The new record is just the start, John Hiatt’s songs will just get even better when we play them live says Jerry Douglas
Jerry Douglas is an absolute legend of the dobro and he was one of the prime movers in the “newgrass” movement of the ‘70s with fellow travellers Tony Rice, David Grisman, Ricky Skaggs, J D Crowe, Vassar Clements and Sam Bush. If that wasn’t enough, he has amassed thirty-two Grammy Nominations, winning fourteen, won CMA Musician of the Year three times and has been awarded Dobro Player Of The Year ten times by the International Bluegrass Music Association. He has continued to push the boundaries of what constitutes great dobro playing while reminding people of what traditional bluegrass music sounds like with his tribute to the music of Flatt and Scruggs, the Earls of Leicester. As a member of Union Station, he has helped Alison Krauss achieve her international success and he has worked with countless artists in the rock and pop fields such as Eric Clapton, Elvis Costello, James Taylor, Ray Charles and Paul Simon. He is also a much sought-after producer and he is also the driving force behind the very successful Transatlantic Sessions. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Jerry Douglas to talk about his recent collaboration with John Hiatt, ‘Leftover Feelings’, where he brought his production, bandleader and dobro skills to bear on a classic collection of John Hiatt originals. While he made a significant personal contribution to the record, he is also very keen to ensure that his band’s contributions are fully recognised. Jerry Douglas also shares his sense of personal loss at the recent sudden death of Tony Rice, he explains how physical you have to be when playing acoustic music and speaks eloquently on the joys of playing the dobro. In his interview with Americana UK, John Hiatt explained his awe at recording in the legendary RCA Studio B and Jerry Douglas does the same, even explaining how the reverb on Elvis’s vocals was achieved and how a celeste was used on the new record.
How are you? I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of COVID?
I will feel a lot better when I have had all my shots which will be soon and the rollout over here has got really fast since Biden came in as President and things really took off.
I wonder why, [laughs]?
Well, another chapter behind us, on my God. I kind of miss it once in a while when I feel I need a good laugh. It was weird, really terrible, we are back on earth again right now. It is still strange, he has still got his minions out there. How is americana going out there in the UK?
It is niche but has a very solid and dedicated audience. It has been rough for the musicians and artists and their support infrastructure. UK-based americana acts don’t really sell a lot of albums so their income comes largely from touring which, as you know, ceased abruptly and while live-streaming helped with artist’s profiles it didn’t fill the financial void.
Sam Bush and I were just talking about that yesterday, and I don’t know how many streams I’ve done but none of them are for money, you know, it is just a way of keeping your profile. It doesn’t pay the rent, I’m still in my house and I don’t know how,[laughs]. I’m not asking any questions.
Anyway, you have a new album out with John Hiatt called ‘Leftover Feelings’. I spoke to John earlier and it sounded like it was all a bit of a surprise and recorded quickly and there it was.
We are still on the honeymoon, you know. It all went so well we were all going, is this right? It has gone so well we all thought we must have missed something, haha. It sounds great and it is a really good collaboration between the two worlds, which really aren’t that far apart. I think a lot in those terms, the same as the rock’n’roll world even in a bluegrass setting. It wasn’t much of a stretch for me to work with him and hear the songs and then hear what to do with the songs. He was just, yeah, I like that idea so we go with it. I had heard and seen John in action a couple of times when he wasn’t so nice to some people but, you know what, I didn’t see that guy at all. I have what I have to go one, which is that John is a wonderful guy and one of the best songwriters ever on earth. I feel lucky to have been in the driver’s seat, it is nice.
The way John put it, he brought some songs, you picked the songs and told him what to do, you produced and it was your band, and he behaved himself.
That sounds more powerful than it really is. I would say that John knows what he really wants, and John would have been very quick to say no, we wouldn’t do do anything if he felt that way about something. I wanted him to say if it was going some other way than he had envisioned, or he thought we couldn’t go down that path, I wanted him to tell me. It was a nice path we took, and being able to record in that studio, in particular, was a great memory jogger for me as I’d recorded in there a couple of times with Chet Atkins and that was like being there with the king. I know he recorded Elvis there, the Everly Brothers, Homer and Jethro and all this cool stuff that we all sort of built our whole music listening platform on. Those early records when everything happened at the same time, they couldn’t overdub someone they were going to two or three track, the big dials and all that stuff, those are gone, those are museum pieces now in the other room, but we had a nice small Neve console in there that really, really helped tame that room a little bit.
