Listen to Austin 360 Radio

SXSW preview: John Hiatt

Brian T. Atkinson
John Hiatt has recorded at his farm in Franklin, Tenn., but the latest album, 'The Open Road,' was done in a studio. The songwriting legend plays La Zona Rosa tonight.

John Hiatt's "The Open Road" matches equal parts spirit ("Go Down Swingin' '') and sentiment ("Wonder of Love"). The celebrated songwriter, who has been covered by Paula Abdul, Bob Dylan and Iggy Pop, is eager to present new music at South by Southwest.

"It's one of the great music festivals in a great music town," Hiatt, 57, says. "I'm excited this year that my daughter (Lilly Hiatt) and her band (The Dropped Ponies) are going to open the New West (Records) party (tonight)."

American-Statesman: You sounded great on Letterman (Hiatt performed on ‘Late Night' last week). How did that song (‘The Open Road') come together?

John Hiatt: Well, how'd I look — old and mean?

AS: No, young and spry.

JH: I like the sound of that! ‘The Open Road' came together like they all do. I pick up a guitar and voilà! (He laughs.) I took (last year) off from the road and started writing last January and February. I wrote about four or five songs then, but that was the first one that popped out.

AS: Which other songs came out early?

JH: It seems we did the first sessions in May. "The Open Road" was the first we cut, and it set the tone for the proceedings. I think two or three songs hit the cutting room floor from that batch, but we had a direction. "Haulin'," "Go Down Swingin' " and "Like a Freight Train" were in that first batch. We had a groove established.

AS: Describe the album's lyrical theme.

JH: The theme always seems to come later. It's just a group of songs, after all. Once they start hanging together, they start to take on a theme. I guess it's whatever the open road would suggest to people. Horizons? However you want to interpret that is fine by me (laughs). When I'm on the road, I'm always writing about coming home; when I'm at home I always writing about the road.

AS: The lyrics and melody in ‘Homeland' work particularly well together. Which is generally most essential to a good song?

JH: I think it's the melody and the feel of the song. If you don't have that, you don't really have anything. The way I write, it's mostly the music coming first. The words – I mean, you have to have something to sing — they come from the feel that the music creates. Music suggests a lyric.

AS: Is there still a mystery in how you discover songs?

JH: Nothing but mystery, are you kidding me? I don't know how the (expletive) that happens! If I did, I could just crank them out and make millions. We could have a hit tomorrow. It never ceases to amaze me when I get one in the boat, so to speak.

AS: Who has covered you best?

JH: Do you have a couple hours? There are so many I enjoy. Willie (Nelson)'s take on ‘Most Unoriginal Sin' is great. Emmylou Harris' ‘Icy Blue Heart' was beautiful. B.B. King and Eric Clapton doing ‘Riding with the King' was great. Buddy Guy's ‘Feels Like Rain' was great, so was Rosanne Cash's ‘The Way We Make a Broken Heart.' Want me to go on? I have a lot of favorites (laughs).