NEW YORK (AP) — John Hiatt was intrigued. Who wouldn't be?
Noted producer Kevin Shirley had left a message with Hiatt's manager: "I know where John is trying to go with his music, and I think I can get him there."
"Nobody has ever said that to me before," Hiatt said, adding with a laugh, "I don't even know where I'm going."
Hiatt had produced his two previous albums on his own. Since Shirley's statement came with an offer — he'd fly to Nashville for a free trial — the two men began working together on Hiatt's 20th disc.
The resulting "Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns" is a strong one, judged by The New York Times as Hiatt's best work since 1995 and deserving to be mentioned alongside two of the pivotal works in his career, "Bring the Family" and "Crossing Muddy Waters."
Shirley, who has worked with Journey, Aerosmith and the Black Crowes, has always been impressed with Hiatt's songwriting. But he said it seemed Hiatt and his musicians hadn't been pushed much beyond the roots rock genre where they comfortably fit.
"I just thought there was a mystery and a darkness to his songs that wasn't being exploited enough," Shirley said. He and Hiatt use the term cinematic to describe it, the notion of giving the songs more room to breathe.
One example is the opening track "Damn This Town," narrated by a loser who lives with his mom at age 57, has seen all sorts of evil and misery befall his family and keeps one secret: "I can't let my mama tell you what her youngest boy did."
The album closer, "When New York Had Her Heart Broke," also sets a striking mood. Shirley had an unusual request, asking the musicians to play as if they were disconnected from one another, to approximate the jagged nerves of New York on Sept. 11, 2001. Hiatt's vocals don't come in until the 2:20 mark of the song.
Hiatt ends on a hopeful note that was not apparent when he wrote it: "Ah, but she will rise again."
The singer happened to be in New York that day, scheduled for a round of interviews to support a new album. They were canceled, of course, and he walked city streets before getting out later on a train. He wrote "When New York Had Her Heart Broke" in the next couple of weeks to help him personally come to grips with the event but performed it only a few times. He never recorded it, not wanting to seem exploitive.
He was adamant about that when Shirley noticed the file on the iPad where Hiatt stores songs in progress. He had to be coaxed into even performing it for Shirley in the studio — then burst into tears when the song was over, Shirley said.
It still took some convincing to get Hiatt to record it.
Shirley did his job quickly and had clear ideas, but wasn't so enamored with recording process that he lost sight of the music being made, Hiatt said. "We never felt like we were in the studio," he said. "And, to me, that is always the hurdle that you have to jump — the environment."
Hiatt is wary of musicians and producers who get too wrapped up in the technical aspects of their work. Too often, he can hear a person's skills and training when they play an instrument, but not music. He's from the school of "let's go out and see what happens," he said.
"I'm real proud of this record," he said. "It is too early for me. I'm still in love with it. You're always in love with the record you just made. It's like your latest romance. This record was special to me because of the working relationship with Kevin and the guys who played it. It made something special that I couldn't have gotten if I'd made another self-produced record."
Sunnier work includes "I Love That Girl," written with his wife of 25 years in mind. The same woman was the subject of Hiatt's "Thing Called Love," best known by Bonnie Raitt's version, written in the blush of new love.
"Twenty-five years along, it just keeps changing and evolving," he said. "I guess that's why we stay together. It just keeps getting to more wonderful places."
Another silver anniversary is approaching, of Hiatt's "Bring the Family," recorded with a killer band of Hiatt, guitarist Ry Cooder, bass player Nick Lowe and drummer Jim Keltner. The 1987 album contains what is probably Hiatt's most enduring song, "Have a Little Faith in Me."
There are no deluxe reissue plans. Hiatt would love to reconvene that band at some point; they made an album together in the 1990s under the Little Village moniker, but it was a letdown, partly doomed by democracy. Hiatt said they resolved to write all the songs together and it would probably work better for the artists to bring in songs of their own.
"The thing that we missed was the rough-and-tumble rock band we had on 'Bring the Family,'" he said. "I'd love to have another crack at it. That's what the band does best — that ragged-edge, seat of the pants playing where it all sounds like it's about to fall apart."
In concert when Hiatt introduces "Have a Little Faith in Me," he thanks his audience for keeping faith with him.
"I'm running out of time," he said. "I'll be 59 at the end of this month. All I know is, I got a lot more time behind me than I have in front of me. I love what I'm doing and I want to do more of it. If anything, it has way more value to me — the work — than it ever has."
EDITOR'S NOTE — David Bauder can be reached at dbauder(at)ap.org