John was talking about the friendly ghosts that were in there and how he was aware of the history, particularly from when he first came to Nashville in 1970 as a young wanna-be kid. He couldn’t believe he actually got to record in Studio B on his own terms.
He tells the story of when he first came to Nashville, on his first night he slept under a picnic table in Centennial Park by our fake Parthenon, [laughs]. When he told me that I went wow, you really wanted to live here bad, and then he moved into a little boarding house somewhere there on Music Row and was just within a short walk of that studio. To finally be able to record there after all that time has just got to be a great feeling of where were you then, where are you now, kind of situation.
He also said it was him who got rid of the drummer and that you wanted to keep him. That is a bit of turn around isn’t it?
Well, yeah. I thought he would want drums but he said he would like to do it without drums, and in my band I have a great drummer, and we cut the record without him and I don’t miss him, [laughs]. We were in there doing vocals one day, and Lily Hiatt his daughter came in, and she actually said who is playing drums and she was listening to the music, and I said nobody it is just us being percussive. When we think we hear something missing we automatically fill that void, somehow, because dobro is percussive, the guitar is percussive, the violin is percussive and Christian Sedelmyer, the violin player, did a lot of percussion throughout the record and it is sort of subliminal in a way. All of us, just try to do something you do automatically as a musician at this level, you try to complete the band yourself if it is not there. If you hear a sound and it is missing you try to create it, along with everything else that you are doing. It was tricky but I like the way the thing feels, I think drums would have been heavy. I’m still of the opinion that if we get into the tour and we start playing a couple of songs that are known for their Jim Keltner drum parts we may struggle a bit,[laughs]. I don’t think it is over yet as all that is down the road and we will have to figure that one out, [laughs]. I feel very comfortable about walking into any situation with that band, I can tell you. I’m not afraid to follow anybody, except the Rolling Stones, [laughs].
This is the second record, I think, that your band has also got a billing. How did you find them and why are they so good together.
You know, I truly think that that success you are talking about of everyone playing so well together, my bass player, Daniel Kimbro, is from a school of bass players at the University of Tennessee, their teacher was a guy named Rusty, I can’t remember his last name, and he had been a student of Edgar Meyer’s father and so the same time his father was teaching Edgar to play, and we all think that Edgar is one of the best two bass players in the world today, and for his father to have taught this other guy and for him to have passed all that stuff to younger guys. The first bass player in my band was Todd Parks, and he now plays bass with Sam Bush, because I had to go out on the road with Alison Krauss, and so I had to ditch my band.
And Sam Bush nicked your bass player, [laughs].
Yeah, he nicked my bass player, he just swooped right in. This guy taught these guys how to bow, you know, like arc and also great feel and overall technique, and Daniel turned me on to Mike Seal, the electric guitar player, and he is a sort of a jazz fusion type guy. These guys are jazz majors but I think that helps them in a lot of ways. It is really hard to come to bluegrass from rock’n’roll, jazz or folk music because it is about that feel, it is such an indigenous kind of music but it is really a lot easier for bluegrass musicians to go in the other direction because of the chops, you know, and all the strength you have from playing acoustic music in a band ensemble that is just blasting. Everyone plays really hard, and in a good band, you will back up and get away from the microphone a little bit and mix the band. You know you can mix the band yourselves. It has served people well, the Byrds were bluegrass players and so many big-time rock’n’rollers that I have met have come from bluegrass, or at the very least, have really loved it and picked up on a lot of things about it and taken them into their music. James Taylor was affected by it just by being in North Carolina, which is sort of the cradle of civilisation for bluegrass.
