beneath this gruff exterior


2003, may 6, new west records

CD. NW6045

2003, may 6, new west records (incl. bonus cd)

CD. NW6046

2003, may 19, sanctuary (europe)

1 Uncommon Connection 4:10 30 seconds preview
2 How Bad's The Coffee 3:55 30 seconds preview
3 Nagging Dark 3:15 30 seconds preview
4 My Baby Blue 4:33 30 seconds preview
5 My Dog And me 3:12 30 seconds preview
6 Almost Fed Up With The Blues 4:35 30 seconds preview
7 Circle Back 4:28 30 seconds preview
8 Window On The World 3:35 30 seconds preview
9 Missing Pieces 4:05 30 seconds preview
10 Fly Back Home 4:43 30 seconds preview
11 The Last Time 4:51 30 seconds preview
12 The Most Unoriginal Sin 4:15 30 seconds preview

Total running time:


bonus CD

limited edition borders exclusive disc with 3 unreleased recordings. original two track acoustic demo's.

1 Uncommon Connection 3:38 30 seconds preview
2 Missing Pieces 4:08 30 seconds preview
3 Almost Fed Up With The Blues 3:17 30 seconds preview

Total running time:



John Hiatt:

Guitar (Electric)
Guitar (acoustic)


the goners

Ken Blevins:


background vocals

Sonny Landreth:

electric Guitar

Slide Guitar


background vocals

David Ranson:



special guest:

Bobby Keys: Baritone sax on: almost fed up with the blues




Don Smith

John Hiatt

The Goners

Recorded & mixed: don smith 
assistant engineer: jeremy cotrell

Doug Sax 

Robert Hadley

booking: rob Prinz, united talent agency
photography: Michael Wilson
art Direction/Design:

Kimberly Levitan, 

Good and Evil Design


thanks to
my family, ken levitan and all at vector, mary ann mcCready and all at FBM&M, cameron strang and all at new west, rob & nikki at uta, john mcBridge and all at blackbird studios, sonny landreth, kenneth blevins, dave ranson, ninyear wooldridge, dave "pops"clement, billy gosser, bob bloomfield, wayne trevisani, brad hunt, d 'Addario strings, marshall amps, ampeg amps, vox amps, gibson guitars


  • All songs written by John Hiatt.

  • Recorded at blackbird studios/Berry Hill. TN.

  • mastered at the mastering lab, L.A, CA

press photo


new west records biography

"Time is running out," says John Hiatt. "We're not getting any younger - so you got to, you know, carpe diem." And so Hiatt decided that for his next project, he wanted to strike while the iron was hot and document the sound of his longtime collaborators, the Goners, in true fighting shape, just a few months after their last tour. The resulting album, Beneath This Gruff Exterior, was recorded absolutely live in just eight days - "I couldn't have fixed a vocal if I wanted to," says Hiatt. It's his 18th release, but it's the first one ever credited to the alliance known as "John Hiatt and the Goners."

Hiatt's last album, 2001's The Tiki Bar is Open, reunited him with guitarist Sonny Landreth, bassist Dave Ranson, and drummer Kenneth Blevins after almost ten years apart. "The idea with that record was take four old farts and try to freshen them up a little bit, slap some make-up on, visit the hair club, whatever it took," says Hiatt. "But this record we really just wanted to go in and get to the nuts and bolts of what this quartet does - if you come hear us live, this is pretty much what you get."

Beneath This Gruff Exterior does indeed feature some fantastic playing - the interplay between Hiatt's guitar and Landreth's blistering slide playing is truly remarkable. From the taut groove of The Last Time to the delicate waltz Unoriginal Sin, it demonstrates the range and versatility of these four musicians (aided by co-producer Don Smith, who worked with Hiatt on 1995's Walk On album and has engineered for the likes of Tom Petty and the Rolling Stones). But that doesn't mean that the spotlight ever leaves the distinctive songcraft for which John Hiatt is known.

One of the most celebrated songwriters alive, Hiatt's compositions have been covered by dozens of artists including Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, and B.B. King (not to mention Iggy Pop, Paula Abdul, or the cartoon bear band of Disney's 2002 film The Country Bears.Gruff Exterior contains all the Hiatt trademarks that have earned him such respect - the finely rendered details, the subtle blend of humor and pathos, the unpredictable yet instantly memorable melodies.

The story of this album begins in a coffee shop in Phoenix, Arizona in the fall of 2001. Hiatt and the Goners were in the middle of a tour with B.B. King and Buddy Guy, and he was, he says, "doing my usual 'I been on the road too long' whining." So he bought a new notebook, sat down with a cup of coffee, and said "I'm going to fill this up with songs." The first thing that emerged was the tender, weary Window on the World, and that, he says, "started to push this album off the pier."

