Some may react to the pairing of iconic singer-songwriter John Hiatt and dobro master Jerry Douglas as a bit surprising, but it makes complete sense in the consistent thread of Hiatt’s career since his breakthrough 1987 Bring the Family with Ry Cooder. Hiatt loves instruments that slide, be a resonator, an electric guitar, or, in this case a Dobro and lap steel. He has played with the best purveyors of those sounds from Cooder to Sonny Landreth to Luther Dickinson and now to Douglas. There have been a few detours along the way but inevitably Hiatt will at one point return to the slide sound. It’s his sustenance. You may be wondering if Hiatt, like Steve Earle once did, is trying out bluegrass. Despite the absence of a drummer on this project, Leftover Feelings, it’s neither a bluegrass album nor a gritty roots-blues album like his ‘80s material.
The pairing also makes sense considering the established reputations of both artists. Hiatt can command the best as few can, proving so much as recently as 2018 with the Kevin McKendree backed and produced The Eclipse Sessions, in which there was very little slide guitar by the way. Douglas is without peer on the Dobro and having won 14 Grammy Awards and numerous nominations, he, in the vein of another musician commonly associated with bluegrass, Bela Fleck; continues to search for seemingly unlikely collaborations.
Aside from Douglas, we have the Jerry Douglas Band featuring Daniel Kimbro (bass, tic-tac bass and string arrangements), Mike Seal (acoustic and electric guitars), Christian Sedelmyer (violin and string arrangements), and
Carmella Ramsey (background vocals). What is akin to bluegrass is that all players are in one room, recording in real-time, reacting instinctually. As we listen to the first two hot ramblers- “Long Black Electric Cadillac” and “Mississippi Phone Booth,” they play essentially as duets with Douglas’ Dobro complementing Hiatt as he completes each verse. Much of this owes to the location, Nashville’s famed RCA Studio B, the site of recording for several Country Music Hall of Fame members from Arnold to Presley and Parton, with many in between. The studio was designed for music to be made in real-time just as it happens here. Video for “All the Lilacs in Ohio” was shot here while one for “Mississippi Phone Booth was filmed at the Cannery Ballroom, a favorite site for Americana Music Conference performances.
“The Music Is Hot” pays tribute not only the Studio’s historic importance (built-in 1957) but to that of Music Row at large by referencing Waylon Jennings’ “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line”), taken at a more deliberate Tex-Mex- like tempo presenting Douglas’s keening lines as echoes to Hiatt just as in those tunes. The rapid picking of “Lilacs in Ohio,” featuring background vocals comes close to bluegrass while the regretful “I’m in Asheville,” citing a bluegrass-centric town if there ever was one, reads as an ethereal fiddle-driven ballad. Hiatt is in signature vocal form on the standout, “Light of the Burning Son,” the kind of narrative balladeering we might associate with Hiatt on his solo Crossing Muddy Waters, punctuated by a gorgeously expansive Douglas solo.
“Little Goodnight” has the band revved up in rocking mode. Long-time Hiatt fans will hear some “Memphis in the Meantime” in this one. “Buddy Boy” is the most intimate track beginning solo as if singing to his son or dear friend, before gentle fiddles and a sharp Douglas break fill it out. It’s another classic Hiatt spot that will likely long endure. “Changes In My Mind” is a nostalgic nod to wanderlust, yet another ballad that speaks to the power of Hiatt’s songcraft – “Like a cloud that gets away on one boy’s endless summer day/Well that’s how I think of you/As I journey out cross hill and dale/ but it’s too late cause all the while you’ve disappeared view”.
“Keen Rambler” inevitably returns us to a driving tempo in one of Hiatt’s favorite themes, with “walking all over town” instead of the usual cars and driving. It thrives on the blend of the band’s strings. They close with “Sweet Dream,” vintage Hiatt in terms of imagery and feel – “I was up on Bear mountain/Hitchhiking in the dark/Not a headlight for hours/Things were looking pretty stark…Now I think about that starry night/And my eyes well up with tears/Oh let me cry a little while/Until this sweet dream disappears.” It reminds us in part of why Hiatt is one of the best songwriters of our lifetime, touching those same emotional chords as his classics like “Have a Little Faith in Me” and “It Looks Like Rain.”
The Douglas-Hiatt pairing doesn’t just work – it excels brilliantly. Count this as Hiatt’s best recording since 2008’s Same Old Man.