Coming into this John Hiatt record, John gave me a few songs and I listened to them and went wow, ‘Light Of The Burning Sun’ I just went is this true? He went yeah, and I was whoa, this one we have to treat with kid gloves, we have to be careful not to override the true meaning and the subtle substance of this song, to make sure that everybody understands every word of the song and gets the true meaning behind the song. Our job is to be there and accompany but never distract. That is the way I look at treatments for songs, there is a song ‘Buddy Boy’ and when I first heard it I said that is a string arrangement, we will have to draw up a string arrangement for this and Christian, my fiddle player, and Daniel, the bass player, they produced it, they produced a whole string section. I then came underneath it with some lap steel to give it a bed to ride on, you know, and you sort of look at it like a construction company in a way as you put things together. You then mix and massage those things until you get them to where you had imagined them. There are then other songs like ‘Mississippi Phone Booth’ that is just some guy’s bad luck, [laughs], actually it is John’s bad luck, [laughs]. So much of it is autobiographical.
He is a very honest songwriter, [laughs].
He tells the story of going to New Orleans for a whole lot of stuff, illegal substances, in a really fast car and he ended up in a phone booth, crime certainly doesn’t pay, [laughs]. I thought that stuff was funny and the record is all mixed up, it wasn’t hard for me to sequence the record. We went back and forth on a couple of songs that are interchangeable in the sequence, and we didn’t front-load the record like a lot of people do with all the good songs at the front so you will never make it to the backend, [laughs]. We didn’t have to do that because they are all great songs, they are all John Hiatt songs and you can’t miss, you just have to treat them right and let the songs do the work, let the songs speak for themselves. That is what I try and do, I look at it like a painting, what does it need here, it is a dark place so we are not going to do anything that is shiny here we are going to keep things in the same mode. Just paint around that and just frame it all in with the right musicality and with the right instruments. We were fooling around when we first got to RCA Studio B, there was a celeste back against the wall, and we were just walking around and someone just hit a key on the celeste and that goes in ‘All The Lilacs In Ohio’ and I think that is going to be the summers most sung chorus as people yell at the top of their lungs. Underneath those notes on the record are celeste notes, they are way down there and I hear them loud and clear when I listen. The band helps me so much, I know what they are going to do and I know what to expect, I know what they are capable of and they are capable of a lot so it was play the band. I took a lot of solos, they are out there, I didn’t want to take that many but there they are. It is the Jerry Douglas Band, I didn’t want it to be John Hiatt featuring Jerry Douglas or something because I felt I was producing and that was good enough for me and I wanted the band to get the proper credit as well.
These days if you can record a whole album in four days, that says something.
It was a lot, and there was one song, ‘Light Of The Burning Sun’, that we tried to cut at the end of the day because it sounded like that was when it should be cut, we were kind of tired so we could just relax into the song and he can sing it and give a good reading of the song but for some reason, we hit a stop. I don’t know what it was, I think we were maybe just too tired. We came back in the next morning and we hit that song and one take, that was it, we just had to sleep on it, you know. You get that in your head, when you leave the studio like there is a song left behind that you didn’t get it to where you wanted to, it haunts you until you are finished with it. We all came in with the right attitude and we got the song and just knocked it out, and it was just beautiful. I credit those guys feeling it that way, and that is really important that the who group feels the same thing, we have to be on the same page to make it work.
It definitely worked. Tony Rice died recently and it was you, Tony, Ricky Skaggs, Sam Bush, David Grisman, J D Crowe and all those guys who changed bluegrass forever when you were only kids really. You saved bluegrass because if you hadn’t come along it would have very likely died.
We were hungry to move it along and we were young enough that we had so many other influences in us that there was no way that that wasn’t going to show up in our version of bluegrass music. I think we did as much to wreck the status quo and a little later on I came back with the Earls Of Leicester to try and repair some of my wrongdoings in the past, [laughs]. When we were doing that, Tony and Grisman, Ricky and Sam, Vassar it was impossible not to play that way, it was so infectious. I think Grisman was the ring leader, he was playing the mandolin and he was Bill Monroe, he knew everything about Bill Monroe, but he said hey, there already is a Bill Monroe so we need to move this forward. The way to make our music limber is to keep moving it forward, not to just rest on it because then it will just go away. We did our jobs in pushing it forward, and it is evident today it worked because for so many younger players and singers who have come from that direction who think we are their Bill Monroe. That is fine, but I always tell them to go back and listen to where we came from, get the whole picture. They can then decide and they may think Bill Monroe is better, and that would be fine. It is satisfying to know that we had something to do with it, but we weren’t trying to move the Earth we were just trying to really capture what we were hearing in all these different influences. Grappelli and Reinhart were just as strong an influence as Bill Monroe or Flatt and Scruggs. We were wrestling, trying to make some amalgamation of those two things and all the other bluegrass lore, we all knew how to play that and we could play it like the originals played it, and that is important as well, but we were just young.
