For a seasoned player like John Hiatt, with a catalog dating back more than 45 years, coming up with a comprehensive setlist nowadays might seem a daunting task. However, it’s exceptionally easier when focusing on one specific era. Hiatt’s current tour celebrates the 30th anniversary of 1988’s “Slow Turning” record he made with The Goners.
When Hiatt reunited with original players Sonny Landreth (electric guitar, slide guitar, dobro), David Ranson (bass) and Kenneth Blevins (drums) to prepare for the tour back in January, he thought they’d get together, rehearse and hit the road. They all soon realized rehearsal was never their forte.
“It’s not like we knew what we were doing when we made the record,” he quips. “We didn’t really rehearse when we made it. . . . We made the record and it got traction. It’s like riding a bike: once you fall off, you can fall off anytime. It felt really good and we’re just all better musicians than we were 30 years ago. We’re all more simple players . . . there’s not a lot of ‘look at me, look at me’ going on.”
Hiatt and company typically run through about 20 songs a night with a dozen or more from “Slow Turning.” John Hiatt and The Goners will play “Slow Turning,” and other hits, Friday night at the Wilson Center. What’s special about The Goners touring is it may not happen again for quite some time.
“It’s a pretty special little outfit,” Hiatt muses. “I’m just one guy, [and] the band is amazing and it’s just a great evening of special music. . . . It’s kind of a magic band; I know most people that have a band feel that way, but that’s how it feels to us.”
In fact Hiatt might have as much or more fun than the audience night after night. Everyone on stage is on the same wavelength. There’s fluidity in their simple songs and sound, and there’s not a lot of preparation or talking about it. They’re not strictly rigid about playing a record from top to bottom, as the way a record was made and track arrangement a decade ago may not be ideal for certain venues, crowds or overall vibe of a show.
“The bones of the music don’t really move around too much but what we put on it on any given night [changes],” he continues. “It’s not like the guys play the same thing every night. . . . You always find a new rhythmic gag. There’s rhythms within rhythms with this band; you hear different ones you can latch onto or let go of.”
The 30-year-old album’s longevity is likely due to lasting resonance with its songwriting. The connection transcends generations, from those who originally heard it 30 years ago to their children who discovered it thereafter.
“There’s a lot of memories in the songs,” Hiatt adds. “A lot of it has to do with my family when we were all much younger, so there’s a lot of memories in there that are fun to visit and feel good—especially juxtaposed with where we’re at now, but also juxtaposed with the band.”
The album’s resurrection tour has allowed Hiatt to revisit songs he had previously just let fall by the wayside. “Sometime Other Than Now” was not a song he and company played much live before now.
“You know, a lot of stuff I write I just steal,” he quips. “My wife will just say something, and I’ll go, ‘Well that’s good, thank you.’ Or somebody else will say it or the kids will do something, whatever—but I just remember with ‘Sometime Other Than Now’ we were talking about something that happened in the past and trying to get to a better place.”
Hiatt’s last record, “Terms of my Surrender,” was released in 2014. After touring in support of it—his tenure was averaging about 120 shows a year—the physicality of it began taking its toll. In 2016 he cut his tour in half and didn’t start writing again until the end of 2016 or beginning of 2017. He set out to record a new project last summer with Kevin McKendree (Delbert McClinton) at his countryside studio. Hiatt was joined once more by drummer Kenneth Blevins and bassist Patrick O’Hearn, as well as Yates McKendree (Kevin’s then 16-year-old son, who also engineered) on keys.
The sessions happened to fall in line with the solar eclipse last August. Ultimately, it inspired its title, “The Eclipse Sessions.”
“We actually cut three songs on the 21st of August—the day of the eclipse,” Hiatt details. “Here in Nashville was one of the better places to see it. It was darker and one of the most covered spots by the moon. . . . We took a break from recording and went out in the backyard. The deer got confused and the birds circled up in these big swarms . . . the crickets went nuts. It just happened that way and it had impact on us. It was cool because everybody in the area dropped what they were doing during those two minutes. It was kind of a harmonic, resonating kind of thing.”
His forthcoming album includes more themes of redemption, loss, heartbreak, surrender, agony, and defeat—the things that tend to keep happening the longer someone is alive. “The usual suspects,” Hiatt confirms with a laugh. “But I like [the record] and I think it’s pretty good. . . . The first track we’re working on [releasing] is ‘Cry to Me’ and I think it’s going out to public radio, so we’ll see what happens.”
“The Eclipse Sessions” will be released in October 2018. Hiatt will likely start touring with the new record shortly after in the fall.