Friends, Neighbors, Collaborators: John Hiatt and Jerry Douglas Team Up for ‘Leftover Feelings’
John Hiatt, left, and Jerry Douglas (photo by Patrick Sheehan)
John Hiatt was set to record his follow-up to 2018’s The Eclipse Sessions in April 2020. It was going to be his first time setting foot inside the historic Studio B at RCA Studios in Nashville as well as his first time collaborating with friend and neighbor Jerry Douglas. As the year began, Hiatt and company were looking forward to their time together making this new LP, Leftover Feelings.
About a month before the already-booked studio time, Nashville and several other parts of Tennessee were ravaged by deadly tornados, and only a few days later, the reeling community began to confront the realities of the novel coronavirus. A town known for packed music venues and recording studios soon had to close its doors to artists of all kinds.
“As musicians, we were the first ones out, and we knew we’d be the last ones back in,” says Hiatt as he reflects on the last year. When everything shut down, he wasn’t sure when he and Douglas would be able to create this record together.
But by October, things started looking a bit more hopeful. Hiatt, Douglas, and Douglas’ band were confirmed for four straight days at Studio B, and they took advantage of every second they were given.
“Talk about gratitude for being able to do what we do,” Hiatt says, with an audible smile. “We weren’t able to do it for a while, so it was pretty special.” The gratitude was crystal clear when Hiatt and Douglas premiered the video for “All the Lilacs in Ohio” — the fourth track on Leftover Feelings — which features footage of their time together in the studio. As smiles abound, it’s obvious that these musicians were ecstatic to be making music again.
“We all looked at each other, mentally pinching ourselves,” Hiatt admits. “Did that actually happen? Did we really just get in a room and play music together? It was fun and it sounded like we were having fun. We were thrilled.”
Even though Hiatt and Douglas both have been making music for decades and each is revered as one of the greatest artists in his respective field, they never worked together before Leftover Feelings. The closest they came was in the late-’80s, when the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band organized the second volume of Will the Circle Be Unbroken. Douglas was the session’s resonator guitarist, and Hiatt came in to record his song, “One Step Over the Line,” with Rosanne Cash.
“John was there for them, not for me,” Douglas remembers. “I was just in the band. We’ve been friends for a long time, but we’ve never collaborated.”
Hiatt adds: “We’ve always seemed to miss each other on the broad highway over the years. He’s coming, I’m going.” Eventually, though, their journeys lined up as they both came under the same management.
“I was talking to the guy who’s been responsible for me doing anything successfully over the last 25 years, Ken Levitan,” Hiatt says, “and we were talking about my next project. I wanted to get together with Ry Cooder and make a record — which we’re still planning — but it didn’t quite come together. We kept talking, and Ken asked me if I ever wanted to play with Jerry. I said, ‘Are you kidding? That’d be amazing.’”
Douglas was likewise excited at the prospect of working with Hiatt, and though he doesn’t think it started as a completely natural pairing, it got there pretty fast. “I mean, he’s John Hiatt,” Douglas says. “He’s him. He’s the songwriter of great impact.”
Douglas faced a lot of responsibility working with this songwriter, who was not only a colleague with the same management, but also a friend and neighbor. Douglas was tasked with bringing his Dobro skills to the record as well as assembling the band and serving as producer. “It was my job to put John’s words in context with music,” he says. “That’s what I tried to do, and really, he just let me go. He let me have full rein. He didn’t try to reel me in at anytime. It was very, very easy. I don’t know how else to say it, it seemed like we had been doing this for years as we got into it.”
Hiatt agrees. “It was probably one of the easiest records I’ve ever made,” he joyfully declares. It wasn’t just about his chemistry with Douglas; Hiatt was quickly impressed with the band, which included Daniel Kimbro on bass, Mike Seal on guitars, Christian Sedelmyer on strings, and Carmella Ramsey backing up the vocals — there are no drums to be found on Leftover Feelings.
“They’re the level of the Little Village band, in my opinion,” Hiatt remarks. “These guys are all schooled and trained, they all love music and they just play music. It was easy. It all fell together, like music should.”
The studio in which the music fell together, RCA Studio B, is credited with being the birthplace of “The Nashville Sound,” which revitalized country music and Nashville. Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, and Elvis Presley recorded in Studio B. Even Douglas found himself in Studio B a few times over the years.
“I played there a couple of times with Chet Atkins in situations where he’d be doing a TV special or just throwing a party for himself and he’d invite a bunch of musicians and mic ’em all up,” he says. “What better way to experience that room than with Chet Atkins? That was his playground. But I had never been there for something like this, recording a full album.”
Hiatt, on the other hand, had never been in Studio B until he and Douglas came together for Leftover Feelings. “That room has such a vibe,” he says. “If you’re playing in there, something just happens. I keep thinking of all the music that’s soaked into the walls, echoing around in various glints of light here and there. You look in the corner and you can see Floyd Cramer playing piano. You can see the Everly Brothers, with their two acoustics, standing up, singing into one microphone. You can hear Chet Atkins chewing an artist out for one thing or another. I just kept thinking about Waylon Jennings’ “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line,” which was recorded there … I kept thinking about that.”
When Hiatt and Douglas talk about Studio B, there is a clear admiration for its history as well as a sort of disbelief that they were able to make a record in that room in the middle of a global pandemic. “There’s a little taped ‘X’ on the floor where Elvis had his sweet spot,” Hiatt remembers. “It was his spot for singing. I’ll never forget that. There we were.”
Beyond the history that permeates the walls of Studio B, it’s also a unique-sounding space. It’s built in the shape of a square and has a tile floor and acoustic tiles on the walls and ceilings. “It’s different than any other room,” says Douglas, who has performed on more than 1,500 albums in all sorts of spaces. “When you record there, you get the sound of that room. We had to work with that sound and get friendly with that sound because that room is relentless. The sound carries.”
“The music, the sonics, the physicality, the spiritual, they all merge when you’re making music,” Hiatt adds. “And they all play together in that room.”
When two artists of Hiatt’s and Douglas’ stature come together, collaboration can be tricky. With Douglas producing Leftover Feelings, it took their relationship to a different level, too, because he was expected to help direct the overall vision of the record.
“He’s one of the greatest songwriters ever, so I was honored to get to do this album in the first place,” Douglas says. “Since he’s putting this stuff in my care, I want to take good care of it and get the right musicians, which I had … guys who are considerate and know when to stop and know when to start.”
That consideration was of the utmost importance when Douglas first heard “Light of the Burning Sun,” a song about the suicide of Hiatt’s older brother. “You have to study the song,” Douglas explains, “and for that song, I knew the worst thing I could do was to cover it up, to distract the listener. It was the hardest song we made because you have to be so careful about interrupting or distracting the listener away from the content of the song and what it’s about.”
Hiatt was 11 years old when his brother took his own life, and this was the first time he ever wrote about it. “I’ve stumbled through the darkness like everyone else for my 68 years on this planet,” he says. “But it’s like my mother used to tell me: The hard times have value, otherwise it would just be a cruel joke.” For Hiatt, part of the value of “Light of the Burning Sun” is simply the opportunity to process the trauma that has been part of his life and his family’s life for more than 50 years.
“To finally put it down in a song, that was a tremendous release for me,” Hiatt says, almost with a sigh of relief. “I needed to write it.”
As he thinks about the personal grief that the song represents, Hiatt seems to recognize how it fits with the universal grief the world has faced since March 2020. And he and Douglas hope that, maybe, this song and the rest of Leftover Feelings will provide light and hope to those who hear it.
“Making new music, that’s new life,” Hiatt says. “That’s new life.”