Somewhere on a two lane state road where speed limits are a suggestion, about 150 miles from Phoenix and 300 miles from Albuquerque, "We're Alright Now," the leadoff track to John Hiatt's 23rd album, Mystic Pinball, is blasting through my car. Each time I try to let the album play through onto the second song, I can't help but hit the repeat button -- over and over again. It's not long until I've memorized the first few verses and the chorus. The volume has now well overpowered my own voice, and weaving between the rolling meadows and red rock mountains, I sing the chorus -- a hypnotic, energizing and inspirational anthem of rebirth and reassurance, reminding us to once again, have a little faith in ourselves, each other and times to come.
The song is ultimately a simple one: the drums drive its roaring heartbeat tempo, and the Nashville-twanged garage guitars hold it together with a looping pulse. But, it's up to the audience to round out the sound -- to clap our hands, stomp our feet and sing along:
We're alright now.
Got a love so strong.
Baby, we're alright now,
Even when it's wrong.
So, won't you stay with me tonight?
We'll cry some tears and sing some songs.
Honey, it's alright now.
All those battle days are gone.
And, just like that, after almost 40 years of recording music, John Hiatt has done it again. He has written a hit song, so relevant, so melodic, so universal, so human that it hooks deep within the listener's soul and takes you on a musical journey into the beautiful world of John Hiatt -- a world of love, heartbreak, hope and rebirth that we have come to understand, embrace and even anticipate, with each new record.
I eventually did allow myself to move on and listen to Mystic Pinball in full. As one of the most prolific contemporary songwriters recording today, John Hiatt continues to astound and humble the creative process by releasing albums, almost on an annual basis, that stand distinctly on their own and relevant to their own moment. Mystic Pinball is no exception; it paints its creator, yet again, as one of the true, authentic, romantic American troubadours, who may just be one of the few still thriving in a dying breed.
There's a certain comfort and familiarity with Mystic Pinball -- a sense that these songs tell the stories of the everyday folks whom John Hiatt has met during his 40 years on the road. "I Just Don't Know What to Say" and "Blues Can't Even Find Me," are lonely and heartbreaking with the gentle melodies to follow; "One of Them Damn Days" is a swinging blues bad-boy-good-girl standard, sure to catch you grinning amid the "unrelenting haze" of the scratchy-voiced narrator. And, yet, as diverse as these stories and songs may seem, they are rooted in what John Hiatt does so well; they are ingrained in the universal foundation of relationships -- friendships and otherwise -- and our collective soul journeys to explore them.
Until this past Saturday night, I had often wondered how John Hiatt could write with such frequency -- how he could churn out these musical tales with such authenticity and apparent ease. But then, my southwestern voyage brought me to the Crescent Ballroom in Phoenix, where he and his band of southerners were sampling songs from Mystic Pinball and taking requests for old classics -- "Crossing Muddy Waters," "Feels Like Rain," "Slow Turning," and "Memphis in the Meantime."
With a smile that never broke and an audience cooled by mist machines in the midnight desert heat, John Hiatt played with the enthusiasm, excitement and honor of what seemed like his first paying gig -- like playing music was a gift not to ever be taken for granted, and we were unexpected witnesses to a dreamer's dream come true. He can write these songs because less than writing about the everyday folks, John Hiatt, himself, is the everyday folk, and in him, we, as the audience, find an approachable, humble, traveling companion -- an old friend -- with whom we can roll down the car windows, sing songs off key and celebrate the simple joys, love and even heartbreak, of life.
Mystic Pinball will be released on New West Records on September 25, 2012.