The songs on Gruff Exterior came quickly, but Hiatt knew that he wanted a certain sound for this album, and he decided that he would take some extra measures before trying to capture it for posterity. "I actually sat down in my little room where I work and made guitar and vocal demos of every song," he says. "I knew what I wanted to accomplish, to capture a performance on tape. But you have to be prepared for that to happen. I wanted to really learn these songs so I wouldn't have to think about it when we went to record them, and I could really be the guide."

The twelve songs that he leads the Goners through offer the perspective of a man looking back, summing up, taking the long view. ("Well, I am 50 now," says Hiatt, "so I guess that's what you do.") On the opening track, Uncommon Connection, Hiatt asserts that "I'm not getting old / I'm slowing down time, stopping it cold," but he says that the song "sets the journey up - my ascent to curmudgeonhood."

Throughout, he draws on his own experiences to convey complicated, universal emotions. On Circle Back, Hiatt describes the feelings brought up by driving his oldest daughter to college ("it's my empty nest song"), while My Baby Blue looks back to his earliest days discovering himself as a musician - "the subculture of the north side of Indianapolis, hanging out in people's basements listening to music and learning how to play guitar."

The disgruntled wildlife on Fly Back Home are all based on encounters that Hiatt has had in the last few years around his home, a 100-acre farm outside of Nashville. "I did actually kill a rattlesnake one night," he says. "I ran over it and felt really bad about it, but I kept running over it - it brought something out in me." On "How Bad's the Coffee," Hiatt recalls the cafe culture he fell in love with when he first moved South. "There were wonderful waitresses who would always call you 'hon,'" he says, "you'd get a hot plate of food for about a buck and a quarter, and the coffee was always horrible - but that was a key part of the whole deal. So in the era of Starbuck-ification, it's going back to when men were men and coffee was bad and the pie was good, for goddam sake. We built this country on bad coffee!"

The last song Hiatt wrote for Beneath This Gruff Exterior, finished just a few weeks before the recording sessions, was "The Nagging Dark," an unblinking look at his own battles with depression. "I sometimes take a dive coming off the road after being out for so long," he says, "and I just hit a wall and was sinking below. So that song came out of that." But, he deadpans, "that and a couple visits to the shrink and a shift in medication and I'm good as new."

The only track that wasn't written specifically for this project is the closer, Unoriginal Sin. Willie Nelson had recorded this Hiatt composition on his 1993 album Across the Borderline, and when the Stars and Guitars tribute to Nelson was being filmed at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium last summer, he invited Hiatt to duet with him on the song. "I had totally forgotten about it," says Hiatt. "Willie had me on this show he did and we sang that song, and I told him afterward, you know, that's not a bad song!" Looking for the right way to end the album on a gentle (though hardly sentimental) note, Hiatt had found the puzzle's missing piece.

After almost three full decades of making records, John Hiatt sounds surprised and elated by how fired up he still feels. "I keep finding stuff I want to write about, keep finding music I want to make," he says. "Musically we get closer and closer to distilling this thing down to its simplest form - and I'm at the point in my life where I really value and cherish that and want to only do things that honor it."

Soon after the release of Beneath This Gruff Exterior, Hiatt and the Goners will "get back to work like responsible adults" and return to the road. Even if he complains in song about the grind of touring, Hiatt maintains that "that's the pay-off - I get to get up and act like a complete frickin' fool for two hours! They're paying to watch a fifty year old guy act like a complete bozo - it's a wonderful thing."

While Beneath This Gruff Exterior is credited to John Hiatt & the Goners, a more appropriate designation might be "John Hiatt and Sonny Landreth" hotshot guitarist Landreth, who has held down a longtime on-and-off tenure in Hiatt's road band, spreads his licks over every nook and cranny of this album, so much so that his guitar spends about as much time in the spotlight as Mr. Hiatt himself. With the guitars turned up and Hiatt willing to push the growl of his voice to the limit, Beneath This Gruff Exterior finds Hiatt in stripped-down and rockin' form, much more so than on the albums which immediately preceded it. The production (by Don Smith with Hiatt and the band) is simple and straightforward, sounding loose and live, with Hiatt willing to let a few minor vocal glitches slip into the final mix. In short, this is a John Hiatt rock & roll album, which means his more serious songs are put on hold and stuff like "How Bad's the Coffee" and "Almost Fed Up With the Blues" find their way onto disc. But as has long been the case, Hiatt's lighter stuff still packs more emotional heft than most songwriters you could mention (especially on "Missing Pieces" and "The Most Unoriginal Sin"), and if his voice sounds as if it's starting to fray a tiny bit, he can still belt it out pretty convincingly for a guy who's been making records since 1974. The vast majority of Hiatt's albums fall into one of two categories brilliant and real good. Beneath This Gruff Exterior falls into the latter file, which means it isn't a revelation like Two Bit Monsters or Bring the Family, but it's got good songs sang by a great songwriter, and played by a rockin' little band with a real fine guitarist up front, and if that's not what you're looking for, you're probably not much on Hiatt anyway.