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From Clubland to Heartland

Embracing rural life and family, John Hiatt is at peace with the fact that his sales don't match his acclaim.

January 14, 2001|DEBORAH BARNES | Deborah Barnes is a freelance writer based in Nashville

NASHVILLE — Big East Fork Road is a narrow ribbon of pavement that winds among uniformly rounded hills in a rural area southwest of the city called Leiper's Fork.

The tree-covered hills along this remote and scenic route back up to generations-old farmhouses and pastures. A playful creek skips along one side of the road, then crosses under and scurries out of sight, only to appear again several hundred yards later on the other side.

A couple of miles along, the creek ducks under a rust-red covered bridge that connects the road with the long gravel driveway to the farm of John Hiatt, one of the most respected singer-songwriters in America.

The gates of the bridge open, revealing a driveway that curves up toward a low-slung, two-story, white farmhouse. Hiatt is at the door looking like any number of dads about to head out to the Home Depot: thermal shirt, Lands' End flannel vest, rumpled pants, gray baseball cap. He pushes his rimless glasses up on his nose as he turns into the hallway.

"This house is really several houses," he explains as he heads down a stone path toward his recording studio, a wood structure out back.

"The original log cabin was built in the early 1800s, and the farmhouse in front was built in the 1920s. The guy who owned it before us added some of the back part," he says, stopping to gesture to the right, "and we added a kitchen area to connect the main house with the cabin."

It's no wonder Hiatt seems so relaxed. The patchwork-quilt house containing elements from generations of inhabitants makes perfect sense, considering Hiatt's own complicated history.

This 96-acre farm, which he bought in 1992, is where the 48-year-old Indianapolis native found the right creative and emotional balance after an odyssey that has ranged from struggling Nashville songwriter in the '70s to the Next Big Thing in L.A.'s new wave scene to recovering alcoholic to one of the nation's most critically respected tunesmiths.

Hiatt, who has been called Indy's answer to Bruce Springsteen, has had more success as a songwriter than as an artist. His powerful songs have been recorded by everyone from Bob Dylan and Jewel to Iggy Pop and Bonnie Raitt.

It was Raitt who turned Hiatt's "Thing Called Love" into the flagship song for her triumphant comeback a decade ago. And recently his "Riding With the King" became the title track to the Top 10 Eric Clapton-B.B. King album collaboration.

Like a number of his albums, Hiatt's latest release, "Crossing Muddy Waters," showed up on many critics' year-end best-of lists, and it's a Grammy nominee in the contemporary folk category, along with Johnny Cash, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris and Billy Bragg.

"From stark portraits of loss and death, rebel flags and drunk car wrecks, he creates a deeply affecting meditation on earthly suffering and spiritual redemption," Alanna Nash wrote in Entertainment Weekly.

Hiatt says his farm's bucolic setting inspired the acoustic "Crossing Muddy Waters."

"Just living out here in the country, the rural existence inspires me," he says as he moves through the house. "It's quiet, dead quiet. In the summer, all you hear are crickets and birds, and in the winter you hardly hear anything at all. There are fire trails cut all the way through the hills behind the house, and you can go up there and walk or ride a horse and spend three or four hours and never see another soul."

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Hiatt's long musical journey began when he moved to Nashville the first time in 1970, securing his first music job as a songwriter at Sony Tree, one of the city's most powerful publishing companies. He was 18 and eventually signed to Epic. He made two critically acclaimed albums that went nowhere commercially, so he moved on. Soon he was lured by the budding punk-rock scene in Los Angeles.

"It was 1977, and all the new wave and punk rock was sort of happening. . . . Graham Parker and Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe, and I'm, 'Man, this is great, this is my cup of tea,' " he recalls enthusiastically, sitting in his small studio. "I lived five, six years in Topanga Canyon. It was a lot of old hippies and musicians and drug dealers. But I loved living up there."

In Los Angeles, Hiatt recorded two albums for MCA and reveled in the city's exciting musical climate.

"It was a great time to be there," he remembers, smiling. "The L.A. music scene was really fun in '77, '78. We had X and Los Lobos and the Blasters, the Plimsouls. A lot of great bands. I felt like I'd found the place to fit in."

But Hiatt also got caught up in the city's excesses.

"I was drinking and drugging, and in those days, it was pretty much what everybody did," he continues. "But I was just over the top. I got totally consumed by it. But before it completely gobbled me up, I was playing three or four nights a week in town. I was living the clubland existence fast and furious, and burning all the candles at all the ends."

He waves his arms, bellowing: "How many ends do you have? Let me light 'em!"

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