Interview: John Hiatt, With Jerry Douglas, Digs Into ‘Leftover Feelings’ on New Album
Just over halfway through John Hiatt's new album Leftover Feelings -- produced by dobro great Jerry Douglas and featuring Douglas' band -- comes a musical gut punch: "Light of the Burning Sun," a solemn story-song that recounts in stark detail the suicide of the singer-songwriter's oldest brother and the fallout in his family after the death of their "golden child."
Hiatt was 11 when his brother died, but 67 when he wrote the song, one of 11 on the record, out Friday (May 21). Its lyrics offer glimpses of both the pre-teen who was there in the moment and the folk-rock elder statesman who is still grappling with that tragedy more than 50 years later.
"That song can take me right back to the event, you know," Hiatt shares in a phone call. "The thing about a traumatic event in one's life is, it sort of packs its bags and moves into your psyche and your body and everything else. And so, once you can sort of open that up and ... feel it, make your peace with it -- it takes time sometimes."
Hiatt and Douglas had never worked together like this before, and they didn't know each other especially well before they started on Leftover Feelings, but Douglas knew he needed to treat "Light of the Burning Sun," in particular, with great care. "There was so much thought that went into that song," he tells The Boot, detailing how he'd quietly laid out the second day of recording to get that song in last, hoping to catch Hiatt in a slightly tired and more vulnerable moment.
"We all knew it was real and how to treat it ... Let him get a very good reading of the song and [let] our parts just kind of frame him in -- nothing fancy, nothing over the top. Let the song speak, let John speak," Douglas explains. But by the end of the day, Hiatt "was just a little too far past" giving the perfect performance.
"None of us really got it," Douglas admits. "But we came in the next day -- and so much for my theory -- we cut it first, and it was magic."
Hiatt and Douglas have mutually admired each other's work for decades and occasionally crossed paths at festivals. In 1989, Douglas was part of the session band for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Volume Two, on which Hiatt makes a guest appearance, so they've previously recorded together, too. They're even neighbors in Nashville, though they didn't know it until they linked up to work on Leftover Feelings.
It was Hiatt who approached Douglas for the project, after a brainstorming session with his manager, Ken Levitan. And Douglas, when asked, was in instantly.
"He just trusted me, and that was amazing to me in the first place. Because I'm thinking, 'This is John Hiatt. And I'm me. And he trusts me. It's a big day,'" reflects Douglas (which is perhaps too modest of a perspective for someone with more than a dozen Grammys, three CMA Awards and an Americana Music Association Lifetime Achievement Award, among other honors, to his name). "... I have a lot of respect for him, even before we ever did anything together."
Hiatt had only one other request for the record: No drums.
"We don't like drummers," he deadpans. Chuckling, he throws out a second quip: We thought we'd take the Spinal Tap movie to its logical conclusion. We're tired of drummers blowing up, so we're not gonna have one."
Really, Hiatt was simply confident in himself and Douglas and his crew. He trusted that they could create the same rhythms without the aid of drums, just as on some of his favorite old records. "Not once," he says, did they regret it.
Hiatt, Douglas and Douglas' band spent four days in Nashville's legendary RCA Studio B in October. Hiatt lived a few blocks up 16th Avenue South from the studio when he first moved to town, but had never before recorded there.
"It's just like this big ol' warm smile that wraps around you, all the music that's been made there. You can just hear it coming out of the walls ...," Hiatt reflects of the experience. "It was just so inviting and conducive to making music. You just felt like, well, yeah, this is why all this great music was recorded here."
Douglas, for his part, tried to put all of that history out of his mind.
"This stuff that was the building blocks of all this, everything we're doing now, a lot of it was recorded right there. And that is a giant thing to think about," he says. "I tried to stay in the moment and just do my job and feel what was coming from John."
Because of COVID-19, Hiatt and company couldn't set up right next to each other as they'd hoped, but there was at least one benefit: Studio tours had slowed down due to the pandemic, so they were able to get the studio for four days straight. Hiatt prefers to keep his recording calendar tight, and Douglas had no problems with that plan, either.
"I mean, I came up in the bluegrass world where it's 'Here's $5,000, go make a great record -- or a double album," Douglas jokes. "So that was easy."
Adds Hiatt, "It was surprisingly effortless. And it made me think, well, boy, it sure would be fun if you didn't have to deal with the whole COVID deal to come back and record again."
Hiatt and Douglas, with the band, will tour Leftover Feelings beginning in late August and through late November. Though they both rave about the recording process -- and Hiatt, in particular, is thrilled to be able to get back on the road -- Douglas says they haven't thought about additional collaborations in the future.
"The biggest delight of this whole thing is, I have a new friend," Douglas notes. "I have a new, really good friend."