When John Hiatt played at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival last year, his gaunt cheeks and dark, bushy eyebrows stuck out of a blue tie-dye T-shirt that read: "Zydeco Elvis." It fit, for Hiatt's rootsy country-soul music was played by the Goners, a Louisiana swamp trio, and his songs sounded like those of a '50s rock-and-roll star who had survived drug addiction to resurface in a folksy Cajun cabin with a new wife and family.
Hiatt, who opens for Little Feat at the Merriweather Post Pavilion tomorrow night, has never been a rock-and-roll star himself, but he has written songs for Bob Dylan, the Neville Brothers, Bonnie Raitt, Dave Edmunds, Emmylou Harris and many more. At 38, he has come close to death several times during his long-running bout with drugs and alcohol, and he has emerged from a stalled career with a new family, a new sobriety and a new buoyancy to his albums.
Hiatt's resurrection began with his 1987 album "Bring the Family," which featured his former employer Ry Cooder on guitar and his former producer Nick Lowe on bass. That album and its 1988 sequel with the Goners, "Slow Turning," included Hiatt's usual assortment of eccentrics (including a modern Bonnie and Clyde who broke into Graceland and stole one of Elvis's Cadillacs) but also unabashed paeans to the pleasures of family life. Psychotic criminals are a much more common subject in rock-and-roll songs than happy marriages, but Hiatt managed to make both compelling.
"By golly," Hiatt exclaims in a telephone interview, "if songwriters can't find something to write about the family, they're hurting. You have to be awful narrow-minded to think rock-and-roll can't talk about marriage and children. I know the stance of rock-and-roll has always been youth and la-de-la, but music has many facets -- it's not just a big buzz all the time. Sure, there've been a lot of corny songs about the family, but it's hard to rescue any of this stuff from the cliche. That's our job as songwriters -- to inject it with the real."
On his new album, "Stolen Moments" (A&M), Hiatt manages to combine the themes of family life and society at the fringes. "Bringing the eccentricities back home," he calls it. He suggests that the family can be a haven for oddballs from the threatening conformity of the outside world. The key number in this regard is the album's best song, "Seven Little Indians."
It opens with eerie, echoing guitar and a thumping tribal beat. Like an ancient medicine man, Hiatt sings about seven Indian children gathered in the living room of a brick house in Indianapolis (Hiatt's hometown). Outside, disapproving neighbors and angry bill collectors close in, but inside the house, the children's father, dressed in sealskin gloves and mukluks, dances around the blue light of the TV set as if it were a campfire and tells his stories about Alaskan caribous and northern lights, stories whose characters have the names of the seven little Indians, stories that always turn out for the best.
"That was one of those songs I started up with no idea where it was going," Hiatt confesses. "I just went along for the ride. I had this memory of my own family as a kid and of my father telling stories. I began with that image of seven little Indians in a brick house on Central Avenue and went from there. It's about a besieged family -- as all families are from time to time -- but at the end of the day, it's about the old man's wishes and dreams and hopes for his own brood and my own wishes and dreams and hopes for my family. I find my way into the world through my family."
The new album is full of songs that describe families far more interesting than the usual Norman Rockwell portraits in pop and country songs. "Child of the Wild Blue Yonder" is a rocking tribute to Hiatt's daughter (raised, like the seven little Indians, by a "medicine woman and spirit father"), a free spirit who flies far beyond her parents' control. On "Back of My Mind," Hiatt recalls facing his father at the foot of the stairs, knowing "I could die for the thoughts I kept in the back of my mind." "Listening to the Old Voices" describes how deaths in the family can both frighten and teach, how the ghosts "haunt the children and walk the wind."
The album is also a break with Hiatt's recent practice of recording with one self-contained band. "Stolen Moments" was produced by Glyn Johns, who assembled a different cast of musicians for each song, including Little Feat's Ritchie Heyward and Billy Payne, McCartney keyboardist Wix and gospel singers Russ Taff and Bobby King.
"It was time for me to bust a move and air it out," Hiatt explains. "No harm done -- I love those guys in the Goners, they're a great band. But that's why I maintain my solo status, so I can change things up whenever I want. I want to get my kicks. Glyn and I knew we could make a sleek, professional record, but we decided not to settle for that, not to stop off at the first musical McDonald's we saw but to hold out for the musical equivalent of that little family-run fish place."
Hiatt started out with 25 songs, some written during the "Slow Turning" tour and some written at home in Nashville. "We whittled that down to a dozen," he says. "Glyn wielded the knife. I firmly believe you have to have an editor -- I don't pretend to have any objectivity. Three of the songs that didn't make it to the album have since been recorded by other people. Jeff Healey did 'Let It All Go,' the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band did 'Just Enough Ashland City,' and it was my extreme pleasure to sing background on Iggy Pop's version of 'Something Wild.' "
Hiatt's lyrics have the vernacular universality of soul and country standards. "That's intentional," he says. "For years I've been trying to hone it down, to get it simpler and less precious, more plain-spoken. Raymond Carver's short stories are so powerful for that reason. I think that's where the real weight is."
Richard Harrington's On the Beat column will return in September.