Armed with a gritty sense of humor, a raspy singing voice, a raw-but-poetic lyrical style and a rock-solid band, veteran songwriter John Hiatt stands out as one of the more entertaining and poignant balladeers and storytellers of the contemporary Americana/roots music field.
Revered and respected among fans and critics alike, he's an enthusiastic figure with plenty of colorful life experiences to sing about.
Armed with a new album, "Terms of My Surrender," his 22nd studio album in a 40-year career, he and his backing trio head to Charleston this week for an intimate performance at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center.
Hiatt and his band, simply known as The Combo, will co-headline the show with longtime colleagues the Robert Cray Band.
Cray and his longtime combo are back on the road this summer behind their 17th studio album, "In My Soul," a fluid, organic, emotive collection of original tunes and tasteful renditions of soul and R&B classics by Otis Redding and Bobby "Blue" Bland.
The bill promises a rich mix of authentic blues, soul and song craft with a rock 'n' roll kick and a touch of twang.
"We're really excited to be co-billed with the fantastic Robert Cray and his band that he put together back in the late '80s," Hiatt says. "It'll be fun. He'll play for an hour and 15 minutes, and we'll play for an hour and 15 minutes. It's a tight set for both of us, and we'll only be able to fit in a few new songs here and there, but it will be a great show."
John Hiatt, 61, grew up in Indianapolis. His initial musical experiences came when he dabbled in various rock and roots projects growing up. As a teen, he explored the blues and R&B leanings of The Rolling Stones and the British Invasion before getting into the folky works of Bob Dylan and the stripped-down country and rockabilly of Johnny Cash.
Hiatt moved to Nashville, Tenn., in the 1970s to pursue a songwriting career. His earliest songs were recorded by such artists as Tracy Nelson, Conway Twitty, Bonnie Raitt, Ronnie Milsap and Three Dog Night.
In 1974, he released a solo debut LP titled "Hangin' Around the Observatory."
Early in his career, Hiatt established himself as a solid rhythm guitarist and crooner more concerned with the feel and vibe of the songs than technical flare or fanciness.
"I've always just let the feel thing happen," Hiatt says. "You can't think about it. That's the magic of music. I think a certain amount of feel comes from trust, faith and those good things that come when you decide to work with another group of human beings. You take a risk."
Hiatt recorded various solo and band collections for the MCA and Geffen labels through the late '70s and early '80s before earning his first major success with the 1986 release "Bring the Family," which featured supporting performances by drummer Jim Keltner and guitarists Ry Cooder and Nick Lowe.
Consistently recording and touring through the years, Hiatt built a loyal fan base, earning critical praise.
Through the 2000s, he embarked on a lively, artistically focused relationship with the New West record label, releasing a handful of independently produced albums that reflected a more focused and personalized style.
On the newly released 11-song collection "Terms of My Surrender," Hiatt sounds more personal than ever. It's a spare and sparse production that allows plenty of space for Hiatt's subtle guitar stylings and melodies.
"I think it's more of a singer-songwriter type of record than the last couple," he says. "It seems to focus more on the song, more on me and the guitar ... for better or worse. Thematically, it has a little more of a blues kind of vibe to it. As far as the lyrical content goes, it's more of the same; love and hate, bitterness and tears, surrender and hope, and all points in-between."
One of Hiatt's longtime collaborators and bandmates, guitarist Doug Lancio, produced "Terms of My Surrender." Lancio, who's also worked with such Americana acts as Patty Griffin and Jack Ingram, convinced Hiatt to put away his electric guitar in favor of an acoustic six-string and harmonica for the recording sessions. Drummer Kenny Blevins and bassist Patrick O'Hearn add tasteful embellishments and basic rhythms to the mix.
"Doug's fantastic," Hiatt says. "He's a great musician, and we all love playing with him on stage and in the studio. We have a unique communication set up with this band. We have a language of music that's a played-out thing. We talk to each other when we're playing. It's risky to make music like that. It takes a little courage because it requires you to step up, let some stuff happen.
