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Published: 2005/07/07
by Andy Tennille

John Hiatt: Aged to Perfection

Few things age as well in life as John Hiatt.

Double-barrel Kentucky bourbon and Cuban cigars aside, the 53-year-old Hiatt has matured as an artist over his more than 30-year career from his early piss-and-vinegar New Wave-punk leanings to a more mature blend of brilliant lyrics, great roots-rock grooves and quieter acoustic melodies. A younger Hiatt was much more confrontational with his audience; no longer does he feel the need to hit his listeners over the head with his talent.

"I had many more axes to grind and points to make when I was younger starting out. Wanted to make damn sure you knew where I was coming from, pal," Hiatt says with a laugh. "And it was a smarter place than you. I like to think that I've matured a bit as I've grown older."

On Master of Disaster, Hiatt's 21st album to date released by New West Records, the Nashville-based songwriter headed down I-40 to Ardent Studios in Memphis to record. There, he teamed up with the Dickinson clan – Jim Dickinson and sons Luther and Cody on guitars and drums respectively representing two-thirds of the psychedelic blues powerhouse North Mississippi AllStars and their legendary father/producer who played piano on the Stones' Sticky Fingers and produced Big Star. Hiatt has known the elder Dickinson for years since collaborating with him on some Ry Cooder projects and has always been a fan of the producer's progeny.

"I've always been a fan of the Dickinsons," Hiatt says. "Ever since Cooder introduced us, I've thought Jim was a great guy and a great keyboard player – a real musical force. And I love the North Mississippi AllStars and think they make really great records. Jim had sent me his new record a few years back, and I saw where Luther and Cody had played on it. I remember thinking, Damn, Jim's got these boys working in the studio. He's got em schooled.' So I called Jim and asked him what he thought about making a record together with the boys, and he thought it was a great idea. They're just incredible musicians, these guys. They bring a lot to the table."

David Hood of the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section fills out the lineup on bass. Hood is a veteran studio musician who played trombone on Aretha Franklin's 1968 classic "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You)" and has recorded with the likes of Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Jimmy Cliff, Duane Allman, Paul Simon, Little Milton, Traffic and the Staples Singers.

"I came up listening to all that stuff from Muscle Shoals and always thought that David and Roger Hawkins were the shit," Hiatt says. "Not to undercut Roger's playing or anything, but I always thought that David was the secret weapon down there with the Swampers. He really is amazing with how he shapes the groove. I actually went down there in the early 90s and did some demos with David and Roger. I've been in touch with those guys over the years and was happy to have David play on this record."

The interconnectivity and long-standing friendships between Hood, Hiatt and the Dickinsons fosters a very comfortable, familial vibe on Master of Disaster. The album's musical landscape spans several genres the straight-ahead rock feel of "Master of Disaster" to the Irish folksiness of "Howlin Down the Cumberland" to the blues in "Ain't Ever Goin' Back" to the Dixieland feel of "Wintertime Blues." Hiatt's masterful songwriting on the album is honest and succinct, his wit is sharp and his sense of humor is dark his lyrics cut to the heart of the matter, a clear result of his life experience and Midwestern upbringing growing up in Indiana.

"Hiatt is just an utterly unique writer, in my opinion. I don't see anyone out there doing what he does," says Jim Dickinson. "He's been at it for a long, long time, man, and he definitely knows shit from Shinolah. He doesn't waste his time with mediocre ideas or language. He just nails it. And it's all deeply heartfelt material. Some of it is very, very dark, and John's been there. He knows what he's writing about. He's not making this stuff up. He has bags of it."

The result is an album that paints a picture of the people and places of America. Hiatt calls the songs on the album "travelin stories" and Jim Dickinson wholeheartedly agrees.

"I like to see geography on a record. With this album, you could literally lay out a map and draw lines on some of these songs," Dickinson says. "Americana is a word that barely has a meaning anymore, but this is so specific…it's like the area west of the River. There is the Cumberland Plateau stuff too, but this is like pioneer, Turner theory stuff. What makes America different is that we had a growing frontier, you know. That's what this record does it grows across the Mississippi, beyond the Corn Belt and to the West Coast. Not too many people write about that anymore. It's real Americana."

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