wild-eyed young buck to esteemed elder.
"I think I got old, is what you're trying to say," he says to that notion. "There's really nothing to becoming an elder statesman. You just don't die, and you hang around."
You hang around with a flammable brain, and a peculiar state of being; you make yourself a moving target and you watch the whole thing get easier by the day.
Nothing to it.
Reach Peter Cooper at 615-259-8220 or firstname.lastname@example.org.