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Arts & Entertainment

John Hiatt Returns to Music Hall Celebrating Life’s Lessons

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May 18, 2024

By W.B. King–

When Elvis Presley sang “It was on a moonlight night, the star is shining bright” on the Bill Monroe classic “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” he couldn’t have imagined the impact it would have on an unsuspecting nine-year-old boy from Indianapolis, Indiana.

“That was my first brush with rock and roll,” John Hiatt told The Hudson Independent, recalling the day his older brother brought home the 45 record, the A-side of which featured the track, “That’s All Right,” written by Arthur Crudup, which most of his peers preferred over the Monroe hit. “That incredible boogie woogie, rhythm and blues rockabilly style that was developing…I just immediately fell in love with that.”

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Around the same time, the same older brother, about 18, took a shot promoting a local show with a then well-known act, Joey Dee and the Starliters who scored a major hit with the 1961 song, “Peppermint Twist.” Actor Joe Pesci and guitar great Jimi Hendrix were members of the band at different times.

While Hiatt was too young to attend the show, describing the music as “a mix of rockabilly, East Coast doo-wop and rhythm and blues,” he still managed to be part of the action. Using discarded cardboard from his father’s laundered shirts, he drew a poster advertising the event. “I wish I still had that,” he reflected.

Boots of Spanish Leather

By age 11, Hiatt was taking guitar lessons from a man he described as an eccentric gypsy, not a typical sight in his neck of the woods. “He was [Salvador] Dali-esque with his mustache, kind of wild hair and a kerchief around his open collared shirt. He had a leather vest with a pocket watch and some sort of Spanish leather boots, you know, just really cool.”

While Hiatt is left-handed, the teacher made him play as a righty. “That’s the best thing he did for me. He was correct because all of my rhythm seems to be in my right hand. So, it worked out pretty good.”

What didn’t work out as well was learning theory — reading and writing music — which Hiatt found tedious. So, after a month of lessons, he gave the guitar his parents rented for two bucks a week back to the music shop.

“Within a month, I had convinced my mother to double my allowance for a couple of weeks so I could go buy a Stella acoustic guitar, a Harmony by another name,” Hiatt said, noting the guitar was about $30 plus tax. “I also bought a Mel Bay music book, the tablature of the day. As soon as I learned three chords, I wrote my first song.”

He didn’t have to look far for inspiration, paying homage to a pretty girl from his fifth-grade Catholic school class, Beth Ann. “The hook was, ‘Beth Ann, whoa, she’s a wo-man,’” Hiatt recalled with a laugh.

Along with his brother’s musical influences, Haitt’s mother was a gifted pianist, so music was often filling the air. “She played from sheet music. She had a good ear but didn’t play by ear…she never had the faith in herself or wanting to just let it rip.”

One of seven children, Hiatt had a father who was a traveling salesman specializing in selling avocado green, harvest gold and burnt orange themed kitchen cabinetry, which was popular at the time, He was the family’s wordsmith. He would hold court in the living room, creating wonderous stories that meshed their family with the experiences he had while stationed in Alaska during World War II, installing telephone lines. Hiatt would later pen the song, “Seven Little Indians (1990),” in remembrance of those days.

Dropping Out to Drop In

Over the next few years, Hiatt continued his self-taught musical journey that eventually landed him in Nashville, where he still calls home today. But not before dropping out of high school at 16, embarking on a road less traveled.

“I was a ne’er-do-well,” Hiatt conceded, noting that he ran with a group of friends that also weren’t interested in school, rather engaging in the sociopolitical enticements and leanings of the late 1960s. “I was a restless, irritable discontent,” he said, adding that he may have had an undiagnosed attention deficit disorder.

One stroke of fortune came when Hiatt met a fellow songwriter who was working for a publishing company in Nashville. This musician was earning $25 a week, against future earnings, just for writing songs. Hiatt was intrigued and soon earned enough money to relocate to Music City, taking his shot selling tunes on Music Row (though he admitted to not knowing much about country music at the time).

“So, when I was 18, I was knocking on national publishing company doors. I was at a boarding house, as in those days, songwriters were living right next to the publishing companies who were right next to the recording studios in Nashville,” Hiatt shared. “The country music industry was a small business in 1970, but it was easily accessible to a kid from a cornfield like me. It wasn’t as intimidating as New York or Los Angeles, so I felt comfortable and, in fact, I fell in love with Nashville.”

