More than three decades ago, when John Hiatt recorded "One Step Over the Line" with Rosanne Cash and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Jerry Douglas contributed the Dobro to the session, as he did for all but one song captured within "Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Volume Two." A significant gig certainly, but not very different than the 18 other songs Douglas played on during that all-star recording. As near as we can tell, that is the only time Hiatt and Douglas shared a recording session. Until now.
Slip ahead to 2020 and who does Hiatt see peering over his fence? Douglas. (Not really, although they do apparently live close enough to be considered neighbors.) A devastating tornado followed by a pandemic, delayed the recording of "Leftover Feelings," but the two Americana legends — one a songwriter with few peers, the other an instrumentalist and producer who has redefined the hub-capped guitar — eventually found their way to RCA Studio B, the hallowed room where Chet Atkins once ruled (and in which Dolly, Elvis, Waylon, Orbison, the Everlys and more recorded) for a four-day collaborative blast that produced the stunning "Leftover Feelings."
Not entirely acoustic (Mike Seal provides select electric guitar), but this collaboration between Hiatt and the Jerry Douglas Band is largely acoustic sounding, near and warm. Without a drummer, it is left to the very tight JDB to provide rhythm and groove, and do they: Daniel Kimbro (bass), Seal (acoustic and electric guitars), and Christian Sedelmyer (violin) work with Douglas (Dorbro and lap steel) to create Hiatt's (acoustic guitar) most engaging recording in a decade.
These new songs are stellar. The central piece is "Light of the Burning Sun," documenting the familial trauma of Hiatt's older brother's suicide. Douglas' Dobro introduction provide the foundation to this intimate examination, replete with lyrical touches that one imagines have been percolating within Hiatt for over 50 years: "He wanted to own his own clothing store, dressed like Sam Cooke with the Catholic girls in his Fairlane Ford." A devastating song, naturally, but absolute perfect in execution.
While there are vibrant, up-tempo songs (the lead-off pair "Long Black Electric Cadillac" and "Mississippi Phone Booth," and perhaps the album's most obviously blues-infused pieces), the majority of the album is reflective in mood and presentation. "I'm in Asheville" ("I thought I had given it my all, just to get us back to zero...") and "Buddy Boy" ("Just keep doing what you do, gonna wake up some morning and they'll be no one around you; you'll be talking to four walls, and one will be talking back to you") are harsh portraits of reality, the impact of poor decisions on relationships, and livers.
"King Rambler" is a bit of a throwaway, a character sketch that is more of an excuse for the band to cut loose and stretch their rockabilly-lovin' souls. "The Music Is Hot" will appeal to those whose ears perk at lyrical allusions invoking musical nostalgia ("Waylon walks the line, Merle's mama tries to tell him so;") it is a delightful song.
The closing "Sweet Dreams" is more topical, Hiatt placing himself in the mind of someone who has lived on land stretching back generations, and considering the reality of a future elsewhere; Hiatt here sounds his most vulnerable (aside "Light of the Burning Sun,") and a brave bluegrass band could take this one.
"Changes In My Mind" is another one of those songs that reassures listeners that their lives are only manageably chaotic; the artist's life is really something we don't desire. Douglas' production choices are most apparent on these quieter, reflective songs. The instrumental parts are absolutely crystalline, flowing through each other as delicately as Hiatt places his chosen words.
Two songs are from the massive Hiatt back catalogue. "Little Goodnight" first appeared as a long-ago b-side, and this lullaby of parental frustration exudes energy mid-set. One of the album's premier performances first appeared on "The Tiki Bar Is Open;" overlooked at the time, here — and with the passing of 20 years — "All the Lilacs in Ohio" is provided an exciting steel opening, and quickly accelerates into the showpiece it was always meant to be.