NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When John Hiatt brings up bluesman Mississippi John Hurt and Elvis Costello as influences, it makes sense.
Mr. Hiatt’s superb new album, “Crossing Muddy Waters,” is drenched in the blues, and the wordplay on his 1980s albums earned him critical respect as an American answer to Mr. Costello.
Then he starts talking about the late BoxCar Willie, the guy who dressed like a hobo and imitated a train whistle on “Orange Blossom Special.”
That merits an explanation.
It turns out BoxCar Willie’s influence is more about business than music.
“I remember a comment BoxCar Willie made years ago,” Mr. Hiatt says. “He was selling like a million records on television. A Columbia Records guy said, ‘We want to sign you.’
“And BoxCar goes, ‘Well, why would I want to do that?’ ”
Mr. Hiatt, 48, isn’t trying to sell his new album on cheesy late-night TV ads. But after building a loyal following over 25 years, he figures he doesn’t need help from a major record label, or the attendant artistic interference.
So he has left Capitol Records because the label’s executives didn’t like a rock music album he was recording earlier this year. When Internet music distributor EMusic.com (https://www.EMusic.com) asked for a song or two to sell, Mr. Hiatt and manager Ken Levitan offered an entire album. Blues-folk record label Vanguard licensed the right to distribute the album to record stores.
“Crossing Muddy Waters” is driving acoustic blues, featuring Mr. Hiatt, bass player Davey Faragher and David Immergluck on mandolin and guitar. No drums are used. Mr. Faragher provided percussion on tambourine, stomping his feet and beating a metal folding chair.
“We paid for it ourselves, made it in four days,” Mr. Hiatt says. “The acoustic sound I did for I don’t know what reason. It’s a combination of getting older, living this rural sort of lifestyle. I’ve been living out in the woods for the last eight years or so. The songs just started coming out in this way.”
The reviews have been positive.
“It’s … easily his best since 1987’s ‘Bring the Family,”’ said the Toast magazine Web site (https://www.toastmag.com). “The songs are deceptively simple and unassuming, yet full of insight and nuance — he’s rarely written better.”
Mr. Hiatt says the acoustic blues format pushed him to write less self-consciously.
“I’m as guilty as the next guy of writing the kind of song that’s like, ‘I know something you don’t and I know a clever way of saying it that you don’t know. Here it is. Aren’t you impressed?’ I’ve done that,” he says.
“I’ve just kind of lost interest in that kind of song over the years. I’m kind of writing simpler as I get older, I guess.”
Mr. Hiatt, already renowned as a lyricist, has gotten even better. His cast of characters on “Crossing Muddy Waters” includes several men struggling to go on after calamities in life and love.
“Gimme back my steel/gimme back my nerve,” he moans in “What Do We Do Now.”
“Gimme back my youth/for the dead man’s curve/for that icy feel when you start to swerve/give us back the love we don’t deserve.”
When punk and new-wave rock became popular in the 1970s, Mr. Hiatt found a style he could fit into. “First I heard the Ramones, and then I heard the whole Stiff Records (Costello’s English record label) thing and I just flipped.”
Mr. Hiatt recorded two albums for MCA that earned him notice as an “American Elvis Costello.” But the albums didn’t sell. Three albums followed on Geffen before Mr. Hiatt was derailed by alcoholism and his wife’s suicide in 1985.
Mr. Hiatt is working on that rock record Capitol didn’t like. “Vanguard would like to put the rock record out,” he says. “So we’re in a position of seeing how they do with this one first.
“I’ve never been in that position before. It’s kind of like the commercial where you’re interviewing the bank lenders for who gets to loan you money.”