Confessions of a singer’s songwriter

Chances are if you haven’t heard of John Hiatt, you’ve at least heard one of his songs.

Hiatt’s music has been covered by blues legends B.B. King and Eric Clapton, folk icon Bob Dylan, rhythm-and blues crooner Aaron Neville and country troubadour Willie Nelson. His most famous contributions were made when he penned the songs “Thing Called Love” (brought to light by Bonnie Raitt), “Have a Little Faith In Me” for Joe Cocker and the Jeff Healey Band hit “Angel Eyes” — but having his work adapted by other artists doesn’t really bother the 49-year-old singer/songwriter.

“It’s one of the least-expected sidelines of this whole thing,” Hiatt explained from his Tennessee studio. “I never set out to be a songwriter for other people. I just got lucky.”

Luck seems to have little to do with it: A devotion to his craft and an ability to consistently write honest songs about redemption and perseverance have enabled Hiatt to make a living doing what he loves. Fresh off a European tour with his faithful backup band, The Goners, the Grammy-nominated artist is back on the road for a series of small solo and acoustic shows in support of his latest album, The Tiki Bar is Open (Vanguard, 2001). He will perform in Asheville on Feb. 22.

“I love to go out and play solo,” Hiatt says. “With the band, you can only learn up so many songs, whereas I know ’em all,” he jokes. “It’s a way for me to get back down to the song, the voice and the guitar. It gets me centered, and I love playing that way.”

Love is definitely present on The Tiki Bar is Open. The title track is both an homage to better times and a proud reflection on how some things, at least, haven’t changed all that much over the years.

The song details the thoughts of a man on vacation in Florida who gets rattled by the rampant consumerism embodied in strip malls and tourist traps. Things don’t seem to be what they once were, the narrator laments — until he sees a sign outside a local bar that gives him hope.

“I saw a sign hanging out of one of those mom-and-pop hotels, and I just got so taken with that kind of culture as a piece of Americana,” Hiatt explains. “These watering holes haven’t been franchised or incorporated into the Wal-Mart American philosophy. We should all be grateful for that, whether we drink or not.

“For me, the Tiki Bar being open means that Daytona Beach is still there,” he adds.

Like most of his songs, “Tiki Bar” has a personal connection to the singer/songwriter. Hiatt grew up in Indiana, a life-long fan of auto racing. An amateur driver himself, Hiatt later became a fan of the late Nascar legend Dale Earnhardt, and was inspired to remember him in these lyrics: “Well, his name was Mr. Dale Earnhardt, and he drove the black number three./Now the king is gone, but he’ll not be forgotten, nor his like will we ever see.” This song was also inspired by a Florida vacation.

“Really, the song was my race trip last year,” he explains. “When I was a kid, Daytona Beach was where all the cool people went for spring break. It was always mentioned in reverent tones, kind of like going to Xanadu. It was such a special place, and all the imagery comes from that experience.”

Memory — of both the good and bad variety — is a prominent theme on Hiatt’s latest album. The Roy Orbison-esque “I’ll Never Get Over You” evokes unrequited emotion for a long-gone lover, and “I Know A Place” details a dark confrontation between a 13-year-old boy and his abusive father.

However, brighter moments abound, such as “My Old Friend,” where a man reminisces with his former high-school flame, and “All the Lilacs In Ohio,” where the soggy reality of the present temporarily fades to make way for the refreshing ghosts of the past. Songs like “Hangin’ Round Here” and “Rock of your Love” come across as honest and emotional, without seeming too sappy or sentimental.

The baritone-voiced writer didn’t want to elaborate on these themes, however; he prefers to let the music speak for itself.

“I reckon they’re all connected, but I wouldn’t be the one to say how,” he says evasively. “All the love songs are for my wife, so there you go; that’s my answer and I’m sticking to it.”

During his 26 years in the music business, Hiatt has blended several genres to make up an eclectic career. His first hit song was a 1974 Top-20 hit for Three Dog Night called “Sure As I’m Sitting Here” — but his signature sound didn’t catch on with the masses till the late ’80s, when Bonnie Raitt’s version of “Thing Called Love” inspired other artists to appropriate items in the Hiatt catalog. Since then, everyone from Paula Abdul to Iggy Pop to Conway Twitty have recorded Hiatt’s songs. Last year, his tribute album to Muddy Waters found Hiatt nominated for a Best Contemporary Folk Album Grammy alongside Johhny Cash and Emmylou Harris.

After years of living on the fringe of commercial success, finally finding a much-deserved place in the spotlight hasn’t affected Hiatt one bit. He says he’s the same singer/songwriter he’s always been.

“Singer/songwriter suits me,” he says. “I got no problem going along with that handle. That’s kind of what I do, and probably what appealed to me, the troubadour approach to things.”

However, the veteran musician isn’t too impressed with what he hears on the radio these days.

“I got to be honest — there’s not too many young bands that are knocking my socks off,” he admits. “They all kind of sound like they have the same computer chip in their throats.”

Despite having built an impressive musical catalog based on his well-crafted songs, Hiatt says The Tiki Bar is Open is anything but a last call for his career.

“Gosh, no … I’m just getting started. I think I’m just now getting good.”

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