John Hiatt Gets Tribute Treatment While Delivering New Album

Excerpted from the magazine for

On May 6, John Hiatt arrives with "Beneath This Gruff Exterior," the first album on which he shares billing with his longstanding road band, the Goners.

"The four of us do something together that we don't do apart," Hiatt says of a lineup that features guitarist Sonny Landreth, bassist Dave Ransom, and drummer Kenneth Blevins. "That's what makes a great band."

Hiatt and his bandmates co-produced the New West Records set with Don Smith, who previously helmed the singer/songwriter's 1995 Capitol set, "Walk On." The entire album was cut live in the studio at Blackbird in Berry Hill, Tenn., near Hiatt's Nashville home.

Recording live has "sort of been our modus operandi, roughly speaking, since 'Bring the Family' [in 1987], but in varying degrees," Hiatt says. "We just set it up so that I could play acoustic guitar and sing, and we could all play at the same time. If I go back and sing a vocal when I'm not playing, I don't sing the same. I'm not down in the music. It's different. It doesn't work. I don't phrase it the same. I don't feel it the same as when I'm flailing away on the guitar."

One of Hiatt's former labels will be giving his new record a lift with a project of its own. On May 13, Vanguard -- which issued Hiatt's last two albums, "Crossing Muddy Waters" and "Welcome to the Tiki Bar" -- will release "It'll Come to You ... The Songs of John Hiatt." The 13-track compilation includes previously released covers of Hiatt songs by such artists as Linda Ronstadt, Eric Clapton & B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt, and Emmylou Harris. Three newly recorded cuts, by Buddy & Julie Miller, Patty Griffin, and Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise, also appear.

One song, "The Most Unoriginal Sin," appears on both the tribute set and "Gruff Exterior." Willie Nelson first recorded the tune for his 1993 album "Across the Borderline"; his version appears on "It'll Come to You."

Hiatt says, "I'd kind of forgotten about the song, and [Nelson] was doing some TV special. He was doing a bunch of duets with some people, and he asked me to come down and sing that song with him. We were rehearsing it, and I looked at him at rehearsal and said, 'You know, that's not a bad song.'"

Barnes & Noble and Coalition of Independent Music Stores locations will offer a version of "Beneath This Gruff Exterior" with an extra disc that includes the original acoustic demos of the songs "Uncommon Connection," "Missing Pieces," and "Almost Fed Up With the Blues."

On May 11, Hiatt and the Goners kick off a tour of U.S. theaters and clubs in Annapolis, Md. That stint runs into early July and will be followed by a run of larger venues for which Hiatt and the band will be co-billed with Robert Cray. Dates run into October.

Excerpted from the May 10, 2003, issue of Billboard. The full original text of the article is available in the Premium Services section.

To order a single copy of the issue, visit The Billboard Store.