When John Hiatt moved to Nashville at age 18, he landed a job as a songwriter, even though he couldn't read music. Forty years later, it's hard to imagine a world without his songs, which have been recorded by luminaries such as Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King and Iggy Pop.
But despite all the covers by famous folks, no one performs Hiatt's tunes quite like Hiatt himself. His latest album, Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns, has won accolades from Rolling Stone and the L.A. Times since its release last month. If critics chose one word for this artist, it would probably be "craftsmanlike," followed closely by "eclectic" and "no-frills." Dirty Jeans teems with all three qualities, seamlessly merging roots-rock with folk, blues and soul influences, plus a sneaky hint of pop.
The pop comes from "I Love That Girl," a tune filled with classic hooks and earnestness that sound vintage in an era of ironic lyrics and sonic experimentation. Hiatt morphs into a lovelorn soul singer for "Don't Wanna Leave You Now," unleashing a croon that's earned him comparisons to Elvis Costello, even though his voice is a bit rougher around the edges. "All the Way Under" adds accordions to twangy guitars, which somehow works when fused with bluesy musings such as "I don't trust a man ain't been lost/I don't trust a woman ain't been double-crossed."
The album delves deep into Hiatt's personal experiences as well, showcasing his masterful storytelling talents throughout. The tales' tone ranges from lighthearted to irrefutably dark tinged with a few sparks of hope. "Detroit Made" is a love letter to the Buick Electra 225 Hiatt drove while living in Pasadena in the late 1970s, and "Adios to California" chronicles his departure from the sun and surf after his wife committed suicide, leaving him with a dark cloud of despair and a young daughter to raise. It's a classic album, and it has something to teach those who listen and contemplate.