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Blissful Hiatt Sings the Blues


John Hiatt is bracing for it--the onslaught from fans nervously asking, "Is everything OK at home, John?" after they hear the singer-songwriter's often wrenching tales of dead or dying relationships on his new album, "Crossing Muddy Waters."

He's fully expecting that reaction because it's the same one he had when he first sat back and listened to the end result of four whirlwind days of recording earlier this year.

"We did it so fast, I came home and thought 'Oh [no], this is like a tear fest--every song is about loss, relationships breaking up or having broken up. I said to my wife, 'Hey look. Nothing's wrong, babe.'

"But she's been at the front for 14 years now," Hiatt said. "When we first got married she used to take them a little too seriously, but she knows better know. Songwriters are kind of like Walter Mitty: We live this fantasy life through our songs. I guess that [fan reaction] will come up, though."

It's a natural response, because much of Hiatt's critically acclaimed, roots-drenched music of the last two decades, including his highly regarded late-'80s albums "Bring the Family" and "Slow Turning," were indeed direct reflections of his life.

But on "Crossing Muddy Waters"--the CD his manager described as "that folk album you've always wanted to do"--Hiatt is a step removed from much of what's happening to the characters in his songs, playing the omniscient, if often wisecracking, observer rather than direct participant.

The album, to be released Sept. 26 after a string of Southern California shows that start tonight in Anaheim, opens with "Lincoln Town," a gritty folk-blues tune about a restless spirit itching to hit the road, thus setting the tone for the predominantly acoustic outing about people on the move, mostly in and out of relationships.

"I wanted to do it mostly acoustic to make it sound like we were sitting around on the back porch, and I wanted no drums--those were the only two directives I had in mind," Hiatt said from his Nashville office, which is a 40-minute ride from the suburban farm he shares with his wife and the two of their three children still young enough--daughters 16 and 12--to be living at home.

"I've lived on this farm for about eight years," he explained. "We're out in the country and you write a certain kind of song out here. I definitely started getting that [rural] vibe. And I've always written on acoustic guitar pretty much, so it's nice to have a record that kind of tries to flesh that out without a lot of mental exercise about the songs. In fact, there was none. We just went in and played it."

The way Hiatt tells it, the home fires are stoked and burning steadily. So where'd all the confusion and unhappiness come from in songs such as "What Do We Do Now," in which a couple hits an absolute impasse in their relationship and simply throws up their hands?

"When my wife and I had been married for about five years we kind of hit a wall, as couples will do. The 'D' word was actually a thought. I don't know that it was even uttered, but that scared the [expletive] out of both of us. We got through that, but I was kind of drawing on that, just that utter humiliation you feel where you're standing there with your [life] in your hands thinking, 'What do we do now?' "

In the case of "Only the Song Survives," about a grisly car wreck, the creative germ was a rollover accident his wife had four years ago. Neither she nor the one daughter who was in the vehicle was injured, but it sparked a song exploring the fallout from unforeseen life-changing events and the creative process.

"People tend to, especially with singer-songwriters, take songs as literal snippets of the writers' lives," he said. "My point in that song was that they're not, exactly--it comes out of a whole mess of images and only the song survives."

The album is a departure for Hiatt in more ways than one. Besides being his first fully acoustic recording--after a series of stellar rock-band lineups including his late-'80s band the Goners, which Hiatt has reassembled for this tour--it's part of a new business plan he's testing in which he, not a record company, owns the album. Hiatt, who in the past recorded for Epic, MCA, Geffen, A&M and Capitol, is leasing the album for retail and Internet distribution.

On the retail side, the venerated folk and blues label Vanguard Records has licensed it for retail distribution for five years, while is making it available for downloading.

"This is actually the first record that I own. I've never had that in 16 albums," Hiatt said. "It's our first blush of free agency, and we like it. The coolest thing is we can put this record anywhere. It's nice to have options. Since everything is so up in the air, it's a wonderful time to be a free agent."

He's also waiting to learn whether he will continue hosting the PBS music series "Sessions at West 54th" in which for a few minutes on each show, Hiatt has occupied the interviewer's chair and chatted with guests.

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