Exclusive: John Hiatt Announces Massive New Vinyl Box Set, ‘Only the Song Survives’
"It's amazing. Twenty years. We packed a lot in, musically speaking."
John Hiatt reflects on his career over the last two decades as he prepares to celebrate the release of Only the Song Survives, a massive vinyl box set that honors his career from 2000's Crossing Muddy Waters through 2018's The Eclipse Sessions -- 11 albums in total. "That means I started out with the records in this box set when I was about 47 years old," Hiatt tells The Boot with a chuckle in his voice, somewhat shocked at what he just said.
"I was still in my 40s, for goodness sake," he adds. "I was a child, just a kid trying to make a buck."
Only the Song Survives highlights Hiatt's tenacious work ethic. "I was busy," he admits. "I was busy, and I really got going in 2000." Each of the box set's records (listed below) is pressed on high-quality, 180-gram wax, and they're all housed in a gorgeous leatherette briefcase, complete with gold stamping, buckle and handle.
"I was completely kept in the dark. My manager, Ken Levitan, and the folks at New West Records put it together," Hiatt says of the curation and creation of Only the Song Survives. "It's really flattering. I'm excited to see it. Hell, I might buy one!"
New West is not only involved with the release of the box set, but they, too, are being celebrated, as all but two of the set's LPs were originally released on the label; in fact, the relationship Hiatt has with New West Records is the longest he's had with any record label. On top of that, four of the albums in the set have never been pressed on vinyl, making this release much more than a greatest hits collection: Only the Song Survives is the definitive collection of Hiatt's career over the last 20 years, 11 LPs spread out over 15 vinyl discs.
"Isn't that great?" Hiatt says when he thinks about listening to Crossing Muddy Waters, The Tiki Bar Is Open, Beneath This Gruff Exterior and Master of Disaster on vinyl, all for the first time. "I've got a turntable and a pair of powered speakers. It's nothing fancy, but it feels great to plunk that needle down and hear that crackle and pop when the song kicks in. It's going to be great to hear some of these records on that turntable."
As Hiatt considers his love for the musical medium, he's excited that others will be joining him in experiencing albums as they are intended to be heard: in whole, with no skipping around from one track to the next.
"We're such a song-oriented world now," he reflects. "It's all about one tune, you know? But people are listening to vinyl and getting back into that experience. It's kind of like a lost thing, but people are dialing back into it."
When he thinks about those early '00s records, Hiatt impresses with his signature optimism and cheer. "I remember how much fun we had making Crossing Muddy Waters," he says with the utmost pride and gratitude. "Like most of my records, it was serendipitous. It was all about getting Davey Faragher and David Immerglück together, and then deciding that it'd be fun to make an acoustic record. It just kind of came together like that, and next thing you know we're over at Justin Niebank's little home studio in his basement, out in the country, and we're recording it. I think it took us four or five days."
He turns to 2001's The Tiki Bar Is Open, noting that he actually started working on the LP prior to Crossing Muddy Waters. "I had started recording it for Capitol Records," Hiatt recalls, "and we played them some stuff, and they were less than enthusiastic. So we basically got them to give us that record, and we put it out after Crossing Muddy Waters."
"Working with Jay Joyce on that was a thrill," he adds. "And you know, that band was the Goners. We had played together, at that point, for about 15 years. That was a fun record to make."
Hiatt's New West Records debut, 2003's Beneath This Gruff Exterior, carries with it similar memories: "That album was all about saying, 'Hey, fellas, let's make a real band record,'" he says. "And that kind of just came about. I worked with the great Don Smith, a great engineer and producer, and that was a thrill, too. I got to work at Blackbird Studio for the first time, and that's just a great studio."
Hiatt then released Master of Disaster in 2005. For him, the album brings up recollections of heading to Memphis to work with his old friend Jim Dickinson and Jim's boys Luther and Cody, of the North Mississippi Allstars.
"Oh, and Patterson Hood's [dad], David, was on bass," Hiatt remembers with a laugh.
Among so many other musicians and friends, Drive-By Truckers member Hood plays a significant role in Only the Song Survives, sharing his own memories of Hiatt and his influence in a beautiful 48-page book that is also housed in the record suitcase. Alongside Hood — who calls Master of Disaster an "often overlooked gem in Hiatt's vast catalog" — other contributions to the book come from James McMurtry, Steve Earle, Bob Seger, Rodney Crowell, Suzy Bogguss and even Hiatt's daughter and fellow New West labelmate, Lilly Hiatt. When he hears the ongoing list of friends and family who pay tribute to him, Hiatt appears speechless for a moment.
"It's surprising," he confesses. "I'm honored. When you line all of these people up like this, and you see it in this book ... it's overwhelming."
As Hiatt examines his past body of work — reflection is not something he's particularly fond of, although he admits that "there's a lot more behind me than there is ahead of me" — he is quick to assure fans that Only the Song Survives is far from a farewell box set. "I've been doing a little bit of writing and been talking to some people, kicking around some ideas for a project," he shares.
"We'll see. I think I've got some more in me," Hiatt continues. "It's sort of been my habit since, well, since 1974. I like writing songs, I like singing them, and I like recording them and putting them out."
As Randy Lewis of the Los Angeles Times shares in the set's book, Only the Song Survives is a celebration and commemoration of the "third act" of Hiatt's storied career. Hiatt considers the idea that the dawn of the 21st century marks the start of his third act, pausing for a brief moment as he does so.
"I might have a fourth act in me," he says. "It might be brief ... but who knows."
Only the Song Survives is available to pre-order via New West Records. The limited-edition box set will be released on Dec. 6.
John Hiatt, Only the Song Survives Box Set Album Listing:
Crossing Muddy Waters (2000) *
The Tiki Bar Is Open (2001) *
Beneath This Gruff Exterior (2003) *
Master of Disaster (2005) *
Live from Austin, TX (2005)
Same Old Man (2008)
The Open Road (2010)
Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns (2011)
Mystic Pinball (2012)
Terms of My Surrender (2014)
The Eclipse Sessions (2018)
* first time on vinyl
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