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John Hiatt: Back on the road 

John Hiatt's new album is called The Open Road, but an even better title might have been Same Old Man — if only he hadn't already used that one up for a 2007 full-length. That's because after a pair of albums that explored a more acoustic-based sound, Hiatt is showing that he can be his old self by returning to the more rocking sound that typified early and mid-period albums like Bring The Family, Slow Turning and Perfectly Good Guitar.

Asked during a recent phone interview what inspired him to go for a friskier sound on The Open Road, Hiatt showed his quick sense of humor.

"The garages of my youth?" he asked in reply. "No, I think the main spark was I took a year off from the road. I took 2009 off. For the first time in 25 years, I didn't even go on tour. That changed a lot of things. And of course, being restless, irritable and discontent by nature, after being home for a year, I started writing all of these songs about traveling."

As anyone who has heard much of Hiatt's catalog will attest, his music doesn't sound like Led Zeppelin. In fact, early in his career, the comparison more often brought up about albums such as Slug Line (1979) and Riding With The King (1983) was to Elvis Costello. Like that acclaimed songwriter, Hiatt's earliest CDs had an edgy, somewhat punky quality.

On Riding With The King there were signs that Hiatt had begun to find his sound, and on his 1987 album, Bring The Family, one of the finest albums of the entire rock era, everything fell into place.

With Bring The Family, Hiatt settled into more of a rootsy rock/pop sound, and with a stellar backing group in the studio (guitarist Ry Cooder, bassist Nick Lowe and drummer Jim Keltner), the album turned into a near-perfect combination of great songs (such as the chunky rocker "Thing Called Love" – which later became a hit for Bonnie Raitt – and the pleading ballad "Have A Little Faith In Me") and the magical chemistry that happened between four seasoned musicians who found just the right groove for the material.

Hiatt's next album, "Slow Turning" was another gem, and as his career moved through the 1980s and into the '90s, Hiatt continued to solidify his reputation as one of rock's most gifted songwriters, as he released several more excellent albums, including Stolen Moments (1990) and Perfectly Good Guitar (1993).

But by the time Hiatt finished touring Same Old Man, he was essentially a burned out man. It was time for him to return to his roots.

"I had a summer like I hadn't had since I was a kid, free time, and I felt like I was back in school or something. I had my summer break," Hiatt said. "I just had a wonderful time, and that was when we were making the record. In the spring, I was writing these songs, and they just kind of harkened back to, they all had the vibe of what I came up listening to. I was sort of thrown back to the old garage band days when I was getting on the bus and going downtown to buy the first Led Zeppelin record."

For The Open Road, Hiatt used the same band that toured with him behind Same Old Man — drummer Kenneth Blevins (who first played with Hiatt as part of his backing band, the Goners, on tour behind Bring The Family), bassist Patrick O'Hearn and guitarist Doug Lancio. Like the preceding album, Hiatt also self-produced The Open Road.

"For me, the challenge of making well recorded records is just something I've taken on at this late stage in life," Hiatt said of producing. "I enjoy it. And they (his label, New West Records) let me do it, so I figure what the hell, learn while you earn. I feel like I've made enough records and I got interested enough in (recording) – I've had this gear I've collected stuff over the years – and it's just a matter of hooking it up. I kind of knew how to twiddle the knobs and just started getting some help and becoming a student a little bit and learning how to work some stuff. And it was just fascinating to me how to get things to work and get the sounds you kind of are going for. I think I get better with each project. I think each project is a more well realized record than the last one. Hopefully the next one will be even better."

As it is, The Open Road is very good, an album that ranks in the upper tier of Hiatt's albums. It has several first-rate rockers, including "Haulin'" — whose brisk temp fits the song's title — andthe punchy "My Baby." Meanwhile, Hiatt's long-standing talent for creating heartfelt, musically-rich ballads continues with standout songs "Wonder Of Love" and "Carry You Back Home."

Hiatt spent a good chunk of 2010 touring with his band in support of "The Open Road." Now he's starting 2011 by reuniting with pal Lovett for a run of acoustic dates. Hiatt said his tours with Lovett are nothing but fun, and the two have developed a chemistry on stage.

"We just swap songs back and forth and you know, make fun of each other," Hiatt said. "He's a funny guy. I'm basically just his straight man. He's like David Letterman and I'm the pitiful guest, basically. It's pretty funny. We have a lot of fun."

Hiatt said his shows with Lovett are pretty spontaneous by design.

"It's pretty loose," he said. "I think people enjoy that, that it's more just about the songwriting and just throwing songs back and forth. And we sing together on some things and I play some guitar on some songs of his. We just have a great time for two and a half hours. It is enjoyable. We have a lot of fun, and I think usually the audience seems to as well."

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