And you weren’t bothered
Yeah, we didn’t care and I actually enjoyed the criticisms to a degree and we got their attention, we certainly did.
As a young kid Jerry, why pick the resonator guitar?
It just hit me, it went through me. Listening to Josh Graves play on the Flatt and Scruggs records and that was amazing, just amazing, that a guy playing a slide guitar who has one finger placed carefully while everyone else has five digits and you have one and you can make different combinations, different slides and all these things, but what he was able to do and all the emotions he was able to pull out of the instrument, that is what I wanted to do. I wanted to be able to play like him because I was a singer as a little kid, I was a mandolin player, I got a guitar when I was about six and by the time I was ten or eleven years old I was playing dobro and trying to sound like Josh Graves, and then Mike Auldridge later on before I was able to find my own voice with it. The dobro guitar is a very vocal instrument, like a violin, there is no fret to stop you, and you can do a lot of things with a note before it goes wrong, [laughs]. You can move the note, and you can strike the note and then move the note without any stop between notes, you can just go right on past those frets, you don’t have any. Because of that, it is a great backup instrument for vocals and I have had some of the best vocalists to play with, more than anyone has had a chance to with Alison, Vince Gill and Ricky Skaggs, and the Whites. Just beautiful stuff to work with and to try and just weave myself around them but not to distract from them, not to get in their way, never step on them, but to actually accentuate what they are saying and even sometimes being another harmony in there. It is a great instrument for that, it is a really great emotional instrument. I thought about playing the fiddle for a while but I think I would have driven myself crazy with it, my ears are too good and I don’t think I could have coped, the dobro was bad enough, trying to figure out how to slide and slam and play in tune, you know, without having to stop my hand going any further. I practiced and practiced hitting the note head-on and playing old fiddle tunes which was the best way to learn that. It is a great instrument and everyone I talk to, every great dobro player I have ever talked to, told me the same story. They loved it because of the sound, and it is that old sound those old guitars that pulled us all in. Now we have these hybrid monsters that we are playing that go down lower and are louder and sustain longer, and in recent years I have kind of gone I don’t know whether I like that so I have been collecting a lot of older dobros again. I have way too many of them, just ask my wife, they are all in one place and I can get to them, but you can have too much of a good thing. I just love the instrument man, and I can’t find out the end of it, I haven’t been able to find the thing that it can’t do.
John echoed your thoughts in terms of the vocal aspects of the dobro because he said when he was singing and you were playing dobro he felt he was singing a duet and it was like having a conversation. What I find interesting is that the dobro was invented to solve the technical problem of amplification rather than it being a great instrument in its own right.
It is a one-of-a-kind type of instrument. It was sort of created by these Slovakian brothers who had been listening to these loud accordions, and things like that, all their lives. They get to the United States and they get hit by this Hawaiian craze and they like it but it is not loud enough. So they create this speaker to be in it, this acoustic speaker, and it made the guitars loud enough and it also served a lot of blues musicians because their guitars couldn’t compete with their voice, they didn’t really feel they were being accompanied by anything. When they got dobro guitars that was considerably louder, a lot of cajun bands took them, but they really did show up a lot in blues. I think they were just as important to them as they were to bluegrass. Before bluegrass there was Hawaiian music, there was jazz and blues, so I think when Josh Graves got hold of the guitar and then he met Earl Scruggs he had to step up his game, he had to be able to play fast, he had to be able to play rolls. He had to be a mixture of banjo and not just a guitar, he had to play sweet, he had to play sad, he had to do so many things in that band but one thing he really had to do was play fast and also be heard. A lot of people could play fast but if you couldn’t hear them it was like mumbling. One of the first thing dobro players learn is that if someone shouts I can’t hear you, you have to step up closer and play harder, [laughs]. It can be done, especially with the canons that people are making now, they are like resophonic canons, it is like everyone is going for the lowest string and the loudest guitar, but not me, I want the one that is sweet and records well but also has this evil twin inside it, that is what I am after. I am satisfied with what I have, yeah, [laughs].
