John Hiatt made his first record in 1974. Over the next dozen years, his songs were recorded by others and he gradually became a critic’s favorite. But he did not click with the record buying public himself. His 1987 album, Bring the Family, changed all that. Between that album and its followup, Slow Turning, his place was firmly cemented as a leading light in what would later be dubbed Americana music. Over the ensuing quarter century, he has built a solid discography that is remarkable for its consistent musical quality.
Hiatt comes to town this summer for a double bill with bluesman Robert Cray on July 26th at the Sandler Center. The two first shared the stage here at the Boathouse many years ago, and the night promises a bluesy blast of rootsy revelry, music that descends directly from the music Hiatt listened to growing up in Indianapolis.
“I used to listen to WLAC Radio from Nashville,” he has explained. “Nashville was only 300 miles south and I could pull it in at night. This would be about 1963 when I was eleven. There was a great R&B program on every night and besides hearing the soul hits of the day like Otis Redding, you'd get to hear the weird regional stuff such as Robert Knight and James and Bobby Purify. Then on Sunday night they'd have a gospel show and they'd go to a different black church every week and just broadcast the service. Those gospel shows used to scare the shit out of me…They just let it rip and that was what attracted me.”
You can hear the earthy echoes of those childhood listening habits in every note that John Hiatt sings.
“It just kind of came out that way,” he says. “I started off as a kid trying to imitate people I liked, from blues guys to folk blues, Mississippi John Hurt to Lightnin' Hopkins to Howlin' Wolf, people like that. Of course Bob Dylan and later on, Motown guys. I loved all that stuff. You start out imitating the singers you like. But then I guess you finally find your own voice. It took me a long time to find my own voice.”
But he did find a unique voice, both as a singer and as a songwriter. Bonnie Raitt’s version of “Thing Called Love” is among her classics. Suzy Bogguss topped the country charts with her take on “Drive South.” The list of performers who have covered his songs is lengthy, but he remains the finest interpreter of his own material:
“Before I got more of a fan base in the early '90s, it used to be the songwriting that paid the bills. I was lucky because I never set out to write songs for other people. I was just getting covers. Thank God 'cause we had three kids. But then I got fortunate to put out some records and to start building up a fan base. Folks started coming out to see me play.
“I was my own worst enemy. I was such a terrible drunk and addict. I think that was my number one issue. Once I cleaned up my act and got some help for that, things turned around.”
He sang it himself: “It’s been a slow turning, from the inside out; a slow turning, but you come about…”
“I try to be open to letting the song go where it wants to,” he says. “All of my favorite writing, from short stories to novels to poetry, takes a less-is-more approach. It’s a way of writing where you don’t see or hear the thought or mechanics behind it. That’s what I shoot for. It’s also important for the lyrics to ring true and say something about the real human experience. They need be something people can connect to. That’s all people really want.”
New West Records releases John Hiatt’s latest album, Terms of My Surrender, a week before he comes to Virginia Beach. Featuring his touring band, The Combo, it’s a mostly acoustic outing on which he explores lyrical themes of redemption, relationships, aging and letting go. It won’t put him at the top of the charts next to Iggy Azalea or Pharrell, but it will satisfy those who are looking for something they can connect to. And that’s all anyone can ask of a grownup songwriter.
John Hiatt and the Combo
with The Robert Cray Band
Sandler Center for the Performing Arts
July 26 – 8:00 pm
Tickets: $45.00 – 65.00