On The String: A Heavy Tribute To John Hiatt

Jan 13, 2020

Amid the 50 pages of notes, tribute essays and photos included in the new box set Only The Song Survives, John Hiatt’s daughter Lilly writes up some loving memories of going on the road with her dad back in 2004, when she was 20 years old. She sees his working life, his joie de vivre and his band camaraderie up close and in a new light.

John Hiatt on The String - Listen Here

“I realized from being out there that weeks with my father, that what made his music so special, so keen and quick witted, was his deep appreciation and astute observation of the world around him,” Lilly Hiatt writes. “I could see that he had never lost his awe or wonder in life, and never would. And the fans lit him up!”

Lilly, now an admired country rock artist in her own right, concludes the essay by noting that the next thing she did back at college was to form her own band. Hiatt truly is infectious and inspiring, as any fan of songwriting, Nashville and roots music can attest. He’s a nine-time Grammy nominee, an Americana Lifetime Achievement Award winner and recently a BMI Troubadour Award recipient. But beyond the laurels, he’s everyone’s consensus exemplar of musical integrity and soul. The box set, assembled by Hiatt’s long-time label New West Records, affirms it with heft and craft. It’s comprised of 15 180-gram LPs covering ten studio albums and a live double album from Austin City Limits.

An outside observer might assume that such a sweeping package released on behalf of a 67-year-old artist would reflect some bygone heyday or an entire body of work. But in fact, it covers only the most recent two decades of a career that got sparked in the late 60s. It starts with the brilliant all-acoustic 2000 album Crossing Muddy Waters and continues through his most recent project, 2018’s The Eclipse Sessions, which Steve Earle in the box set calls “John Hiatt’s finest offering to date” and “damn near perfect.”

If this is Act III of Hiatt’s life in music, Act I began in his hometown of Indianapolis, IN, where he formed bands and wrote songs as soon as he got his hands on a proper guitar, circa age 12. He was a teenager in thrall of all that was going on in 1960s music, and before long, he was seduced by a nearby place they called Music City.

“I got here in 1970,” he recounts in the year’s first episode of The String. “I had met a guy the previous year I’d come through town trying to get to California with some friends. And we’d come to Nashville because we both wanted to see it. And I’d bought this record by some session musicians called Area Code 615…And I was stunned. They were playing like Beatles songs with a banjo and a pedal steel and I’d never heard anything like this before in my life. And I thought I gotta get down there and see what these hillbillies are up to. This is some wacky stuff!”

Not long after that, he got to know a songwriter who’d landed a $25 a week publishing deal. Hiatt decided that sounded like the holy grail, and he worked Music Row until he landed the same. While he spent a few years on the West Coast in the meantime, he’s been an anchoring presence in Nashville ever since. He released his first album in 1974, yet it took more than a decade of grinding touring, being dropped from several labels and a stretch of substance abuse (and recovery therefrom) before he broke through for good with the astonishing double shot of 1987’s Bring The Family and its follow up Slow Turning.

The span of these last 20 years served up in the New West box includes Hiatt’s folkiest album (Crossing Muddy Waters), a Memphis-made set with the late great Jim Dickinson and his sons Luther and Cody even before they started the North Mississippi All-Stars (Master of Disaster), the double Grammy nominate Terms of My Surrender and a lot more. Most of the projects have been pressed to vinyl for the first time. It’s quite a progression, but Hiatt is reluctant to make any proclamations about them as a whole or size them up against his self-stated mission, at this stage of life, to continue growing and improving as an artist.

“I don’t know! I wonder,” he says. “You know, I have that mantra, and that’s just my father. Do a good job, so when you go to bed at night you can rest easy. I do the best I can on a given day and with a given group of players. The opportunity to make magic, well, you feel like a magician. It makes you feel like you’ve come from some other world for a minute. It’s been so exciting.”