John Hiatt’s New Collaboration Album with Jerry Douglas is a Blues-Oriented Americana Gem

In late March, I spotted and covered Mississippi Phone Booth, a tune from John Hiatt’s then-upcoming new collaboration album with Dobro resonator guitar master Jerry Douglas. Leftover Feelings since came out last Friday, May 21. While based on my still relatively limited knowledge of Hiatt’s previous catalog he doesn’t break new ground, I love the sound and high-quality handcrafted feel of the music, and feel confident enough to say if you dig Hiatt you’ll like this album!

As I noted in my previous post, while Hiatt and Douglas had known each other for years, the album marked the first time they recorded music together. Initially, Leftover Feelings was supposed to be released in April of last year. Like in so many other cases, COVID-19 threw a monkey wrench into everything. But there was one upside.

Hiatt and Douglas recorded the album at Nashville’s historic RCA Studio B during the shutdown, which they otherwise couldn’t have done. Usually, the space is used by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum for public tours. The cool thing is the storied studio is the very same place where they likes of Elvis Presley, The Everly Brothers and Waylon Jennings once recorded.

From left: Jerry Douglas, Daniel Kimbro & John Hiatt

“The room’s just got a feel to it,” Hiatt told Paste. “My mind started pedaling back to when I was a little boy hearing ‘Blue Christmas’ every Christmas and ‘Love Me Tender,’ and all of the great songs recorded there just kinda blew my mind.”

“The whole time you’re there, when you’re not playing, you’re thinking about who has been in that room and played,” added Douglas. “All these great music producers and musicians walked in and out through that room, and it was their playhouse.” One can only imagine what a thrill it must have been to record in this famous place!

This brings me to the musicians playing on the album. Apart from Hiatt (vocals, acoustic guitar) and Douglas (Dobro, lap steel guitar, backing vocals), they include Jerry Douglas Band members Mike Seal (acoustic and electric guitar), Daniel Kimbro (bass, string arrangements) and Christian Sedelmyer (fiddle). In addition, there’s Carmella Ramsey (backing vocals). ‘So who’s playing the drums?’ you might ask yourself. Well, nobody – frankly, there’s no drummer needed in this case!

Let’s get to some music. Here’s opener Long Black Electric Cadillac. Like all of the 10 other tracks, the song was written by Hiatt. As this review by The Associated Press cleverly observed, the tune introduces “a new musical form — the 12-bar blues gone green.” A little excerpt from the lyrics helps illustrate the point: I got a long black electric Cadillac/She goes a thousand miles on a charge/I got a long black electric Cadillac/She goes a thousand miles on a charge/I’m runnin’ subterranean air conditioning/And a full electron photo array in my backyard…

While Mississippi Phone Booth is one of my early favorite tunes, I’m skipping it here, given I covered it before and go right to All the Lilacs in Ohio. It’s an acoustic stripped back version of a song Hiatt previously recorded for The Tiki Bar is Open, a studio album released on September 11, 2001.

I’m in Ashville is “a song about a guy who’s left his lover in all but his mind and heart,” Hiatt told Relix. “Jerry’s aching steel guitar floating above the rolling fiddle and the pulse of the bass and rhythm just expands on the dubious decision this fellow has made.” I love this tune. The warm sound is just beautiful!

On Little Goodnight things become slightly more electric, which is good for sound variety. It’s another tune Hiatt had released previously, in this case on his 2012 compilation Collected.

Let’s do one additional track: Keen Rambler. The above AP review characterizes the song as “spirited” (agree), comparing it to “a Chuck Berry car song, but it’s about walking.” Less sure about that. What I do know is I like the tune and that’s good enough for me to highlight it in this post.

Leftover Feelings is Hiatt’s 26th album and follows The Eclipse Sessions, his second live album from 2018. It was produced by Douglas and mastered by engineer Paul Blakemore. The album appears on New West Records, Hiatt’s eighth release on that label based in Nashville, Tenn. and Athens, Ga.

Sources: Wikipedia; Paste; Associated Press; Relix; YouTube

John Hiatt with The Jerry Douglas Band/Mississippi Phone Booth

I just love this clip of heartland rocker John Hiatt teaming up with Dobro resonator guitar master Jerry Douglas. Mississippi Phone Booth, written by Hiatt, is from Leftover Feelings, an upcoming collaboration album by the two artists scheduled for May 21.

As reported by Paste, while Hiatt and Douglas have known each other for years, the album marks the first time they have recorded music together. Initially, Leftover Feelings was supposed to come out in April of last year. But like in so many other cases, COVID-19 threw a monkey wrench into everything.

On the upside, Hiatt and Douglas ended up having four days at Nashville’s historic RCA Studio B during the shutdown, which otherwise would have been used by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum for public tours. One can only imagine what it must have felt like to work in the same space where the likes of Elvis Presley, The Everly Brothers and Waylon Jennings once recorded.

John Hiatt and Jerry Douglas

“The whole time you’re there, when you’re not playing, you’re thinking about who has been in that room and played, Douglas told Paste. “All these great music producers and musicians walked in and out through that room, and it was their playhouse.”

“The room’s just got a feel to it,” added Hiatt. “My mind started pedaling back to when I was a little boy hearing ‘Blue Christmas’ every Christmas and ‘Love Me Tender,’ and all of the great songs recorded there just kinda blew my mind.”

As for Mississippi Phone Booth, Hiatt commented, “I maintain that I write fiction, but my stories are based on life experiences, or the experiences of people I know, or things I’ve read about and so on. And this one in particular chronicles my last sort of run with trying to make alcohol and drugs work successfully in my life, I’ll just put it that way!”

“I have a mental picture of exactly where he was standing in that phone booth, calling and just begging somebody, at least for the operator to stay on the line long enough for him to talk to somebody,” added Douglas. “It sounded like a miserable situation. But I try to bring…real life to what was there, to do what I could do to swamp it out a little bit.”

Last but not least, here’s how John Hiatt’s website describes the upcoming album: 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.

Mississippi Phone Booth follows All the Lilacs in Ohio, another Hiatt song from Leftover Feelings, which was released upfront in early March. I certainly look forward to hearing the entire album.

Sources: Paste; John Hiatt website; YouTube