Well-travelled John Hiatt ponders life from the road

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By Steve Newton

John Hiatt is a songwriter’s songwriter, which is why such esteemed artists as Bob Dylan, Ry Cooder, and Bonnie Raitt have recorded his tunes. When Canuck blues-rocker Jeff Healey blasted onto the scene in 1988 he doubled up on the Hiatt material, using both “Confidence Man” and “Angel Eyes” to showcase his smokin’ guitar licks.

But when the Straight tracks the prolific tunesmith down at a California hotel before a gig in San Juan Capistrano—or “Dick Nixon’s hometown”, as he puts it—he’s reluctant to pick a favourite among all the covers he’s heard.

“There’s been a lot that I’ve been really tickled by,” Hiatt points out. “I mean, shit, we could talk for ages about that. But Emmylou Harris did a great job on a song of mine, ‘Icy Blue Heart’, and this guy Johnny Adams, soul singer from New Orleans, cut a couple of my tunes 10, 15 years ago that I love. Buddy Guy singin’ ‘Feels Like Rain’ was great. Of course BB [King] and Eric [Clapton] doing ‘Riding With the King’ was a big thrill. So there’s been a lot.

“It just makes you feel proud,” he continues. “It’s like somebody sayin’ something nice about one of your kids or something, you know.”

The compliments about his “children” are likely to keep on coming once people hear Hiatt’s latest release, The Open Road, which follows such primo discs as 2008’s Same Old Man and 2005’s Master of Disaster. With choice numbers like the rollicking title track, the equally freewheeling “Haulin’ ”, and the poignant, slide-adorned “Movin’ On”, one might assume that the album’s mainly about life on the road.

“I think the larger metaphor is just movin’ on in general,” says the Indiana native. “Certainly, I do spend a great deal of time travelling, but in general it’s just the idea that nothing’s fixed, you know, we’re constantly in a state of shovin’ off, hellos and goodbyes. But I took a year off [from touring] in 2009, and I think it caused me to write more than one road kinda song. That’s just the result of you’re in one place, you want to be in another. It’s human nature, I suppose.”

Hiatt’s travels inspired Same Old Man‘s opening track, “Old Days”, in which the 58-year-old troubadour recalls a long-ago show at the Commodore Ballroom. “Played a gig with John Hammond Jr. up in Vancouver, B.C.,” he sings. “Exotic dancer came into my dressing room, started dancing exotically/They were smoking something in the audience that night smelled exactly like cat pee/Old days are comin’ back to me.”

“It definitely happened just like I said in the song,” asserts Hiatt. “It was very exotic for this little kid from the Midwest to be up in a foreign country with John Hammond Jr., a real blues king, in my opinion. And then here was this stripper in the dressing room, and everybody in the audience smokin’ pot. I was like, ‘Wow, this is life on the road? This is cool!’ ”

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