In the late '80s, slide guitarist Sonny Landreth, bassist Dave Ranson and drummer Kenneth Blevins were riding shotgun with singer/songwriter John Hiatt on a journey that was transforming Hiatt from an unknown into one of the most respected names in rock 'n' roll. Dubbed "the Goners" by Hiatt, the Louisiana band watched small nightclub audiences mushroom into sold-out theater crowds and television appearances on Saturday Night Live and Late Night With David Letterman, recorded Hiatt's 1988 masterpiece Slow Turning, and started preparing for Hiatt's follow-up album. Then things took a strange turn.
"I got a call from Jo-El Sonnier," remembers Blevins, "asking me if I was interested in working with him. He told me how much it paid a week, and out of curiosity and courtesy, I called John and said, I got a call for this gig, and before I could even get 'Sonnier' out of my mouth, he said, 'Take that gig.'"
The news that Hiatt was severing ties reached the rest of the band in similar roundabout fashion. "The way I recall it was, they had [Hiatt's] management call Sonny, then had Sonny call us," says Ranson. "It was a bit of a surprise, especially because we'd already recorded demos of things like 'Real Fine Love' and 'Through Your Hands,' and they sounded great. (The songs later showed up on Hiatt's next album, 1990's Stolen Moments, without the Goners' participation.) But Hiatt was known for that, as far as using a lot of different people, and never sticking for one band."
The Goners returned home. Landreth relaunched a successful solo career (with Hiatt singing backup vocals on Landreth's 1992 album, Outward Bound), and Blevins and Ranson each played with a variety of bands, including Tiny Town and Lil' Band o' Gold. But there were frequent, poignant reminders of their time together as John Hiatt and the Goners.
"When people found out that I played on Slow Turning, a lot of times they'd go into this thing about how it changed their life, or they'd remember a specific concert," says Blevins. "Every time I see Rodney Crowell, he tells me that our show with John at the Cannery in 1988 was the best live concert he's ever seen in his life."
Hiatt went on to record a steady stream of albums in the '90s, with varied results. His much hyped-reunion with former collaborators Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe, and Jim Keltner as Little Village resulted in an underwhelming album and brief tour before the band splintered. Over the next few albums, Hiatt's writing moved further and further away from the heartfelt truths of his best work, getting bogged down in attempts at flat humor and strained cleverness. (It's no coincidence that on the two-CD John Hiatt Anthology recently released by Hip-O Records, songs from Bring the Family and Slow Turning compose a quarter of the collection.) As 2000 approached and Hiatt took stock of his career, he felt a familiar pull.
"I just thought, we're coming up on the tail end of the 20th century, and it'd be fun to play with those guys, and get the Goners back together," says Hiatt by phone from a stop on his current tour with B.B. King and Buddy Guy. In the spring of 1999, Hiatt summoned Landreth, Blevins and Ranson to join him in Tennessee for a pair of informal and intimate club shows. "It was just like riding a bicycle," Hiatt says. "At the same time, it's one of those things where nothing's changed, but everything's changed."
Their old musical bonds intact, Hiatt and the Goners booked studio time to make The Tiki Bar Is Open, which hits record stores this Tuesday, Sept. 11, and is their first album together in a decade. When sessions for the album began, the question was whether the quartet could reach the benchmark they set a decade ago.
In 1987, Hiatt was a music industry veteran who'd released seven albums with little to show for it. Albums like 1979's Slug Line and 1985's Warming Up to the Ice Age found Hiatt constantly searching for a signature sound, flirting with everything from pop to punk to new wave -- but usually winding up resembling an awkward teenager whose clothes don't fit quite right. He also went through devastating personal setbacks in the early '80s; his wife committed suicide shortly after the birth of their daughter, and Hiatt battled drug and alcohol addiction.
Hiatt got sober in 1984, and remarried in 1986. He felt like a new man when he got a contract with A&M Records, and recruited slide guitar wizard Ry Cooder -- whose band Hiatt played with for Cooder's 1980 Borderline album and tour -- and bassist Nick Lowe and drummer Jim Keltner, a pair of former Hiatt associates. Armed with that lineup and a new batch of songs that chronicled his troubled past and hopeful future, Hiatt recorded Bring the Family, which met immediate and widespread critical acclaim. There was one hitch, however; Cooder and the band weren't available for the subsequent tour.
"Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel heard that I was looking for a band that could play this stuff," remembers Hiatt. "He called me up and said, there's this guy you've got to hear -- he's the other slide guitar player."
