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POP MUSIC

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

The lifestyle took its toll, and in the early '80s Hiatt wrestled with alcohol addiction. "I completely subscribed to the tortured artist deal," he told The Times in 1987, three years after he stopped drinking. "You know the old story . . . all writers drink and all artists suffer, therefore I must drink and suffer. I'm sure that affected the kind of songs I was writing."

Hiatt was drunk in a restaurant the night his daughter Lily was born in 1984. Soon after that, he quit drinking and taking drugs. But the troubles didn't stop. A few months later, his estranged wife committed suicide.

In 1985, after recording three albums for Geffen Records, he moved with his 1-year-old daughter to Nashville. Here, Hiatt remarried and settled into family life with wife Nancy (who raises horses on their farm), Lily, Nancy's son Rob and, eventually, Georgia, his daughter with Nancy.

The domestic bliss helped form the basis for his next critically lauded trio of A&M albums, starting with "Bring the Family" in 1987, and continuing with "Slow Turning" the following year and 1990's "Stolen Moments."

"I think it all kind of happens naturally," he says. "You start to think, 'I'm older, I'm not living out in clubs, so I'm not writing about getting the girl so much.' You start writing about marriage and kids."

Relationships continued to inspire a substantial part of Hiatt's writing throughout the early '90s. He also teamed up with rocker Lowe, guitarist Ry Cooder and drummer Jim Keltner to form the "supergroup" Little Village, which released its self-titled debut to disappointing sales in 1992. By 1995, he was recording for Capitol, releasing "Walk On" and 1997's "Little Head."

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When he's not on the road, Hiatt rarely leaves the farm, except to play chauffeur for Lily, now 16, and Georgia, 12. "I'm such a hermit, I don't even know what's going on in town. I spend a lot of time out here, not trying to write," he says, turning his chair to look around the studio. "I quit trying to write songs a long time ago, but just playing because I enjoy it. Songs usually just come from sitting around playing, some kind of riff or melody or chord pattern. I don't ever write lyrics first."

"He's a hard-working hermit," says his manager, Ken Levitan, laughing. Levitan, who also manages Lyle Lovett, Harris and Mark Isham, is most impressed with Hiatt's work ethic. "The thing I love about John is that he's always up to all the different creative challenges. . . . He works very hard."

Hiatt tours more than 100 days a year, and he made several trips to New York last year to host a season of the PBS series "Sessions at West 54th." "It was hard work but pretty fun," he says of the show. "But I don't know if it's gonna happen again. I think they're still looking for funding . . . hint, hint, all you corporations out there."

On his creative plate are a few remaining tunes for a new album with his touring band, the Goners, that he expects to release next summer, as well as a project that causes even this high-powered wordsmith to sweat.

"I'm doing some writing that I'm not really good at, and that's writing to order," he says, shaking his head doubtfully. He's been asked to write songs for an upcoming Disney movie based on the Country Bear Jamboree attraction.

"These bears have this band, and they start out as bluegrassy kind of country purists, and then they go into sort of Southern rock, and they become this big famous band, then they disband, and they go through all the things that bands go through. It's like 'Spinal Tap' with bears--it's 'Bear Tap,' " he explains, laughing.

With Hiatt contributing his wit and storytelling talents to the film, it's easy to imagine the kind of sophisticated musical backdrop Randy Newman painted for the "Toy Story" movies.

"Randy has a lot deeper well to draw from in that respect," Hiatt demurs. "He comes from a film-scoring family, and he's a great musician. I mean, I'm a primitive, three chords. I'm in a cave, you know? But he's done great stuff: 'You've Got a Friend in Me' is classic."

Ironically, the film project has the potential to bring Hiatt the widespread attention he's never experienced. But he takes the fact that his sales have never matched his reputation with typical good humor. ("Crossing Muddy Waters" has sold just over 90,000 copies.) "It bugged me a little bit when I was in my 30s, because then you're pumping, you're pushing hard, man," he says. "But I'm well over it.

"In fact, I don't know if it's a product of age or just hanging around long enough to realize that the glass is half full, but now it's like, 'Oh, what a great career I have!' I get recognized just enough to enjoy it, by people who really appreciate what I do, and what's not to love about that?"

As he leads the way back to the house, taking stock of the horses in the distant pastures, Hiatt has the easy gait and relaxed expression of a man who has discovered where he belongs geographically and professionally and is at peace with that discovery. "I'd like to just keep doing what I'm doing," he says, shrugging. "I love writing, I love singing, I love playing and I love recording with different musicians. As long as they let me do that, I'll be happy."

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