John Hiatt & Lyle Lovett at Play in a Circle of Song

The song is a major ingredient of any sacred circle. It’s been true for centuries. In many cultures and tribes throughout history, the communal circle is something regarded as holy. It eventually leads to rhythm, dance, and stories. Then comes the inevitable act of putting story to music. To create holiness – that thing that sets all moments of life apart from our daily struggles and triumphs – music must be there at the center, be it the simplicity of a chant or the movement of dance, the telling of story in melody, the complexity of a symphony ... music is always there, our constant companion. Inevitably, it grows and captures our imagination through the vehicle of songs and stories.

If there have ever been  two great, classic carriers of the sacred song, it would be John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett.

The “song circle” or “guitar pull” is a long tradition that goes back to the days of the original singer-songwriters of Nashville and Austin in the ’60s, when artists like Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury, and Roger Miller could be found trading off songs in some smoky clubs or greasy kitchens, in the backstreets and alleys of the great music towns. According to Miller, the term came from the fact that in their struggling days, most songwriters would be found with only one guitar among them. Later, such occasions became standard practice and were breeding ground for future legends. Artists like Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, and Rodney Crowell made their way and took their turn at the center of the flame of such circles of songs, pulling the guitar between them, pounding out future classic songs.

When Texas troubadour Lyle Lovett and Indiana-born John Hiatt launched out together for an acoustic series of tours, sharing the stage and trading songs, they were embarking on an extension of the old guitar-pull tradition. It was an idea also drawn from past gigs at Nashville’s Bluebird Café and Austin’s Cactus Café. 

So when they took the stage together a few years ago, something magical happened. They created that same circle of song, once formed in private spaces of time’s past, now held in public at intimate venues. To the surprise of the artists and audience alike, that same holiness prevailed, which was once held with a hushed regard over the last five decades. It was as though the spirit of Mickey Newbury, Townes Van Zandt, and even Hank Williams stood guard.

When Hiatt and Lovett join together on stage, the space they create is something to behold. According to journalist Nancy Nutile-McMenemy at the Internet site JamBase, during their recent show in Boston, “The two are so comfortable with themselves that they make you feel like you are sitting in the living room with them, getting to know them better through their songs.”

With both of these artists, there is the immediate relief of wry humor, a touch of sarcasm, irony, and depth of soul as real as the Mississippi Delta or the Rio Grande, which runs through their work. The range of performance and songwriting skill that forms their bond for all to experience in concert is palatable. After all, they have nearly a century of songwriting experience between them.

Hiatt’s success in music came from a road of dues paid on the not-so-lucrative songwriting streets of Nashville in the mid-’70s. He was the newly arrived adolescent Midwestern street urchin, ready to ride his way to overnight fame. However, his success was more of a slow-build than a sudden phenomenon.

His childhood in Indiana was not always easy, either. When he was nine, his 21-year-old brother committed suicide. Two years later his father died of a terminal illness. His childhood comfort was found in IndyCar Racing and the music of Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan. Those two icons were the starting point that would soon find young Hiatt absorbing the work of Hank Williams and Muddy Waters.  During his teen years, after learning guitar and beginning to write songs, he joined local bands.

By 1971, at 18 years old, Hiatt moved to Nashville where he was hired as a staff songwriter for a publishing company, for $25 a week. Not being a trained musician, he couldn’t write music or charts, so he recorded 250 songs that he wrote for the company as rough demos. Over the next few years, Hiatt joined the band White Duck, which released two albums and scored a hit with the Hiatt-written, “Train to Birmingham.” He also performed around town as a solo act and grew in stature as an artist to keep an eye on.

As his solo fortunes eclipsed that of White Duck, Hiatt’s song “Sure as I’m Sitting Here” reached the top 20 in 1974, to become a latter day hit for the successful ’60s band Three Dog Night.

It was as a solo artist from 1974 to 1979, threcording a string of commercially unsuccessful albums that were nonetheless adventurous and engaging, that Hiatt developed a sound from his country roots-rock beginnings that would become an influence in the new wave rock of the late ’70s. It found him in the company of Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, and Dave Edmunds.

