Supergroups and all-star collaborations don’t always seem to be based on organic friendship and mutual respect (or even musical rapport, necessarily), but money and attention do have a way of softening the clash of egos and of turning divas tolerable for the term of a tour – or at least of a photo session.
The songwriter John Hiatt was himself a member, the founding member, of a supergroup that ended poorly, if the stories are to be believed. This band of heaviest heavies (Hiatt, Nick Lowe, Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner!) first assembled to record Hiatt’s classic Bring the Family and then later rechristened themselves Little Village for a collaborative effort on Warner Brothers that rather flopped (and of which Lowe has said, “They gave us too much time to make it”). The Villagers are all cool and reconciled now, if rumors are to be believed, and Lowe/Cooder collaborations within the last half-decade seem to bear these rumors out. Maybe someone quit drinking and made amends. Maybe there was never a problem to begin with.
Hiatt’s tag-team tours with another eminence of pan-Americana songwriting, Lyle Lovett, however, have always seemed to be nothing less than a joyride of genuine friendship, chemistry and mutual admiration. Perhaps their rapport flows from the unusual industry position that they share: a kind of non-contentious maverick status, artists stuck between bins. Both Hiatt and Lovett – in the great tradition of Johnny Cash, of Mary Chapin Carpenter or of Steve Earle – can be viewed as country/Western artists for whom the country/Western establishment has never had much use; heartland artists whose literate, often-confessional songcraft has found its purchase primarily on the coasts.
But both pedigrees belong to country. Hiatt distinguished himself first as a Nashville staff writer before launching a solo career that veered toward New Wave territory in the mid-‘70s. Some skinny ties may have been involved, but no expedient fashion changes can alter the fact that Hiatt is, at the core, a three-chords-and-the-(personal)-truth craftsman from the narrative tradition of country music. His way with a concise hook and a sentiment make him an easy cover; his uniquely strangled singing voice make him (for some, not me) a difficult pill.
While Hiatt began as a behind-the-scenes guy and is still known as much for the stars who have covered him as for his own excellent records, Lyle Lovett is mostly famous for being Lyle Lovett, except when acquitting himself rather well in his film-acting career. The Texas twanger comes from the Western side of country: a fiddle-sawing, train-groove Western swing announced on “Cowboy Man,” Track One of Album One. He has also led a poly-swing Big Band, toyed with blues and Latin flavors and staked his claim as an important songwriter on a series of eclectic ‘90s albums, crowned by 1996’s masterwork The Road to Ensenada.
Both Hiatt and Lovett have that highly coveted, singer/songwriter-age knack for converting the personal into the universal. When they get together to swap stories and songs, they make the audience feel like the third in a group of old friends. John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett perform together as a duo at the Ulster Performing Arts Center (UPAC) in Kingston on Sunday, May 3 at 7 p.m. Tickets cost $55 to $85 and can be purchased at the UPAC box office at 601 Broadway in Kingston, (845) 339-6088; at the Bardavon box office at 35 Market Street in Poughkeepsie, (845) 473-2072; or through TicketMaster at (800) 745- 3000 or www.ticketmaster.com.