"I was doing session work for Asleep at the Wheel," says Landreth, "and I'm in the studio getting ready to do this track, and when I started playing, Ray walks in holding up the phone. That's how I met John."
Former Clifton Chenier sideman Landreth quickly landed the gig, and spoke up when auditions for a rhythm section were going nowhere fast. He and bassist Ranson were childhood friends who'd been playing in bands together since 1970, and Blevins had distinguished himself in the Lafayette music scene by playing with progressive Cajun rock band Coteau. Hiatt was under the impression that Blevins and Ranson were Landreth's rhythm section, but the three men rarely played together. Landreth had to track Blevins down at a gig he was playing in Canada, with short notice of the audition for Hiatt.
"I bought a tape of Bring the Family in a Montreal music store and got on the plane to fly to Nashville to play with them," remembers Blevins. "It's a three-and-a-half hour flight, but there was no way I was going to be able to chart each song. So I said, well, I'll listen to the first song on the record ('Memphis in the Meantime'), and if he asks me what I want to play, I'll say that one. I get there, and Hiatt says, 'Let's play "Memphis in the Meantime."' So we did, and he goes, 'That's it. Cancel the rest of the auditions.'"
For Hiatt, the Goners' instrumental prowess helped convey the emotional grit of his songs like "Alone in the Dark" and "Lipstick Sunset." "It just clicks, because I work in these different styles, and the Goners seem to be able to shift gears so quickly," says Hiatt. "It's tradition in Louisiana that you just don't play one style, you play it all, blues and zydeco and Cajun and swamp pop. They come from that tradition, so for them to go from straight up rock to blues or gospel, it's nothing to them."
With the Goners in tow, the Bring the Family tour quickly established Hiatt as a rising star, and gave an immeasurable boost to his reputation as a gifted songwriter. Bonnie Raitt relaunched her storied comeback with a version of Bring the Family's "Thing Called Love," while "Have a Little Faith in Me" was covered by Joe Cocker, Delbert McClinton and recently, Jewel. Louisiana artists such as Aaron Neville, Johnny Adams and Irma Thomas have all recorded Hiatt tunes, and Bob Dylan even called and asked him to write a song for him for the movie Hearts of Fire. "When Bob Dylan calls, you do what he asks you to do," says Hiatt. "He didn't wind up doing any of the three songs that I wrote for him, because they sounded like bush league Bob Dylan songs. But he cut [Hiatt's song] 'The Usual' instead, and it just blew my mind."
Despite the Goners' superb performances on their first tour, Hiatt initially didn't ask the band into the studio for the Slow Turning sessions. He cut early versions of songs like "Trudy and Dave" using another slide guitar ringer, David Lindley, and vocal group the Chambers Brothers. But he wasn't satisfied with the results, and brought back the Goners. With legendary producer Glyn Johns (whose credits include the Who, the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton) at the helm, the reconvened team came up with an album that is arguably stronger than its predecessor, and the Goners had front-row seats to witness Hiatt's songwriting genius.
"As a songwriter myself, I'm completely blown away by him," says Landreth. "He's a songwriting machine. He writes great songs very quickly, and just keeps on going. One morning or afternoon he walked into the studio and said, 'Here's one I just came up with,' and it was 'Georgia Rae.' It's really cool to hear him in the process, and you just hope some of that magic rubs off."
Besides containing a number of songs that are still staples of Hiatt's repertoire ("Drive South," "Tennessee Plates," "Icy Blue Heart" and the title track), Slow Turning also boasts "Feels Like Rain," one of the most beautiful songs ever written with a Louisiana backdrop. But Hiatt's brilliant use of Lake Pontchartrain and the Causeway as the song's emotional bridge didn't come from personal experience.
"I wrote that song sitting in my living room in Tennessee," remembers Hiatt. "It was my first house, and we had just fooled the bank into thinking we could pay for it. My wife and I had two kids going into our marriage, and our daughter had just been born. I was in love with my wife and thinking about her, and I was thinking about the Goners, too, and how much I love the music these guys make. Most of what I know about Louisiana I get from the Goners."
The critical and commercial success of Slow Turning, however, didn't change Hiatt's restless nature. If anything, the album's achievements afforded him new career opportunities -- which didn't involve the Goners. "It was just my musical wanderlust," says Hiatt. "There's a certain autonomy in the singer/songwriter thing by nature, and I wanted to try something different. I'd never made a record with studio musicians, and thought, what the hell, I'll try that. Stolen Moments was an experiment, and now I know that it's not my favorite sound. But I wouldn't change anything.
"There's something special in what we (Hiatt & the Goners) do, and we don't talk about it much, but it's there. It's the music money can't buy, and it doesn't come along any day. For whatever reason, we let it sit for 11, 12 years."