Have you repaid your debt to traditional bluegrass with the Earls Of Leicester or will there be another record?
I hope so. I thought about closing that chapter because we had done what I set out to do which was to reintroduce that music to this population, this bluegrass population that thought that Tony Rice and Alison Krauss invented bluegrass music. No, they didn’t, check this out, all these guys singing around a single microphone and diving into the centre is choreography, it is not just a bunch of people standing on the stage who don’t move. It is boring to me, I like to see movement on stage, it is life you know. The Earls have got that all over the place, people are constantly diving and bombing, Johnny Warren comes in with the fiddle and he will tap whoever is in his way on the shoulder, and when it is time for the solo you had better get out of the way because he will run over you, he will just stick you with that fiddle bow, [laughs]. That is the way they did it too, Flatt and Scruggs, they didn’t know where the next musician was coming from, you had to have that tap on the shoulder, oh there he is, I’m getting out of here as soon as I sing the last word, it is really a team sport. I love that about it, it wouldn’t be right if we didn’t do that because that is the athletics of the game, of the bluegrass Flatt and Scruggs world. People have never seen that before.
You know the Leicester part, I was flying out of Heathrow coming from somewhere around there and I saw a road sign that just said Leicester, and I want oh you know what, people over in the States don’t realise that that is pronounced that way and I don’t know how many A level journalists I had come up to me saying tell us some more about the “Earls Of Lyencester”. Man, it was embarrassing that the first thing I had to do was to tell them how to say it, but it just clicked in my head when I saw that sign as I was on my way to Heathrow. It was a scary thing rehearsing with the band the first time because it was so real and it was the first time I was so close to hearing that sound that I grew up with, it was right in front of me, and me being a part of it was just amazing. It was a huge moment, and I hope to keep that band going because we were an educational concept but everybody liked it because we pulled it off so well, and I think there is definitely a future for it. I see it a lot now in newer bluegrass bands now they are wearing the hats and all the stuff that are throwbacks to that time. We made our point, the first record got a Grammy for God’s sake, and that was the icing on the cake. We all wanted to reintroduce the music because no one was doing it, if they played the songs they played them their way they didn’t play them as Flatt and Scruggs did which got the most attention and changed the history of music, you know. It was disappearing and I thought it ought to come back, and I think we did that. That much of the endeavour has been accomplished, we can just keep going on doing the Flatt and Scruggs stuff but why? We have done it, made the point, we have three records and people can always listen to those, but I love the band and love playing that music so I know we will do it but it probably will be on a smaller scale.
There is so much to do, I am going from John Hiatt and my band finishing touring the day before Thanksgiving here, and the day after Thanksgiving I go out on a tour with Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Stuart Duncan and Bryan Sutton and it will involve a more cerebral approach, I will have to put on a different hat, [laughs], and a different brain probably, [laughs]. It will be a little bit of adjustment for me but I love them both. I just think that the more we get out on the road with John those songs are just going to get better and better and better, and you know when you record you don’t really know the songs, you don’t know them like you will know them after you have been playing them for three months live, in front of an audience, and getting that feedback from an audience, man, just watching their faces. There is nothing in the world like that and so we will know them so well we will want to re-record them.
That sounds like it could be a live album.
Well, why cut a live album of the same thing you have just recorded in the studio, [laughs]. I want to introduce a bunch more Hiatt songs, maybe some obscure ones but there aren’t many obscure ones, [laughs]. Just bring out the hits with that band doing them would go a long way and I think we will get to that, we will get to where we will know these songs inside and out. We will like them even more and we will be able to flesh them out and do the things we would have done if we had a quarter of a million-dollar budget and were just salted away in the studio for a couple of months. That is just crazy. I have always thought that recording the records with the product that you put out is just a snapshot of where you are. Maybe you could have done it better, but you didn’t and that is it and people love it so why torture yourself.
Nobody really knows what perfection is and if you try too hard to get it you will lose it.
