JJ Sheffer for Tri State Indie – January 30, 2011
My son had it figured out by the time he was six, when he declared, “country music tells a story.”

Indeed it does, and perhaps two of country music’s greatest storytellers graced the stage at the Strand Theatre on January 26. Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt received a standing ovation the moment they stepped out of the wings, guitars in hand. The theater was full, despite the wind and snow swirling outside, and the duo took their seats in two plain chairs in the center of the stage. The only other adornments on the stage were two small side tables draped in black, on which rested bottled water for the performers. There was no backdrop, and the lighting was spare. No frills.

Hiatt slipped right into “Memphis in the Meantime,” while Lovett looked on, smiling appreciatively, arms folded demurely over the side of his own guitar. Hiatt’s distinctive, scratchy voice met the bluesy riff of his Gibson acoustic as he sang:

Sure I like country music / I like mandolins
But right now I need a telecaster / through a Vibrolux turned up to ten

Lovett watched from his seat next to him, looking genuinely delighted. Hiatt continued:

Until hell freezes over / maybe you can wait that long
But I don’t think Kenny Chesney’s / gonna ever record this song

Hiatt finished the song and said, “Please welcome my good friend, Lyle Lovett.” After the crowd calmed down, Lovett asked his friend of 30 years, “John, what is it that you have against country music?” The crowd laughed. Hiatt smiled. “I’m also curious,” Lovett continued, “as to what you have against Kenny Chesney.” More laughter. Hiatt pointed out that the original lyrics referred to Ronnie Milsap, who did end up recording the song and earning royalties for Hiatt. “So I’m hoping like hell…”

This call-and-answer continued through the set. Hiatt would play a song about a girl (“Ethylene”), Lovett would respond with one, too (“Sonja”). Hiatt played a song about road-tripping (“Open Road”), Lovett responded in kind (“LA County”). The banter woven in between the songs made it feel as though these old friends were in a living room instead of onstage. It was as if they had gotten out their guitars to play for each other, and you were welcome to pull up a seat and listen in. I kept forgetting that they were amplified – the whole thing felt so intimate. A little percussion would creep in here or there when Hiatt tapped on the front of his guitar. The last note of a song would softly fade out in the silent room and then the audience would erupt into applause. As that faded, too, Lovett and Hiatt would continue their conversation.

Lovett: John, do you hunt?

Hiatt: No, not really.

Lovett: Are you a good shot?

Hiatt: No. But my wife is.

Lovett: That’s an important thing to recognize. [laughter from the audience] I know Mrs. Hiatt, and she wouldn’t hurt anything unless it really deserved it.

It felt as if your two uncles had come to visit, telling you stories and playing you some old songs. Hiatt’s voice is filled with gravel and grit, while Lovett’s is clear and smooth. Both are true gentlemen, gracious and witty, and each has his own rich, distinctive style while playing guitar. They talked about guitars specifically, after Hiatt played “Perfectly Good Guitar.” Lovett asked about Hiatt’s predilection for Gibsons. Hiatt explained that he hadn’t always been a Gibson man. As a kid he’d played some less-expensive models, including a Harmony, like in the song. There was a pawn shop in downtown Indianapolis, where he grew up, that served as the community’s music shop. They had a full line of Gibson electric and acoustic guitars, and eventually Hiatt upgraded and has stuck with the brand ever since. Lovett has been playing custom guitars made by Bill Collings in Austin, Texas since 1979.

It wasn’t long after that when Lovett and Hiatt first met. Hiatt was in the band touring with Ry Cooder in January 1981 when they met backstage at a show. “It was a night that changed my life,” says Lovett.

Hiatt, whose songs have been recorded by many well-known artists, including Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, and Eric Clapton, sounds like what you’d get if you mixed Leon Redbone with Townes Van Zandt. His broad range sounds like Ray Charles at its lowest and can sometimes slide up to a high end that’s surprising in both its reach and its ease. He recently released his 19th studio album, The Open Road.

Lovett has four Grammys and 14 albums to his credit, the most recent being Natural Forces, recorded with his Large Band.

Both play a special brand of über-Americana that slides effortlessly among folk, country, blues, roots rock, and gospel. There are beautiful little nuances to their playing, and their styles complement each other perfectly.

For their two-song encore, Hiatt played “Have a Little Faith In Me” and Lovett followed it up with “My Baby Don’t Tolerate.” Hiatt joined him for the chorus and took off on a guitar solo that was made up of only a few notes he used to tease the audience. Lovett’s eyes were glued to Hiatt’s guitar and Hiatt watched Lovett’s face as he dropped the solo down so soft you could barely hear it before building it back up to a crescendo that led them both back into the chorus.

It was a show performed by two stellar songwriters and musicians who genuinely admire each other. It was a treat for anyone who braved the snow to attend. Country music tells a story, and few people tell it better than Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt.

Complete Setlist

John Hiatt: “Memphis in the Meantime”

Lyle Lovett: “Good Intentions”

John Hiatt: “Ethylene”

Lyle Lovett: “Sonja”

John Hiatt: “Love You Again”

Lyle Lovett: “Private Conversation”

John Hiatt: “Perfectly Good Guitar”

Lyle Lovett: “Don’t Touch My Hat”

John Hiatt: “Open Road”

Lyle Lovett: “LA County”

John Hiatt: “Wintertime Blues”

Lyle Lovett: “Give Back My Heart”

John Hiatt: [unknown]

Lyle Lovett: “North Dakota”

John Hiatt: “Drive South”

Lyle Lovett: “One-Eyed Fiona”

John Hiatt: “Feels Like Rain”

Lyle Lovett: “If I Had A Boat”

John Hiatt: “Tennessee Plates”

Lyle Lovett: “She’s No Lady”


John Hiatt: “Have A Little Faith In Me”

Lyle Lovett: “My Baby Don’t Tolerate”