If there were any uncomfortable feelings lingering over their initial breakup, they quickly dissipated when Hiatt and the Goners began recording new material in the fall of 1999. "What was the most delightful thing was how well we've all aged," says Hiatt. We've all grown up, and all the silly little bullshit which might have come up in the past, everyone has worked out those ruffles -- or we still have 'em and nobody pays any attention to 'em."
The sessions found Hiatt on a songwriting tear, and the band quickly completed a full album's worth of material. Executives at Hiatt's label, Capitol Records, weren't as enthusiastic when they heard the tracks. Instead of acquiescing to label brass, Hiatt decided to try and buy his way out of his contract. The tenuous process threatened to derail the project, but Hiatt had faith.
"My manager was confident that we could get out of there with the record, and because we felt so strongly about it, we just said, it's gonna be okay. It was nice because I didn't have to worry about the guys -- Sonny has his solo career and is a great songwriter, Dave plays with Lil' Band o' Gold, and Kenneth's been going out and playing with a bunch of people. I knew that when we found a home for the album, it would all be good."
The dispute turned out to be a blessing in disguise. In the interim, Hiatt channeled his inspiration he'd found writing and playing with the Goners into Crossing Muddy Waters, a superb stripped-down acoustic record. For the first time in his career, he retained ownership of the master tapes, and leased the album to Vanguard Records. He used that same blueprint when he eventually was released from Capitol Records, giving Hiatt and the Goners complete artistic freedom on The Tiki Bar Is Open. (Hiatt leased the new CD to Vanguard Records as well.)
The whole process gave the new songs an ultimately exhilarating jolt, and for Hiatt, it felt like tapping a familiar creative wellspring. "The Goners are an enormous rhythm machine," says Hiatt. "Dave and Kenneth are the biggest rhythm box in the world, and Sonny's whole thing is rhythmic, too. The way my rhythm [guitar] playing fits with them, it's immeasurable."
"He can't believe we're so old and can play with so much power," says Blevins with a laugh. "I've played with a lot of bass players, but never with anybody like Dave. He manhandles that sucker, and we've got that south Louisiana thing, so it's very unique what happens when we play together."
The proof is in the grooves of the album's uptempo songs, from the frenetic ensemble churning of "Everybody Went Low," Landreth's careening lead on "Lilacs in Ohio," Blevins and Ranson's hammerlock pounding on the title track, and the downright nasty swamp vibe of "I Know a Place." The band also stretches in some new directions, best exemplified on "Farther Stars," an ethereal nine-minute piece of psychedelia.
"I showed them the chord changes for 'Farther Stars,' which is as far as we go for rehearsal," remembers Hiatt. "[Producer] Jay Joyce has all these little [electronic] boxes that cost 50 bucks, and he wasn't even finished with this one, but we just went out and started playing to it. And that sound Sonny gets -- it's some gadget or stomp box, and in his hands, it's like the sound of God's planet."
While the album's intoxicating and sleek production crackles with energy, the ballads on The Tiki Bar Is Open show Hiatt returning to his greatest strength, writing about kin, love and loss. The bittersweet melodies and lyrics on "Something Broken," "Rock of Your Love" and "I'll Never Get Over You" are a full-circle return to the feeling and themes of Slow Turning. And there's no greater example of those rekindled emotions than "My Old Friend."
"I remember writing 'My Old Friend,'" Hiatt says, "and thinking about how my kids are growing up and watching them get interested in music, and how much music meant to us, but it's kind of about the Goners, about us getting back together."
"The one thing about John," says Landreth, "is that there's a strong sense of family that's obvious in his work and songs, and that carries over in the group as well. When you come back and work things out, there's a good bit of feeling of what we've all gone through. Like 'My Old Friend,' there's a deeper level here. Dave and Kenneth and I go way back, and then you add that combination with John, and it's more layers of friendship that go way back. That makes it stand."
Hiatt and the Goners are currently on a package tour with B.B. King and Buddy Guy, with dates booked into October. These dates only allow for a 45-minute set from the band, and with The Tiki Bar Is Open now in hand, all parties are eager to begin their own headline shows in the fall, straight into 2002, and give the new songs their proper debut in a full show. Given past history, no one is saying how long the current reunion will last -- but they're going to enjoy every minute of it.
"It's hard to believe it's been 12 years since we've been together, but this is going smoother now than I ever would have thought," says Ranson. "But you don't take anything for granted. I could be home playing wedding receptions next month." He pauses. "And that'd be alright, too."