Working as a songwriter for Tree Life Music, where he penned hundreds of songs, Hiatt was also busy playing gigs and working with area musicians. His first album, Hanging’ Around the Observatory, was released in 1974. Three Dog Night covered “Sure as I’m Sitting Here,” which landed at number 16 on the Billboard charts. Hiatt would go on to release more than 20 albums over the forthcoming years.

Countless artists have covered Hiatt’s material, including Iggy pop (“Something Wild”), Bonnie Raitt (“Thing Called Love”), the Neville Brothers (“Washable Ink”), Bob Dylan (“The Usual”), Willie Nelson (“The Most Unoriginal Sin”), and Paula Abdul (“Alright Tonight”), among many others.

“The least expected, and possibly one of the most endearing things, is the difference in the artists who have recorded my songs,” said Hiatt who has been inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, received the BMI Troubadour award as well as a lifetime achievement in songwriting from the Americana Music Association. “It’s a pretty interesting cast of characters and I love that because I think that the songs have many doors to which you can enter.”

Little Village

During the pandemic, while working with Dobra master Jerry Douglass and his band in the historic RCA Studio B, where Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton and Waylon Jennings all recorded hits, Hiatt was transported back to his early days in Nashville. This insightful experience resulted in the album, Leftover Feelings (2021).

Among standout tunes on the record is “Mississippi Phone Booth,” a song inspired by an epiphany Hiatt had at age 31, when addiction issues nearly eclipsed his life.

 “It’s kind of a storytelling of my last run with alcohol and drugs. I was basically calling for help from a Mississippi phone booth. I had blown everything up in my life and I didn’t know what to do,” Hiatt said, explaining that there was a kind ear on the other end of the line when he stopped to make that call out of desperation.

“I got help from people who knew how to be sober. I kind of plugged in to that juice, which is relying on others, relying on yourself and on some great spirit…whatever you want to call it,” he continued. “It allowed me to live a life, regardless of my career, of relative happiness and freedom, but you know, there are still tons of struggles, which is part of the package.”

Among the accomplishments that followed was being a member of the short-lived, but popular band, Little Village. The group featured Ry Cooder (guitar, vocals), Nick Lowe (bass, vocals), Hiatt (vocals, guitar, piano) and Jim Keltner (drums). The musicians first came together to back Hiatt on his 1987 album, Bring The Family, and quickly they realized that they should reunite combining their collective songwriting skills. Among the memories recording the self-titled album, Little Village (1992), was songwriting via fax machine.

“In those days, the writing on the fax paper would disappear,” he said of the process that at times spanned from the U.K. to Nashville to L.A. “So, we had to make sure we’ve scribbled them in our notebooks before the words disappeared.” Hiatt has often thought about what “part two” of Little Village might look like, but nothing is in the works currently, although he is open to the possibility.

Hiatt would go on to record with numerous artists and tour with musicians like Lyle Lovett, but he held on to one regret: never earning his high school diploma. Years ago, when one of their children was attending a progressive college, Hiatt and his wife, Nancy, were required to be integral to the collegiate experience, traveling to the school about six times a year to participate in various activities.

“For their senior project, they had to pick something that was challenging to learn, and we had to pick something challenging to learn, so I decided to get my GED,” Haitt said with pride. “I graduated from high school the same year my daughter graduated from college.”

Lucky to be Alive

As Hiatt looks forward to returning to the stage at The Tarrytown Music Hall on May 31 as a solo act, he said fans can expect to hear songs from his entire catalog. “I try to mix it up. I’ve got a list of about 120 songs that I really feel like singing at this point. I haven’t done some of them in years, but you know, I’ll also play people’s favorites…every night is just about having fun.”

Whereas he is accustomed to standing while performing, for this tour he will be sitting down as he recuperates from a near death experience, which took place last year.

“My wife and I were hiking on a trail we have hiked several times before that is south of Cumberland Mountain State Park and it’s beautiful. We started our ascent and the trail rose to the edges of these big hills, looking down at a creek,” he explained. “I turned around to tell her something, lost my balance and fell head over heels 15 feet, stuck between two rock croppings on this ridge.”

Hiatt learned the details of the harrowing accident after the fact. He had sustained a concussion, lost consciousness for about 10 minutes and suffered numerous scalp lacerations and skull fractures.

“This family came up behind us and the kid was in his late 20s and was studying to be an emergency services medical technician. He knew exactly what to do. It was great. He was an angel for sure,” Hiatt said, adding that he is playing extra shows this year to make up for lost time.” I feel lucky to be able to keep doing what I do.”

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