"Sometimes, you have to be willing to play bad," he adds. "You have to allow yourself to be vulnerable. A lot of musicians don't want to do that because they have too much pride. They're too concerned with their skill and technique, and they don't want to play badly, even though that's what the song might require."
Some of the new songs, like the slow-swingin' title track and amusingly grumpy "Old People," have cute, joyful lyrical moments. Others like the banjo-driven "Wind Don't Have to Hurry" and the anthemic "Long Time Comin'," deflate the pain of life's harshest experiences with indirect positivity. Somehow, humor works its way into even the darkest turns.
"With the humor, I like the way the songs on 'Terms of My Surrender' sit well and go together," Hiatt says. "So many times, you have to laugh to keep from crying, for goodness sake. Most comedians are people who've had painful lives, and I think they'd be the first to tell you. That's what humor's for, to bear the pain, you know? It's good and necessary. I had to laugh a lot as a kid because I had a bunch of crazy stuff happen. I had to find a way to rise above it, and using humor was a way to do that."
While Hiatt's latest album leans toward the folky side of Americana, Grammy Award-winning Robert Cray's new stuff settles deeply into a warm mix of vintage R&B, soul and blues.
Compared to some of his more slickly produced blues/pop albums of the Georgia-born singer/guitarist's early years, like his 1986 breakthrough album "Strong Persuader" and the straight-beat hit "Smoking Gun," "In My Soul" is strikingly honest and down to earth. And the soulful beats and blues licks are as invigorating as anything he's tried before.
Cray's recording career kicked off in 1980 when he released an LP titled "Tomato, Who's Been Talkin'."
As a guitarist, he developed a clean tone and an expressive technique over the years (think Eric Clapton meets Albert Collins). As a singer, he specialized in a high-tone delivery from the heart.
Cray worked on the new studio album with a pal, acclaimed producer/drummer Steve Jordan, who's well revered as a hands-on studio wiz known for his work with Keith Richards' side projects and the John Mayer Trio. The collaboration worked splendidly.
"Steve and I have worked together before in the late '90s, and I loved the natural sound quality that he went for here," says Cray. "He's all about sound, and it's more about the clean, vintage sound. We took the album title from the name of the Bobby "Blue" Bland that we covered, 'Deep in My Soul.' We just wanted to do it pretty straight up as a tribute to Bobby, who was one of my real heroes. After the whole record was done, we stood away from it for a bit."
Cray laughs for a moment. "That's when we looked for the concept behind it, after it was all done. Steve suggested the title 'In My Soul,' and that was it. There's a lot of different types of soul music on the record, so it captures that well.
"When you listen to an older record by someone like Otis Redding, you find songs that you love, even if they weren't the most popular songs off of the record when it came out," Cray says. "For us, there's no reason not to cut a deep track like 'Your Good Thing (Is About to End).' "
One of Jordan's suggestions was doing a take of Redding's "Nobody's Fault But Mine." Cray and his bandmates loved the idea.
"We all have that thing about whether it might be sacrilegious to touch a certain song by a great artist, but you have to go past that," Cray says. "If you try to redo it exactly like the original, you set yourself up for harsh comparisons. You just have to go for it and find an arrangement that feels comfortable."
While the new album features a few covers, the bulk of "In My Soul" is comprised of original material penned by Cray and his bandmates, bassist Richard Cousins, drummer Lee Falconer and keyboardist Dover Weinberg. The foursome boasts a well-established musical chemistry.
"One thing that helps us out as a band is the fact that we share the songwriting credits," Cray says. "I think that that extra participation brings everybody into feeling like they're a part of the project. What also helps on the record is the respect we have for Steve Jordan. He's a musician, he knows how to get everyone together, and he knows how to set the mood in the studio. It makes it a lot of fun."