She Shall Overcome:
Lilly Hiatt Rocks the Pain Away
Lilly Hiatt maneuvers the Nashville scene facing the expectations and limitations placed on young songwriters with music that’s way too mature for mainstream radio. As the daughter of songwriter John Hiatt, she finds added internalized pressures as her introspective new album Trinity Lane (New West Records) tills firmer footing among country outsiders.
At age 33, Hiatt joins John Moreland, Nikki Lane, and others as talented young songwriters with an appreciation for country and folk, strengthened by a punk rock past. Those three and a handful of others involved in roots music make well-written records that’re ideal for 30-somethings who are expanding their taste beyond garage rock and hardcore.
Hiatt’s music suits her peers with diverse tastes in guitar-driven bands because her interests have developed similarly. “I spent a lot of time as a teen listening to Rancid, and I still love those songs,” she says. “But I got a little older and checked out Loretta Lynn. I always liked songwriters too as a young person, but my appreciation for the Guy Clarks and that stuff definitely came with time.”
Hiatt’s prior album, 2015’s Royal Blue, proved her to be a songwriter on the rise, with no interest in following any ascribed rules for country or folk artists. That album featured synths – not a particularly country instrument, with all due respect to the Highwaymen and Tim McGraw – layered alongside steel guitar. On Trinity Lane, it’s more rock-sounding piano parts that really tie together standout track “Everything I Had.” It’s the type of piano accompaniment that could’ve been on a Mother Earth album or a more recent garage-punk band’s demo cassette without sounding out of place. Instead it adds a comfortably familiar pop feel to a modern-day country song.
These added elements reflect Hiatt’s trust in her support staff, including Trinity Lane producer Michael Trent (Shovels & Rope, Butch Walker), to bolster her songs in the studio. “I have a core idea of where a song will go, and then I pick the right people who’ll know where to take it,” she says.
The downside to Royal Blue’s synths and the new album’s more traditional use of keys is the lack of either instrument in Hiatt’s current live band. On the flipside, this allows for further improvisation. “I like to play things in the vein of the record,” she explains. “That being said, I can’t afford to have a keyboard player at the moment. There’s always some bedazzled parts of the record you have to consolidate for the live show. We’re a guitar band live, and that’s probably how we’ll always be. I had to do it before because my last album had a ton of synthesizers all over it and none of it was there live. It’s fun because it makes you get a little creative. Like, how am I going to fill those gaps with four people instead of five?”
What should win over new fans, beyond punks with changing tastes, and remain apparent live is the level of honesty in Hiatt’s songwriting. Just one listen to the title track will leave most listeners with a feel for Hiatt’s neighbors on the actual Trinity Lane, as well as the singer’s victorious battle with the bottle. Other trips around the neighborhood include “All Kinds of People,” which describes driving out of the way to keep from passing a former flame’s residence.
Emotions are heightened throughout each album by Hiatt’s charmingly twangy singing voice. Just like many other ladies in Patsy Cline’s chain of musical influence, she can belt out an upbeat soulful tune just as well as she can wring every drop of sadness from a less than upbeat song.
It’s got to be a little scary for an artist, regardless of age or experience, to be so blunt with real-life emotions. But as Hiatt puts it, the real pain was felt long before it inspired a song. “Writing that way isn’t hard for me,” she says. “The part before it, where I feel what inspires lyrics, is harder.”
Singing about these past concerns every night must put heartbreaks and setbacks in an interesting perspective, allowing mountains to noticeably dwindle down to molehills as songs grow older and their singer grows wiser. “It’s very therapeutic,” she says. “There’s definitely a release that comes with songwriting, as well as a relief and a deeper understanding of something once I’ve put it into song.”
Despite the inherent vulnerability that comes with writing autobiographical songs, Hiatt doesn’t seem intimidated by sharing these stories with the world. “It is hard thinking people might rip a song apart when I’ve shared my heart, but what’s the alternative?,” she says. “Hiding that stuff with hopes you don’t upset somebody? If people hate it, they hate it. That’s fine. I know where it’s coming from. It’s coming from an honest place.”
The Hiatt name is a blessing and a curse. People around Nashville know and respect Lilly’s dad, which surely opens doors. However, there’s a pressure, real or imagined, Hiatt and other musically inclined children of stars face when they decide to follow a famous relative’s career path. “I’ve talked to Chelsea Crowell, Rodney and Roseanne’s daughter and Johnny Cash’s grandkid, about this. I’ve talked to Chris Scruggs (of Marty Stuart’s aptly-named Fabulous Superlatives) about it. We’ve talked about how it’s us that puts the pressure on ourselves. As musicians’ kids, we are hard on ourselves because our parents are so great. It’s a lot to live up to. It’s an internal thing a lot of the time, but it’s an amazing thing to share with your parents.”
Hiatt and her father are primarily known as gifted songwriters, intensifying self-critiques and cultivating a true understanding of each other’s art. Plus, she’s got to witness someone else’s creative process since childhood. “I do remember when I was young that he’d write a lot of stuff on yellow legal pads,” she says. “They’d be all over the place. He kind of pulled back a little when he was writing stuff. He needed his space. I definitely need that, too. I need room to create. But you know, I don’t know the method to his madness. I just know that he’s brilliant and stays true to that calling of being a songwriter. That’s what keeps him afloat, as well. It saved us.”
This mutual understanding between family breeds a deep appreciation of each other’s music. Hiatt shared a screen shot of a text exchange with her dad recently on Instagram. During that conversation, both talents revealed that they’d purchased each other’s latest record on iTunes. Either could probably get 10 copies of the other’s last album for free, but they opted instead to add to a loved one’s online sales. “I don’t do a lot of downloads because I still buy a lot of CDs and records, so one of the only albums I have on iTunes is my dad’s,” she adds. Even if the elder Hiatt probably doesn’t have to sweat spending money online (he’s paid his dues for sure) and his daughter made mere pennies off the sale, it’s still a touching and adorable story.
Although she’s well-traveled as a support act, Hiatt now faces a different set of pressures beyond sharing her inner-most feelings with strangers. The new challenge is her first headlining tour of its magnitude. Still, she remains positive in the face of uncertainty. “There’s a lot of small clubs, and I’ve played them before,” she says. “Let’s see if we can fill them out. It’s scary, but it’ll be good. I told my band there might be nights just 20 people show up. We’ll just have to get really good and hope that by mid-tour (the crowds grow). It’s a slow build.”
This idea of putting on a great show regardless of crowd size loops back to the idea that Hiatt and other young songwriters within Americana circles exist and can thrive because of punk. Old-fashioned D.I.Y. ethics, grassroots support, and some well-timed luck already allowed the Jason Isbells of the world more than just a stable living. That same career path could make Trinity Lane the next step toward Hiatt enjoying some modicum of success.
Remember when Steve Earle broke the internet not too long ago by telling a reporter that juvenile “bro-country” was awful rap music for people who hate African Americans? The other part of that sadly accurate quote put over the number of talented women who are writing songs that are too smart for mainstream country audiences – or at least that’s what radio programmers seem to think. Earle was thinking of Miranda Lambert and others he felt could’ve fit right in when outlaws briefly shook up Nashville from within. He could just as well have namedropped Hiatt, as well, as she also writes smart records that might’ve impressed Susanna Clark back in the day.
Even with time travel to kinder times for real songwriters off the table, Hiatt can at least rest assured that her talents have a chance to shine in the here and now following the release of Trinity Lane. After all, her dad can’t be the only one with discerning taste and a worthwhile new listen in their iTunes library.
Photo by Alysse Gafkjen.