Legendary artist and songwriter John Hiatt is 68 and never sounded so on top of his game than on his new record, where he is one half of ‘the dream team’ with master dobro player Jerry Douglas.
“Leftover Feelings” is an utterly delightful breath of fresh air 11-song set produced by Jerry Douglas and recorded at Historic RCA Studio B in Nashville. A meeting of two American music giants in a legendary setting, the record could be filed under Americana, country, roots or whatever the listener wants to call it. Sheer class would do it….
The collaboration follows Hiatt’s 2018 studio album “The Eclipse Sessions”. The Jerry Douglas Band’s 2017 studio album “What If” was nominated for a Grammy Award in the “Best Contemporary Instrumental Album” category.
In the midst of a global pandemic, John Hiatt walked into Historic RCA Studio B in Nashville and opened up a lifetime full of leftover feelings. “I was immediately taken back to 1970, when I got to Nashville,” said Hiatt, who was at the studio to record with Dobro master Jerry Douglas and Douglas’s band.
“You can’t not be aware of the records that were made there . . . Elvis, the Everly Brothers, Waylon Jennings doing ‘Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line.’ But all that history wasn’t intimidating, because it’s such a comfortable place to make music.”
A half-century ago, Hiatt lived in a ratty, $15-a-week room on Nashville’s 16th Avenue, less than a mile away from the RCA and Columbia studios that were the heartbeat of what had come to be known as “Music Row.” In the ensuing 50 years (he is now 68), he went from a scuffling young buck to a celebrated grand master of song.
His lyrics and melodies have graced more than 20 studio albums, have been recorded by Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, B.B. King, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt and scores of others, and have earned him a place in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, a BMI Troubadour award, and a lifetime achievement in songwriting designation from the Americana Music Association.
He and wife Nancy live in a nicer neighbourhood now, just out of town and within walking distance of Douglas, who reinvented the Dobro and is responsible for bringing the instrument to popular presence in modern times.
Douglas has performed on more than 1,500 albums by artists including Ray Charles, George Jones, Alison Krauss, Earl Scruggs, and James Taylor, and none of those works sound a bit like this collaboration with Hiatt.
“Leftover Feelings” is neither a bluegrass album nor a return to Hiatt’s 1980s days with slide guitar greats Ry Cooder and Sonny Landreth. Though Douglas’s opening riff on “Long, Black Electric Cadillac” nods to Landreth’s charged intro to “Tennessee Plates,” Hiatt’s epic tale of heisting Elvis Presley’s Cadillac, a car that was surely purchased with proceeds from some of the 250-plus songs the King recorded at Studio B.
There’s no drummer, yet these grooves are deep and true. And while the up-tempo songs are, as ever, filled with delightful internal rhyme and sly aggression, The Jerry Douglas Band’s empathetic musicianship nudges Hiatt to performances that are startlingly vulnerable.
Built when Hiatt was five-years-old, Studio B was designed for music to be made in real time by musicians listening to each other and reacting in the emotional moment. That’s what happened here: Five players on the studio floor, making decisions on instinct rather than calculation.
All this is made possible, of course, by Hiatt’s songs, one of which — “Music is Hot” — mentions the Studio B recording of Waylon Jennings singing “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line.” The lyrics are explorations of individual experiences — family, loss, tough redemption, and long-term love — in which Hiatt reveals the universal.
The album answers the question Hiatt posed thirty years ago in “Listening to Old Voices”: “Is it true we are possessed by all the ones we leave behind, or is it by their lives we are inspired?” The answer is “Yes.” Those lives are musical ones, as recorded in the studio where he and Douglas gathered to extend a legacy.
And they are deeply personal ones, as detailed in “Light of the Burning Sun,” about the suicide of Hiatt’s eldest brother, and the resulting dissolution of his family. “My father screamed, ‘No,’ and beat on the wall/ Shook the foundations of the house, shook the life out of us all,” he sings, in the most straightforward and sober vocal of his career.
“It’s just the story,” Hiatt said. “With that, the family just blew a gasket. It’s a part of who I am, and part of what I’ve been working through, all these years. Again, it’s just the story. Like Guy Clark said, ‘You can’t make this shit up”.
Leftover feelings that will remain unresolved, no matter how often explored. Explicated in a place of history, a place of comfort. A sacred place, if you believe the documentation of human expression to be a holy thing.
Here, then, is a meeting of bruised and triumphant American giants. Here are Hiatt and Douglas, creating the meant-to-be: Love songs and road songs, sly songs and hurt songs. Leftover feelings that edify and sustain.
And here is John Hiatt’s “Track Record”:
1. First song you heard as a child?
Blue Moon of Kentucky, Elvis Presley version.
2. First single you owned?
Fingertips Pt. 1 and 2 , Little Stevie Wonder.
3. First LP/album you owned?
The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie, Little Stevie Wonder.
4. First CD you owned?
Born in the U.S.A., Bruce Springsteen.
5. Last music you bought and in what format (CD/vinyl/digital download)?
Dexter Gordon, A Swingin’ Affair, LP.
6. Which album would be on your wish list as a gift?
New Sensations, Lou Reed.
7. Favourite album?
Another side of Bob Dylan, Bob Dylan.
8. Best record ever made (can be single/album/EP)?
A Change is Gonna Come, Sam Cooke.
9. Guilty secret in your music collection?
Guilty, yes. Secrets, no!
10. What does music mean to you and how does it make you feel?
Music means everything to me, and it makes me feel every last feeling I’ve ever felt.
11. Which song or album is a guaranteed mood booster?
Aretha’s Gold, Aretha Franklin.
12. Which song or album would be the soundtrack to a film about your life?
We Gotta Get Out Of This Place, The Animals.
13.Your favourite driving track – or music to exercise-to?
Drop off Head, Toots and the Maytals.
14. Best song or album for a romantic moment?
Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.
15. Which song was played for the “First Dance” at your wedding?
We were married in a Nashville courthouse. There was no first dance, but we’ve been dancing for 35 years.
16. Your choice of song to sing at karaoke?
Belle, Al Green.
17. Which song takes you back to your childhood – and to which specific memory?
Hang on Sloopy, The McCoys. Played it with my first band in eighth grade for the Catholic School Youth dance.
18. Favourite band?
19. Favourite singer?
20. Which song would you like played at your funeral?
Rocky Top. * Written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant in 1967 and first recorded by the Osborne Brothers later that same year. Nitty Gritty Dirt band, Lynn Anderson and others have covered it since.
- John Hiatt with The Jerry Douglas Band: “Leftover Feelings” is on the New West label, released May 21st Available on CD, vinyl and digital.
Photos: Patrick Sheehan and Jim McGuire.