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    John Hiatt
    Crossing Muddy Waters

    Vanguard, 2000

John Hiatt is one of those performers who’s always seemed on the verge of mainstream superstardom, and deservedly so. Still, he seems best known as just a guy who’s penned hits for Bonnie Raitt ("The Thing Called Love") and Jewel ("Have A Little Faith In Me").

But with a catalogue that spans 25 years and nearly that many records— including an upcoming tribute titled "Rolling Into Memphis: The Songs of John Hiatt," he’s earned a loyal following.

In contrast to that appreciation, critics (and fans alike) compare every Hiatt release to 1987's "Bring the Family" and 1988's "Slow Turning," with mixed results. He hasn’t released a studio album in the three years since "Little Head," but has been touring (and honing) an acoustic trio consisting of Davey Faraher from Cracker on bass and Counting Crow’s David Immergluck on guitar and mandolin.

A new album, "Crossing Muddy Waters," on a new label, Vanguard Records, has abandoned the big studio sound of recent releases ("Walk On," "Little Head"). Instead, it takes that live sound that’s been developed on the road over the past few years and lays it down on this new record.

It works…really well! This is being promoted as an "acoustic" album, but don’t let that fool you. Hiatt hasn’t gone MTV, and this is not an "unplugged" greatest hits package. It takes acoustic in the right direction, wrapping mandolins and steel guitars around twelve new Hiatt tunes. As he says in the publicity notes, this "is a group of songs with a backporch feel."

From the gospel bounce of "Lift Up Every Stone," to the bluegrass "where did love go wrong" lament of "Gone," to the mandolin accompanying the grief-stricken narrator on the title track, "Crossing Dirty Waters," this is Hiatt with some of the best songs he’s written in years, backed by musicians who know how to play with him.

Yeah, he might be known in some circles as that guy who wrote "The Thing Called Love," but "Crossing Muddy Waters" reinforces why Hiatt continues to be regarded, to those in the know at least, as a songwriter’s songwriter.—Michael Gaither

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