You go backwards, you have taken the essence away, perfection takes the essence out of it. Our favourite records are the ones that have mistakes in them, you know, not huge mistakes that throw you off the song but they are not perfect, there is some bark on the tree. That is what I like and I love to hear those little indiscretions, the little things that just flew by so fast maybe they didn’t even notice them at the time. Whoever made the mistake noticed, but there was so much other good stuff that came after it wasn’t worth going back and fixing something or doing another take. I know Earl Scruggs told me that he had a song ‘Earl’s Breakdown’ which is just a really good banjo tune, and his favourite cut of it the engineer recorded over it because it had an imperfection so he just rewound and the next time Earl thought they were doing a second take but the first take was gone and it was his favourite take. At 85 years old he had regrets about that song. I don’t know, perfection is not all that it is cracked up to be. If you want to land on the moon I understand that[laughs]. I really looking forward to playing the songs live and doing the PR stuff where we play them a couple of times we have found things like, man, it sounds better with you playing backup in that situation because you are bringing more out of it. It is sort of trial and error and you think you have done all the trial and error and then just one note can change everything. That is just the way it is and you just have to recognise it and move on.
When you tour you will need more songs than just those on ‘Leftover Feeling’ so that will be your chance to get some more songs.
There are so many John Hiatt songs we could cover but we have messed around with things like ‘Child Of The Wild Blue Yonder’, ‘Slow Turning’ and I would love a crack at ‘Lipstick Sunset’ and that Ry Cooder solo, I know that solo note for nuanced note. I have heard it so many times and I love it, I know what he was thinking about and I think I could come close to it but I don’t want to, I want to do my version of it and I’m going to be on the same path and I am just going to use my imagination instead of his. There are a lot of songs of John’s that we can cover with this band, no problem, we can turn things into string band music and we can go in a lot of different directions. I’m looking forward to getting out there and just throwing some zingers, whoa. Daniel played clawhammer banjo on this, [laughs]. We are certainly capable of it, rocking it completely out or going in the total opposite direction and if it is a good song it is going to stand up to it, whatever we do to it, and I just want it to be recognisable, [laughs]. We could also do covers of songs that he likes but aren’t his. We have talked about a lot of things. Did he tell you about his accident?
No he didn’t.
He has had rotator cuff surgery and his arm is in a sling and in the next couple of days we are meant to do a little video for ‘Big Black Electric Cadillac’ and we found this mile-long Cadillac convertible, and it is like driving a house and I said well I’m going to have to drive because you can’t operate the signals, [laughs]. I’m going to have to drive and I’ve just got the forecast and it is going to be cold, I can see us with our red faces and winter coats on in a convertible. Every step of this thing is an adventure and I will go what do you think John and he will go I just think we should see what happens because we have both had our battles with the evils out there, and we both have decided to take the straight and narrow, you know. We still have good memories though, [laughs], whenever we want a good laugh we just tell each other something really stupid we did when we were drinking. He is such a great guy, and we get along so well and I found out after we had talked about doing the record he had just moved to about a mile away from me, so even then, he can’t get away. I can knock on his door in the middle of the night because I know he is not going to answer his phone. It is a great collaboration and everyone in the band is loving it and we are all excited about doing it.
From what John said to me and from what you have just said, I can see there is great energy around this project and this is just the start and there are enough ideas to go somewhere with it.
It is just going to keep rolling and we will end up in the UK and Europe, they are already talking about it and as soon as people heard the record and they started getting excited by it the phones started ringing. It will be great to come over there with this, nobody has seen this, and while we do a lot of things like this on the ‘Transatlantic Sessions’ which we film in Scotland, this has more synchronicity, I think, between the people playing. I think it will be a huge smash over there to come over and play this stuff for them. We are very interested in coming, obviously when it is safe. There is no point rushing something like this, we want to be safe and we definitely want the audience to be safe, but it is in our plans, to come over there.
You will be building on the very successful ‘Transatlantic Sessions’ and John has his UK and European following and when you throw in the fact people have been starved of live music for so long it should be a real success all around.
