By Rick Coates
John Hiatts musical career has woven its way through several musical genres over the past 36 years including rock and roll, blues, new wave, country and folk. As a songwriter his tunes have been covered by Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, Paula Abdul, Iggy Pop, Jimmy Buffett, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson and Keith Urban, to name a few.
Despite being a hit-maker for others, Hiatt has never achieved the mainstream status of the many who have recorded his songs. He has been labeled The American Elvis Costello, and often draws comparison to Bruce Springsteen by musical critics. The unassuming singer/songwriter has found his own way to hang on to a musical career that includes 19 albums and legions of dedicated fans.
Hiatt will headline the 30th Annual Blissfest this weekend, performing on the main stage Saturday night. It will be his first visit to Bliss and he is looking forward to it.
We have played Northern Michigan before but never Bliss; (Ive) heard a lot of good things about this festival and we are honored that they have asked us to be a part of the 30th festival, said Hiatt. We can be pretty blissful so I am sure we will fit in.
He and his band plan to get a little golf in and enjoy some of the festival as well. Hiatt is out touring in support of his latest CD The Open Road. One might be under the impression that the album about life out on the road touring, but Hiatt says it goes beyond that.
On one hand it is about my life touring because that is what I have been doing for the past 26 years, said Hiatt. But these songs are about experiences I have had along the way. The songs are more about looking for the open road and seeing what happens.
Hiatt is not known for concept albums, so is this his first?
No I do not believe in concept or theme albums, said Hiatt. If it seems like a theme album, it is purely by accident.
With songs like the title track, Haulin, Like A Freight Train, and Movin On there is a common thread to the CD Open Road. All of the major music publications have ranked this work among some of the best in Hiatts career, giving the CD a four and five star rating.
His songwriting talents are known throughout the industry, but Hiatt chuckles when people suggest he is a master at his craft.
I would describe my songwriting approach as pretty lazy. I wish I was as dedicated as guys like Bob Seger who head off to their studio everyday and write, said Hiatt. I am just casual about it. I built this writing shed on my property that is now a studio and whenever I get a hankering I make my way there.
BUNCH OF NONSENSE
So what approach does one of the best songwriters of the past 30 years take to create his masterpieces?
I start playing around on the guitar until I get a melody and chords that I can connect to, said Hiatt. Then I start jotting down a bunch of nonsense. After awhile there is usually a line or two from all that nonsense that I can use. So that is how I write a song.
With so many others recording his songs, does Hiatt set out to write music for others?
No, I write songs for me. People have asked me to write songs for them, but I am not that kind of writer, said Hiatt. So what happens is people hear one of my songs and since it has been recorded, they dont have to ask my permission, they just have to pay me royalties so often I dont know when someone is going to record one of my songs. It is kind of amazing to think that Bob Dylan is listening to my CD and then records my song, The Usual. I have been fortunate to have written songs that have connected with other artists. That was never my intention, it just happened.
Is there one song that has been covered that is his favorite?
It is hard to say, Have Little Faith In Me recorded by Joe Cocker and so many others stands out, said Hiatt. That song has held up through the years and through many interpretations.
Hiatt has connected with so many musical genres his music is often hard to label.
Oh not really, just call it American roots rock, said Hiatt.
Having faced several personal tragedies in his life from divorce, alcoholism, and having his second wife commit suicide, Hiatts life of the past 23 years has played out better. He is happily married, alcohol-free and carrying the American songwriting laureate torch passed to him from Dylan.
Hiatt often finds himself performing on late night talk shows. David Letterman, a big fan, had Hiatt on a couple of months ago to debut the title track from The Open Road. He is also much in demand at venues throughout the country. Hiatt says he loves touring, and unlike many of his music colleagues he still prefers the tour bus.
I dont know how these guys do it, the ones who fly from gig to gig. I know the big names have private jets but the others that fly commercial. I find airports exhausting, said Hiatt. I prefer the tour bus, it is relaxing and you get to see the landscape. I arrive at each show relaxed and ready perform. I dont see that happening trying to fly to every gig.
Now in his late 50s Hiatt has no plans of slowing down.
I feel very fortunate to have music choose me. I really believe that I didnt choose this. it chose me. As long as people keep coming to the shows and feel a connection to my music, I am going to be out there. I love the road, the open road and performing. It is what I do; it is really all that I know how to do.
John Hiatt and his band will trek across the open road of Canada some 700 miles to arrive at Blissfest. They will perform Saturday night on the main stage. For a complete list of performers, to get information on tickets for the 30th Annual Blissfest go to www.blissfest.org