In 1982, after recording another string of critically successful albums that were commercial failures with MCA, Hiatt collaborated with Jim Dickson and Ry Cooder to write “Across the Borderline,” which has become a modern classic. It was the theme song for the Jack Nicholson classic film The Border, sung by Freddy Fender. Ahead of its time, the song speaks empathically from the experience of the undocumented Mexican immigrant who crosses the border in hope of redemption, only to be bitterly disappointed. Today, after being recorded and/or performed by Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, and Bruce Springsteen, the song stands beside Woody Guthrie’s “Train Wreck at Los Gatos Canyon (Deportee)” as a classic folk song told from inside the experience of undocumented immigrants.

In 1987, Hiatt released his now-classic hit album Bring the Family. The album was recorded with Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe, and Jim Keltner. That same group of musicians would form Little Village, recording one eponymous album around the same time period.

Bring the Family stands today as one of the best albums by a singer-songwriter recorded in the ’80s. With songs like “Memphis in the Meantime,” “Have a Little Faith in Me,” and “Alone in the Dark,” the album has since found its way into movies and television shows when a strong song is needed to bring home a dramatic moment, as happened memorably in the hit movie True Lies with Jamie Lee Curtis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Bonnie Raitt also famously scored a top ten hit with Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love,” from her Grammy-winning Nick of Time.

Since Bring the Family, Hiatt has gone on to create a legacy of solid albums and secure a place in the ever-growing Americana Music-roots movement. Today, he is one of the genre’s elder statesmen.

As rough and sometimes strewn with tragedy as Hiatt’s rise to fame as a songwriter was, Lovett’s was somewhat story-driven with traces of comedy. 

Raised in Houston, Texas, Lovett graduated from A&M University in College Station, Texas, where he made friends with future successful songwriter Robert Earl Keen, with whom he wrote “The Front Porch Song.” Lovett was a songwriter from the get-go. By 1980, at 23, he was a known commodity around Texas songwriting circles, with his wry sense of humor and original take on song craft.

Lovett had a different vision of American music than his peers. He was part smoky jazzman, part hard-core Texas country singer. He couldn’t settle on one or the other, so he has brought both styles with him throughout his prolific, Grammy-winning 29-year recording career.

His first two albums – his self-titled debut and 1987’s Pontiac – found him straddling the line between comedy and tragedy with a sometimes light-hearted world view similar to that of Randy Newman, plus some Townes Van Zandt-influenced country blues, he created his own unique, reflective vision that called up the hopes, dreams, and urban realties that drove songs like “If I Had a Boat” and “God Will.”

Lovett's first album, which has defined much of his work since its release in 1988, features Lyle Lovett and his Large Band. On it, he moves through six blues-jazz songs that include big band brass arrangements without a trace of country. The second half, the final six songs, are uncompromising country-western with original titles like “I Married Her Just Because She Looks Like You,” and a faithful pedal steel-driven recreation of the Tammy Wynette classic “Stand By Your Man.” This album has become a career template, especially for his concerts and live albums, like 2007’s Grammy winning It’s Not Big It’s Large. That disc demonstrated how, in concert, he brings out the finest in live, big-band jazz alongside performances of country songs with Texas songwriting icon Guy Clark.

He also attracted the attention of iconic filmmaker Robert Altman, leading to being cast in the 1992 classic film The Player. It was on the set that he met actress Julia Roberts, which led to a two-year marriage and a brief, innocuous appearances in the tabloids. Thus began his work in film, which included another soundtrack for Altman, Dr. T and the Women. He also teamed up with Randy Newman on “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” for the film Pixar film Toy Story.

As John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett now form their own circle of song together, they offer audiences a chance to witness a nearly 50-year-old tradition by two artists who are equals, as they illuminate each other and the audience with the best in American music, songs, and stories.

This article originally appeared in San Diego Troubadour.

Thanks Terry! I'd be (more) jealous if I hadn't seen "An evening with Joe Ely" earlier this week from the second row.  It  is always a treat to see singer/songwriters in an intimate setting. 

Thanks Hal....yes..intimate is the best way to experience a singer songwriter in their purest element.

I was lucky enough to see Lyle at the Cave in Chapel Hill just before he released his first album. I  saw John at the Cat's Cradle in 1984? To be honest both of those shows were intimate because they were poorly attended and for the lucky few who did see them they were great shows by two rising stars!