It's been documented that John Hiatt experienced a personal turnaround (rebirth, if you will) leading up to 1987 which yielded BRING THE FAMILY thus his career was rescued from the skids. Until then he was known more for his songwriting than for his recorded work. Hiatt's solo albums from 1974 through 1986 were an inconsistent, mishmash of rock 'n' roll, singer/songwriter, R&B, blues and even new-wave that did little to distinguish him as a recording artist.
So BRING THE FAMILY signified Hiatt's do-over in life and music. His astute writing and fertile blues, country, folk, rock and R&B hybrid were instrumental in the coining of a new genre "Americana." His new more agreeable fusion of styles suited him well for a number of years but came to an abrupt halt in 1997 with LITTLE HEAD. Some have attributed this uncustomary album to writer's block, burnout or the ubiquitous "need to go in a new direction" explanation. Whatever the case, John Hiatt was not himself again. And for a man who's been pretty reliable and consistent, a decidedly substandard '97 release, no album in either 1998 or '99 was a real puzzler to fans.
Time for another Hiatt reset. This time around he eschews the major labels (he plowed through Epic, MCA and Geffen before settling with A&M for an extended stint and then had a cup of coffee with Capitol) in favor of the storied folk and blues label Vanguard Records. And for this album his new label is ideal for Hiatt's special blend of folk and blues. Finally, he is able to allow his longtime influences of the Southern country blues to shine brightly. It's not a stretch to conclude that the spirit of Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Lead Belly and especially contemporary folk/blues singer Dave Van Ronk was working aside him during the writing and recording of CROSSING MUDDY WATER. Rarely has his voice sounded so clear and his songs so concise. This is mainly attributable to the acoustic nature of the album. There are no lengthy instrumental passages and obviously no electric instruments competing with Hiatt's voice. So, that gives the song room the breath and grow without the unnecessary adornments. The trio of bassist Dave Faragher, mandolin and guitar player David Immerglück and Hiatt on acoustic guitar keep things tight and melodic but always make allowances for the song, the words, the phrasing to be emphasized.
MUDDY WATER is predominantly a melancholy and brooding affair (from a lyrical standpoint) with only a couple of flashes of the patented John Hiatt whimsy and turns of phrase. However, no one has the ability to cast even a miserable life situation into a toe-tapping good time as he. What better way to usher in a new decade, a new millennium; Not by producing some sort of trendy (and ultimately dated), 21st century gimmick recording, but by looking within and knowing who you are and having the confidence to create, ostensibly, an old-fashioned type record.
A song, maybe two, on any given album maybe, but an entire record of earthy, organic material is new territory for Hiatt. Odd thing is, it seems as though these are old songs of his performed in his classic style. Not in the sense that this is rehash but that MUDDY WATER is true to who John Hiatt really is. This is his 15th release and along with BRING THE FAMILY, it seems, was the album he was always meant to make.