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John Hiatt packs his 'Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns' for L.A.

The singer-songwriter plays the Grammy Museum on Tuesday and the Troubadour on Thursday.

August 02, 2011|By Randy Lewis, Los Angeles Times

For a long time in rock 'n' roll, musicians who allowed their music to be used in advertising risked sullying their artistic credibility. Nobody, however, ever said anything against getting musical inspiration from a TV commercial, which is how veteran singer-songwriter John Hiatt came up with one of the songs on his 20th studio album, "Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns," that's being released Tuesday.

"I'm as influenced by popular culture as the next guy," Hiatt, 58, said from Nashville last week. "I fell in love with those commercials about 'Made in Detroit.' I saw those and I thought, 'Yeah!'"

So he wrote "Detroit Made," a full-throttle love letter to a thrashed Buick Electra 225 luxury sedan he once owned during the years in the late '70s and early '80s when he lived and worked in Southern California.

"It cost me 400 bucks," recalled Hiatt, who will be performing locally this week. "I bought it when I was out in L.A. It was a '74, and that's back when American cars were like luxury ships. I'd be tooling down the 405 in that thing, or going back down to Pasadena where I was living briefly, feeling like a king. I felt like I was cruising the ocean, it was so fast.

"I've always thought of them as the poor man's Cadillac. They were obtainable," he said. "But then, the car thing for me is way more than just the automobile. It appears so much in my work because it's so much a part of travel, so much a part of music and the troubadour lifestyle."

Hiatt's songs have characteristically been about more than what's on the surface, which is what has earned him wide respect over the last four decades among critics, peers and other aficionados of keenly wrought songs about topics including life, love, parenthood, wanderlust, aging, loss, redemption — and muscle cars.

"Detroit Made" is one of the album's lighter moments, along with the insistently bouncy love song "I Love That Girl," but "All the Way Under," "Hold on for Your Love" and "Down Around My Place" explore some harrowingly dark emotional places.

The new album, he concedes, "has a lot of comings and goings, songs about cities and towns and countries," although Hiatt himself remains happily rooted in Nashville, where he's lived most of the last 40 years except for his L.A. stint.

He's returning to his former home this week for an appearance Tuesday night at the Grammy Museum downtown, where he'll engage in a question-and-answer session and play a short solo set. Then Thursday he's booked for a full-band show at the Troubadour in West Hollywood — surprisingly, Hiatt's first at the venerable club.

More than a quarter-century ago, Hiatt left L.A. — a topic he revisits on the new album in "Adios to California" — and returned to Nashville to raise a daughter on his own after his wife committed suicide. He'd previously been earning $25 a week as a staff songwriter for Tree Music, one of the biggest publishers in the country music capital.

In 1987 he resurfaced with "Bring the Family," the stripped-down, intensely revealing but also intently comforting album he recorded with his dream band: guitarist Ry Cooder, bassist Nick Lowe and drummer Jim Keltner, under the direction of a neophyte producer and former concert director at McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, John Chelew.

Many of the songs grew out of a then-new relationship — he and his wife, Nancy, just celebrated their 25th anniversary — and became his highest charting album of his career at that stage. It also included "Thing Called Love," which Bonnie Raitt introduced to a whole new — and massive — audience with the version she included on her Grammy-winning 1989 "Nick of Time" album.

Since then, Hiatt has released a steady stream of well-regarded albums, some electric, some largely acoustic with backing from a variety of band configurations. In 2008, for the first time he acted as his own producer on "Same Old Man," which he recorded at his home studio.

For the new one, he teamed up with producer Kevin Shirley, whom he'd met in the '90s but for reasons he said have become hazy over the years, never collaborated with in the studio until recently.

"He called my manager, Ken Levitan, and said, 'Tell John I've been listening to what he's doing, I know where he's trying to go and I think I can help him get there,'" Hiatt said. "I'd never heard that before in my life. I was so intrigued I said, 'Hell, yeah.'"

One result of their teaming is the appearance on the album of a song Hiatt wrote a few days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — a day he happened to be in New York.

It carries an expression of individual and collective resilience, one that still resonates as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, and one that represents another facet of redemption, a theme that's been close to Hiatt's own heart for much of his life.

"I think great art comes from pain, but I think misery is something you create yourself," he said. "Having made enough misery of my own, the way I see my life today, the misery's optional…. I'm not brilliant … I just know that I'm happier when I'm not dwelling in the pit of despair of the self. I can go there — real easy," he said with a devilish laugh. "I feel better when I'm not. But it's after me every day."

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