The Open Road
John Hiatt’s reputation as a songwriter is built upon his ability to capture the essence of characters and their everyday lives. He particularly singles in on men who struggle to create a home, who are devoted to family while, at the same time, feel the loss of their single days. Bring the Family was Hiatt’s “settling down” record, as it celebrated family. Now, with his children grown and firmly ensconced in middle-age Hiatt returns to the rambling urges that reside in a man who travels extensively for his livelihood.
The Open Road finds Hiatt in hindsight mood, looking at life from the rearview mirror, he has said. “It’s not that he’s abandoned his home life, he’s simply taken a new tack on presenting it. But what have captured his focus are the uncertainty and excitement of travel and the thrill of movement. It makes sense that Hiatt would dedicate a record to this theme. He was raised in the land of the Indy 500 and has experienced the fellowship of road warriors, his band, salesmen and truckers. In the 1990’s he did a bit of racing, driving in The Legends and Pro Challenge series. But this isn’t a record about racing; it’s about movement, both real and metaphorical.
Hiatt isn’t shy about using lots of words in his songs, they tumble out of him in torrents. He’s the kind of storyteller who gives you all the details, what the day looks like, how deep the pain goes, what he and she said. Fortunately he includes the lyrics so that you can better follow along. Hiatt’s songs introduce you to characters, gives you their back stories, invites you into their lives, introduces you to their friends and loves, and uses their voice and language to do so. It’s always been one of his strengths as a songwriter. Hiatt’s music pulls from country and rock but also from blues. “Like a Freight Train” with its languid pace and ambling rhythms captures mid-life contemplation and resignation. “My Baby” offers a more seductive blues palate as it paints a portrait of a rather colorful dame: “My baby puts her hairspray on/With a lit cigarette in her mouth/Takes her fingernail polish off/Speedin’ down some rural route. The words glide over a smooth, smoky electric guitar.
“Homeland” is a modern day ghost story, set in the modern subdivisions that dot the Midwest. The spirits of the original inhabitants of the land, the tribes and culture that thrived their remains below the cement foundations, occasionally rising to the surface in the form of lost poltergeist. Hiatt is drawn to stories of past mistakes, men who cheat on their taxes, sell dope, steal from their mothers. What saves them is their aging humanity. It’s not that past behaviors are damned, Hiatt allows his characters, with wit and clarity, the chance to show they’ve changed.
It’s appropriate that Hiatt is backed on the record by his road band, drummer Ken Blevins, bassist Patrick O’Hearn, and Doug Lancio on electric guitar. Together they create a comfortable groove that comes from years of shared experience.