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John Hiatt
Crossing Muddy Waters
Vanguard


I hesitate to call myself a fan of John Hiatt. I own one of his albums, Bring the Family, which features the seminal southern rock track "Memphis In The Meantime." And like most people in their late 30ís, when one of his songs comes on the local AAA radio station, I do not jump to switch the station. John Hiatt is known for his blues-rock styling, but on this album he throws aside the electric guitars and bellies up to the bluegrass and country bar, and he does it with class and truth. On Crossing Muddy Waters, every song is an old friend. They donít just feel like old friends, they ARE old friends, although none of them have been written before now. Maybe it is that this album has come to my ears at a time most welcome, a time when I needed these songs. Or perhaps it is just that this is the finest album I have heard all year.

Beginning the album is "Lincoln Town," a song that weaves a tapestry rich with images of muggy train stops and moving down the rails. The rhythm of the song is as unstoppable as the great iron trains that cross America, and the lyrics are poignant and poetic. "Crossing Muddy Waters" is a beautiful song of southern summers, and lost loves. The jumpy mandolin playing enhances the bluegrass rhythm of this incomparable track, reminding me of the beauty of that most American of music. On "What Do We Do Now," John asks, "What if I canít stay, what if you canít stay, what if I canít leave, what if you canít leave. Do we call the kids, do we call the cops? Can you hold me Ďtil this howling stops?" His voice is incredibly full and resonant; more than I have ever heard him before. This song is full of true blues feeling and the questing for answers in a failed relationship. Hits me right at the core.

"Only The Song Survives" rolls into the next bluegrass song, with a darkly mirthful look at the accidents of this life. It is a highly poetic piece, with lyrics challenging and comforting all at once. John weaves a truly fine gospel song in "Lift Up Every Stone." This is a song that could be sung just as easily in the cotton fields as in the country bar on the corner. The spirit it invokes is jubilant and redeeming. "Take It Down" is the first song in many years that has brought tears to my eyes. There is something in the honesty and pain of this song that stings me each and every time I listen to it. Perhaps this is the song I most needed to hear from this record, coming at a very timely space for me. It is a song of pain, and the need for reconciliation. "Tears are rusted on my face, Iím just an empty place where your love used to fit." It features some very nice slide guitar work, and sets an indelible mood.

"Gone" is another of the fine examples of Hiattís ability to weave humor into a song that is otherwise a sad and lonesome track. There are some nice vocal harmonies, and the folk feeling is true, complete with a hearty mandolin solo, and the feeling of the train on the tracks. "Clickety-clack clickety-clack clickety-clack." Delta blues comes to the fore on "Take It Back," conjuring images of sitting on the porch in the heat of a summer day, strumming the banjo. The Dobro work here is excellent, and the mandolin compliments it nicely. "Mr. Stanley" tells the story of the adoptive father who raises the subject as his own upon the death of his own father. It is full of gospel blues emotion and vivid metaphors, and tells the story in so meaningful a way that it cannot be overlooked.

"Godís Golden Eyes" is a story of striving for redemption and understanding. It is a beautiful piece, slow and introspective, and somehow speaks the hope of this entire album. "Before I Go" is a wonderful ending for a wonderful album. It ties the entire listening experience together in a jubilant, hopeful way. "I will try but I will stumble, and I will fly, He told me so." It occurs to me now, how this whole album is a somewhat allegorical look at life, from birth to death, innocence to loss to redemption. But perhaps that is reading too much into an album of simply vibrant songs.

Rarely does a CD stay in my player for more than a few days at a time, but Crossing Muddy Waters has been there for more than 30 days, and not a day passes that I donít listen to the now familiar strains of each and every gem. Mr. Hiatt has assembled a cast of bluegrass and country players that enhance each moment of each song on this album. It took me 4 or so days to realize that there were no drums on this record, the only percussion seeming to be a stray shaker and someone thumping the back of a guitar case along the way. The drums arenít even missed. These songs will stand up to any contemporary rock, bluegrass, gospel or country records that you wish to compare them to. A rarity in a time of come and go records, and songs that donít stick, Crossing Muddy Waters is a collection of songs that are well written and well presented. If you never get another record that features mandolin, you must have this one.

-David DeVoe

Track Listing:

  1. Lincoln Town
  2. Crossing Muddy Waters
  3. What Do We Do Now
  4. Only The Song Survives
  5. Lift Up Every Stone
  6. Take It Down
  7. Gone
  8. Take It Back
  9. Mr. Stanley
  10. Godís Golden Eyes
  11. Before I Go


Mike Doughty



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