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On The String: The Better Late Than Never Team-Up of John Hiatt And Jerry Douglas

Ed Rode

When news broke that John Hiatt and Jerry Douglas had teamed up for a collaborative album, any veteran Nashville music fan might have assumed they’d long known each other and talked for years about making an album. Both have been making roots music at the highest levels out of Music City since the 70s after all. But in fact the idea was hatched by Hiatt’s manager and the two were only aquaintances.

“It never occurred to me” to hire Douglas on for a session, says Hiatt in Episode 170 of The String. “Only because, you know, he was in blue bluegrass world, and I just never imagined myself fitting in that world. I always loved it, but it just never occurred to me that it might be something.”

Meanwhile, Douglas says he’s been interested in Hiatt’s music at least since his remarkable breakout album of 1987. “Well, of course, when Bring The Family came out, I wanted to be Ry Cooder. I saw Ry Cooder as encroaching. But you know, John's always had some kind of slide guitar player, it seems, on his records. So there's a theme here.” He’s correct. After Ry Cooder early on it was the great Sonny Landreth on slide electric, touring with Hiatt as The Goners. Now, it’s John and Jerry, matched up on Leftover Feelings, recorded at historic RCA Studio B.

The idea for the connection actually came from some enlightened self-interest. Hiatt’s manager, the industry veteran Ken Levitan, owns the company that manages Jerry Douglas as well, and when Levitan floated the idea to Hiatt, he said it was a no-brainer. The musicians discovered they lived near one another in the West End of Nashville and struck up a friendship while working up songs.  

The album certainly isn’t bluegrass, but it’s also Hiatt’s first album since 1999’s Crossing Muddy Waters to forego drums and foreground a folky, mostly acoustic sensibility. So the Jerry Douglas Band left its regular drummer Doug Belote home in New Orleans and focused around guitarist Mike Seal, bass player Daniel Kimbro and fiddler Christian Sedelmyer. There is, says Hiatt, no lack of groove though. 

“Besides their sense of the melody, these players are a drummer. When we all played together, the drums are there,” relates Hiatt. “And I just figured, I bet we could make that racket without somebody hitting things.”

As for repertoire, this is a straightforward Hiatt songwriter album, featuring new compositions from an artist who’s been steadily crafting detail-rich narratives and striking situational pieces for decades. The opener “Long Black Electric Cadillac” is a lightweight blues about a car that doesn’t yet exist but should. Then things get more real-life with “Mississippi Phone Booth,” a callback says Hiatt to “my last run as a drunk” and an experience down near the end of his rope. Even more stirring and cathartic is “Light Of The Burning Sun,” which steps us through the trauma of losing his brother, when Hiatt was ten, to suicide.

So all these leftover feelings weren’t minor things, and Douglas says that he and his band pored over the lyrics and peppered Hiatt with questions about the scenarios to get farther inside the music. “When I heard the stories, then I knew how to play,” he says. 

It’s a rollicking, laughter-filled conversation, peppered with a generous sampling of the new music. And everybody involved agrees that while sure, it could well have happened earlier, it’s great that it did in fact happen.



Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org
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