The Write Stuff

Songwriter John Hiatt embraces the 21st century

music & nightlife |

Just call him ‘Mac’:Hiatt credits the computer with changing his songwriting craft.

By Bruce Robinson

Who says an aging dog can’t learn new tricks? After writing hundreds of songs, crafting 17 albums, enduring decades of touring and hearing countless covers of his compositions (including two separate tribute anthologies), John Hiatt, at 55, has embraced a new process for his songwriting.

“About four months ago, I stopped writing by hand on yellow legal pads,” he explains by phone from his new home studio at a ranch outside Nashville. “I got glasses and I started writing on a word processor. It’s amazing.

“I resisted the change for so damn long,” he mutters, half to himself. “I had cheap reading glasses, but I was always losing ’em, so half the time I couldn’t see. And when I was writing on the legal pads, I couldn’t read my own damn handwriting. It was so bad. And then I would make changes, scribble and cross shit out, and by the end of the process, I couldn’t even read what I’d written half the damn time. So, I got a little 12-inch Mac and I just started writing on the word program in the Mac, and the songs started coming.

“It’s revolutionized my songwriting.”

That’s a remarkable statement coming from a man whose first commercially successful song, “Sure As I’m Sittin’ Here,” was carried into the Top 20 by Three Dog Night back in 1974. Over the intervening years, his songs have been recorded by, among others, a host of such notable songwriters as Willie Nelson, Rodney Crowell, Nick Lowe, Roseanne Cash and the artist formerly known as Bobby Zimmerman.

“There’s been a lot of nice versions of my tunes, and I’m always flattered,” Hiatt says. “Some stand out. I was certainly honored to have Willie Nelson cut a song. Emmylou Harris did a real nice version of ‘Icy Blue Heart.’ Bonnie Raitt, of course. Buddy Guy did ‘Feels Like Rain.’ I was real flattered by that. B. B. King and Eric Clapton doing ‘Riding with the King’ was quite a thrill. There’s been a bunch that really tickled me.”

But asked if he has his own favorites from the extensive Hiatt catalogue, he immediately replies, “Oh, no. I like ’em all for one level or another.”

Hiatt began writing at the ripe old age of 11, shortly after getting his first guitar, and never stopped. Even so, he finds his own creative process somewhat mysterious. “I get surprised a lot by what gets written, because I hardly ever know what the hell is going on in the process,” he chuckles. “It’s strange how it works. I get surprised and delighted, and that’s what keeps me coming back.”

Now, with a new batch of material emerging, “I’m gonna be starting a record in a couple of weeks–or whatever they call ’em these days,” he says. “Gonna do some recording, let’s put it that way.”

That process, too, will be different this time. “I’ve been collecting gear for years and I finally set it up in what used to be my office/race car shop, so I’m going to be recording out at the farm here,” he says. “There’s not going to be any producers involved, or even any engineers. We’re just kinda winging it.”

But first there’s a series of summer concerts to perform, a modest solo acoustic tour co-billed with singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin that stops off at Santa Rosa’s Wells Fargo Center on July 27. “We just did some shows last year and had a great time, so we’re gonna do it again,” Hiatt explains. He waits a beat. “We’re single-handedly bringing back folk music.”

But Hiatt knows the itch to rock out will return, too, and he’s been playing his songs both ways since his teens. “I’ve been doing it back and forth, between solo and the band, for so long I really don’t make the distinction between the two,” he reflects. “The difference, I guess, is that playing solo, my repertoire expands. When you have a band out, you pretty much can only play what they know. The nice thing about coming out solo is that I can play a lot more stuff, different stuff every night, and I know all my songs. At least if I brush up on them, I do.

“The trade off is, you don’t have the interplay with the other musicians. But then, I get all the spotlight, so it’s not so bad.”

John Hiatt joins Shawn Colvin on Friday, July 27, at the Wells Fargo Center. 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. $35–$60. 8pm. 707.546.3600.


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