John Hiatt and the Combo
John Hiatt released 19 albums before this year's Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns, but none quite as dark. The 59-year-old singer/songwriter is still creating accessible heartland rock, full of blues licks and wry humor, but the lowest notch on his span of sentiments used to be hard luck; now he's reached down to outright desolation. The lead single, "Damn This Town," says it all.
Because of the Indianapolis native's rapport with middle America, it's tempting to conclude Dirty Jeans was a creative byproduct of the Great Recession. (The family in "Adios to California," finding there is "nothing to do but turn around" from their Golden State dream, sound like the victims of foreclosure.) Hiatt says his inspiration was a bit broader. When asked what stirred him to take on a darker tone, he says, "Well, you know…" and then after a playfully long pause, "Let's see now — life!" He then gives a hearty laugh.
Specifically, a flood hit Hiatt's home north of Nashville last year. The tides overwhelmed the fork of the Harpeth River that flows through his property. He couldn't reach his wife for two days and when he did, found her moving furniture from the flooded kitchen to the second floor. "I'd never really been through a big sorta natural disaster like that," he says. "It has an effect on people. It's traumatic." On the song "Down Around My Place" he seems to be tallying up the aftermath. "The radio is busted, down around my place/Every tool is rusted, down around my place/Creeks and rivers dried up, down around my place/My woman's tears are cried up, down around my place."
He even unloaded a trauma-inspired song from his archives of unreleased material. Hiatt wrote "When New York Had Her Heart Broken" in 2001, as a way to process witnessing the attacks on New York City and their immediate aftermath firsthand. "[W]e walked down to Penn Station and that was an eerie, creepy place because there were cops everywhere and they thought they might bomb the train, but it was our only way out," he recalls. "We went around the tip of Manhattan, seeing parts of it smoldering and people weeping." Two weeks later, he played another show in the city and performed the song for the first and — for nine years — only time. Dirty Jeans producer Kevin Shirley, also a witness to the attacks, encouraged him to finally record it.
Despite all this solemnity, Hiatt says his songwriting process is still playful. He fools around with guitar riffs until something comes together. That's even how he came up with the grim "Damn This Town." "After three or four days of punching around with it, that [first] line sorta popped out," he recalls. "'I killed my brother in a poker game. Damn this town. I am leaving' and I thought, 'Hooray, here we go. That's a story worth telling right there.'"
Hiatt says he never feels pressure to come up with another "Thing Called Love," "Have a Little Faith in Me" or any of his other songs that have been much-covered by others. There's only "an urgency brought on by limited time on this earth. I am 59 years old, so I have passion for creating that's commensurate with the reality that I'm not going to be here all that much longer. I got a lot less time than I've lived, so it just heightens my desire to create. So that's what stokes the fire."