John Hiatt doesn’t croon a love song with spit and polish any more than he pens one with generic sentimentality. But make no mistake. The guy is a romantic through and through.
Sure, he can be as cheery as the next lovestruck guy. Take a listen to Thing Called Love, a jubilant Hiatt tune that reinvented Bonnie Raitt’s career over two decades ago.
But with a singing voice that wears the creases of life experiences like badges of honor, Hiatt also writes about love that is often not so easily earned.
Take one of his most heralded songs, Icy Blue Heart – beautifully covered in the late ‘80s by Emmylou Harris, among many others. The tune’s barroom come-on and its subsequent rebuff (“his beer was warmer than the look in her eye”) eventually find a crack in almost impenetrable romantic isolation.
And on Hiatt’s recent Same Old Man album, Hurt My Baby embraces new love even as past romantic battle scars heal.
All of which make Hiatt a perhaps unlikely choice for a Valentine’s night concert with longtime pal Lyle Lovett at Danville’s Norton Center for the Arts. Hiatt, however – who will be making his first Central Kentucky appearance in nearly 13 years – couldn’t be more thrilled.
“Man, that’s so great,” he replied when told the Danville show falls on Feb. 14.
But if any contemporary writer has truly discovered true love by traveling a troubled road, it’s Hiatt. An Indianapolis native, Hiatt had to deal with the suicide of his older brother as well as the extended illness that took his father’s life by the time he was 12.
After tenures in Nashville and Los Angeles, a time when his songs were being covered by artists as varied as Three Dog Night and Rosanne Cash, Hiatt became ensnared in alcohol and drug addictions. His estranged second wife killed herself in 1985.
In a recent phone interview Hiatt believed he met Lovett somewhere around 1986 – a time when the long tall Texan singer released his first album and Hiatt’s life and career finally found a place in the sun.
By 1987, Hiatt had kicked his addictions, re-settled in the Nashville area, married his third wife, Nancy, and released the breakthrough album that renewed his career, Bring the Family. The record’s warm references of love, redemption and overall domestic bliss have carried over into a string of remarkably consistent albums that hit an even dozen with the release last fall of Same Old Man.
“You know, I kind of signed up with the idea that writers are supposed to write about what they know,” Hiatt said. “Not that I know any damn thing about love. But I came from a place of such despair back when I was an addict and alcoholic. I was freakin’ out of my mind. To come from that into putting a family together with a woman who cared for me and who I cared for, and now being with her for 23 years… it is a continual source of inspiration. And so that just seems to be what I’ve decided to write about.
“Love’s a different thing when you’re 30 than when you’re 40. And now, at 56, there is a whole other difference to it. The kids are grown (fittingly, Hiatt’s daughter from his second marriage, Lilly, provides harmony vocals on Same Old Man). There is just a whole other thing to it that you don’t hear much about in songs. So I’m happy to cover that beat.”
Hiatt’s onstage partnership with Lovett has coincided with much of his personal and creative renaissance. Though the two began playing as a duo relatively recently, they began touring alongside two other esteemed Lone Star songwriters – Joe Ely and Guy Clark – as far back as 1989.
The Danville performance will essentially be a paired down version of those quartet shows. “Only now, we just hog up more songs,” Hiatt said.
The concert program will have Lovett and Hiatt onstage together for the entire performance. The two will swap songs, trade stories and, in a very informal manner, interview each another.
“Lyle sort of runs the interview, really. He’s very funny. He’s got that particular, twisted view of things that I really appreciate.”
Lovett, it could be argued, is a bit of a romantic himself. One of his seminal works, L.A. County, details a man who guns down a former lover on her wedding day – at the church, no less. That should go down well on Valentine’s night.
“He is a great writer,” Hiatt said. “Very precise. His songs are sometimes askew, sometimes dark. But they’re always very human.
“We have a great time together. And I think audiences dig the whole looseness, the stories and just the whole un-show like quality of what we’re doing.”
But there is another reason why Hiatt fans should take in the performance (the duo will also play in Cincinnati on Feb. 19). Outside of another few weeks of touring with Lovett in October, Hiatt plans to stay off the road for the rest of 2009. It will be his first extended break from touring in nearly 15 years.
Hiatt won’t be entirely idle during that time, though. He is already at work on a follow-up to Same Old Man in his garage studio. But recording with his touring band will be done at his own pace with no pressure or deadlines.
“I sort of set the scenario. We’re all in the garage. We’ll say it’s the garage mom reluctantly decided to let us practice in. After awhile, she comes out and tells us to turn the music down. We’re all really excited but we’re not very good. But we really love and really care about what we’re playing.
“That’s sort of what we’re going for.”
Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt perform at 8 p.m. Feb 14 at the Norton Center for the Arts at Center College in Danville. The concert is sold out.