John Hiatt and Jerry Douglas should have collaborated before now. They did, technically, record together for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, but that wasn’t a proper collaboration. Singer-songwriter Hiatt and Dobro master Douglas have enough overlap that their Venn diagram of interests looks very promising on paper, and the new release Leftover Feelings proves even to surpass that promise. The album merges Hiatt’s rootsy side and the Jerry Douglas Band’s bluegrassy side into something that’s not exactly either (though there are no drums) but a little of each in an Americana sound enhanced by Douglas’ production work. As Hiatt reflects on memory, loss, and desire, the band’s marvelous playing leads to one of the best albums of the year.
A reworking of “All the Lilacs in Ohio” provides the album’s heart. The lyric offers a wonderful meditation on the confluence of nostalgia, homesickness, and missed opportunity, with Hiatt nailing the delivery. The music counters with upbeat picking and a touch of bluegrass. The music’s energy reaches for the joy of childhood and home, of finding just what you were looking for as if the band can elevate the protagonist’s emotions as he struggles with his new life in the city and his longing for the woman he met and will never find again. Hiatt and Douglas fill the song with experiences and feelings, with a solo that explicates it all. Losing never felt so liberating, the hurt turning into something bigger.
If “Lilacs” brings the album to its peak, it speaks to the brilliance of the song because Hiatt and Douglas never falter on this record. Each track delivers its own story. “Light of the Burning Sun” demands much of its listeners as Hiatt recounts his own older brother’s suicide from years ago. Listening to him calmly and soberly recall the tragedy that “shook the life out of us all” makes for sharp pain. It’s also evidence of Douglas’ touch as a producer. The song gets a few little flourishes, but then it’s mostly just Hiatt at the front, sharing one of his toughest moments.
Not all of the album is (or could be) that heavy. The album opens with the rootsy “Long Black Electric Cadillac”, a sly number that fits into the lineage of classic driving songs even as it updates the lingo to point out, “She’ll go 1,000 miles on a charge.” Hiatt’s wit runs just as long on the album as when he follows that number with the vehicular “Mississippi Phone Booth” and its ’84 Camaro. “The Music Is Hot” takes a different tack in considering the role music plays in our lives. Hiatt uses a lyric possibly inspired by the group’s recording in famed RCA Studio B in Nashville. There’s long here, but mixed with more current pleasures than in “Lilacs”, the value of memory showing through even as Hiatt interacts with someone in the present.
The group closes the album with a telling pair. “Keen Rambler” uses a bluesy boogie to tell the story of a perambulating man (presumably, everyone’s done with cars by this point). Hiatt sounds a little like early rock ‘n’ roll, but rather than doing the usual rock stuff, the character in the song does his rambling to go to church, take his kids to school, and buy his wife flowers. It’s unexpected content, as joyful to hear as Hiatt seems to have singing it. The album then finishes the traveling, hitchhiking, reminiscing “Sweet Dream”, a relaxed but poignant reflection that blends many of the album’s themes and sounds in its wandering. Hiatt and Douglas perform about people on the road, but they couldn’t sound more at home.