John Hiatt's artistic life this year has been marked by two of America's great 21st-century tragedies: the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina. In May, his performance of his song "Feels Like Rain" at the New Orleans House of Blues appeared in an episode of HBO's "Treme," with the song serving both as a metaphor for the city and as a lesson in songwriting for Lucia Micarelli's violinist character Lily. "That was a thrill," says Hiatt, who has become email buddies with the show's writer Tom Piazza. "I was tickled."
Then, there's "When New York Had Her Heart Broke," an autobiographical number about 9/11. The song, written in Philadelphia on Sept. 13, 2001, and performed at New York's Town Hall later that month, closes Hiatt's new album Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns, due Aug. 2 from New West Records.
"I never had the notion of recording ["When New York Had Her Heart Broke"], says Hiatt, who was in New York at the time of the attacks, promoting his 2001 album "The Tiki Bar Is Open" that was released on Sept. 11.
"I played it for [producer] Kevin Shirley. He was living in New York at the time with little kids in school and he reacted as someone who lived there, saying I should record it. I had mixed feelings. I felt like there was some distance, and time takes a little bit of the sting out. The music in the song sounds like [the] horror that it was. We just started making that racket and at the end of the song a bit of hope pokes out in the lyric 'She will rise again.' It seemed to work out musically."
Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns is Hiatt's fifth studio album in eight years for New West. His arrangement with the Los Angeles-based independent is similar to one he had with Vanguard on 2000's Crossing Muddy Waters and the later The Tiki Bar Is Open: Hiatt finances his recordings and licenses them to the label, signing each deal separately, one record at a time. His prolific output, accompanied by consistent touring, has seen a wide disparity in sales results; Crossing Muddy Waters has sold 167,000 copies, while last year's The Open Road moved only 39,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Despite an impressive career that stretches back to 1974 and includes several Grammy Award nominations, Hiatt has never cracked the top 40. Some of his most famous songs are better known for other artists' versions-- "Have a Little Faith in Me" (Jewel), "Thing Called Love" (Bonnie Raitt), "Washable Ink" (the Neville Brothers), and "Riding With the King" (Eric Clapton and B.B. King).
"It's a wonderful way to work," Hiatt says of his unique relationship with the labels. "We decide who we place [the album] with and everybody says, 'You do this and we'll do that,' and there's nobody saying, 'Kid, I'm gonna make you a star.' [With the last album] I felt like I creatively caught fire and the band I put together was incredible. Plus it's where I am in my life. I am more passionate. I'm 59 and the longer I go on the more it means to 'em. Time's a wastin'. I want to make music that means something."
The first single from Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns, "Damn This Town," was released to triple A radio four weeks before the album's arrival. On the day of the album's release, Hiatt will speak and perform at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, and he will support the release with shows on Aug. 5 at the Troubadour in Los Angeles and on Aug. 12-13 at City Winery in New York.
"What works for us is having John clear out a week to do events in L.A. and media in New York," New West GM Mike Ruthig says of Hiatt's promotional activities. "That way he gets everything done in two places. In the last year we've seen John's social networking explode. He has a big pool of fans -- and we work hard to reach them -- but you never know where a sale may come from." Today, Hiatt has more than 22,000 "likes" on Facebook and a growing following on Twitter (@johnhiattmusic), which he joined in March.