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John Hiatt Takes a Detour on ‘Crossing Muddy Waters’

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

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 prepared for that reaction because it’s the same one he had when he first 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, 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.’

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“When we first got married she used to take them a little too seriously, but she knows better now. Songwriters are kind of like Walter Mitty: We live this fantasy life through our songs.”

Actually, 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 drawn directly from his own life.

But on “Crossing Muddy Waters,” Hiatt--who plays solo acoustic shows at the Ventura Theatre on Friday and at El Rey Theatre Saturday--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. It’s a 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,” says Hiatt, who lives on suburban farm outside Nashville.

“We’re out in the country and you write a certain kind of song out here,” he continues. “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 did all the confusion and unhappiness in the new album come from?

“When my wife and I had been married for about five years, we kind of hit a wall, as couples will do,” says Hiatt. “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. She wasn’t 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 says. “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 with top-flight rock-band lineups--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.

The folk and blues label Vanguard has licensed it for retail distribution for five years, while Emusic.com is making it available for downloading.

“This is actually the first record that I own. I’ve never had that in 16 albums,” Hiatt says. “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.”

* John Hiatt, with Amy Correia, plays Friday at the Ventura Theatre, 26 S. Chestnut St., Ventura, 7 p.m. $25 and $35. (805) 639-3965. Also Saturday at the El Rey Theatre, 5515 Wilshire Blvd. 7:30 p.m. $30. (323) 936-4790.


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