I go over every year, this year was the first I haven’t been over. I’m keen to get the ‘Transatlantic Sessions’ going again because it is such an amazing thing and it has a life of its own at this point because we have used the same band. Daniel Kimbro, my bass player, has played in the last couple of years. Danny Thompson was doing it for a while but his health has kind of kept him out of it the last couple of times. It is a gruelling pace and it is a hard thing and the last thing I wanted to be doing was to hurt Danny, so we all came to this conclusion. I just love coming over and being there, it is such a great break for me and I thought about living there at one point but then I realised they have the same problems we have over here so it wasn’t going to be that easy.
When I was over there I got a little doll from a stationary store of a guy with funny hair and a suit and I hung it upside down in my studio when I got home. It is working I can tell you, [laughs]. I can see him on the golf course grabbing his ankle, and I’m not alone in that field that’s for sure. Things are now looking up in the whole world and so I am getting my happiness back. It was really hard here for a while just listening to all that stuff and watching him turn people into criminals, it was too much for me. It has divided families and even in my family there were things we could just not talk about and I don’t understand why that is because I grew up in the same house. You can’t explain it so no sense trying. I spend more of my time thinking about music and trout fishing.
At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists or tracks are currently top on your personal playlist?
I will go with Rose Cousins, a singer-songwriter with just some beautiful stuff. I continue to listen to Grappelli and Reinhart and I’ve listened to a whole lot of Tony Rice, which made me listen to myself a lot and the evolution of my own playing. When he died at Christmas it was such a shock and it still is because he had taken on the hermit’s life, we never talked to him and once in a clear blue sky he would call me and we would talk for an hour and that is all I had from Tony. It was like somebody has been taken from you but they are still walking around, it was a really odd thing and then when he died it was too real. I was kind of mute for a while, I didn’t know what to say to anybody about it so I didn’t say anything. I put a bunch of pictures up on social media of him in better times. I listen to NRBQ a lot and what a great band, and I know Al Anderson really well, and as soon as you and I hang up I will remember loads of singers. Joni Mitchell is somebody I can always fall back on especially that record she did that was mostly orchestral of her songs, it is just a beautiful, beautiful record and it is a nice way to wake up. There are a few more but they are all kind of tried and true and there are people I like to hear at any time like James Taylor, Sting in that other musical world. I’m sure there will be a whole bunch more that I will think of.
I just listen to so much stuff and people send me things to record on. I have just recorded on a Venezuelan Bob Dylan record who turns out to be a guy more in Peter Gabriel’s orbit, a world music kind of guy, he has just won everything short of the Nobel Peace Prize but he is a musician and I got to play on his record. I am working with a singer from Prague here in the next couple of days, and I have just finished one for a fella who has done a show every day since the pandemic started. There is tons of stuff and I have a studio about a hundred paces from my house so it has been my life during this whole thing. It is what has kept me working and kept my mind moving and me going in the right direction and kept me out of despair, [laughs]. It gave me a place to go and experiment and I have probably recorded three solo albums out there this year but I have also worked on about forty projects and so it kept me going and kept a little money coming into the house.
It has been an interesting time, and this record with John we were supposed to record it last April but the studio was shut, plus if everything had stayed normal and we had recorded it at RCA Studio B there were tours that would go through there and we would have had to tear down our gear every night. Because of COVID, there were no tours so we were able to set up and leave it for four days and just go in there and soak up the room. If you get stuck on something then just go for a walk around and Waylon Jennings or Roy Rodgers would reach out and slap you back in. What an amazing place to play, with ghosts everywhere and I knew a lot of them. When I came to town that place was still active and then it became a museum but they don’t really want it to be a museum they want people to come there and record. I think that part of the charm of this record, the secret stuff in this record, is that we did it there. Knowing that RCA A was just next door and I could go over and get any microphone and piece of gear I wanted was nice but we didn’t have to do that. I took John up on top of the building and he had to climb up a metal ladder and when they built that studio they built their own echo chamber on top of it instead of like the UA Tower out in California where theirs was below the building. They were really big chambers because you didn’t have a reverb machine and you would pipe the music in there. It came through the speaker and it was mic’ed in different ways but there are no standing waves in that room it is like a wavy room so it has nothing to bounce off of, it is all just beautiful sound. And that was Eddy Arnold’s reverb, it is what was around Elvis’s voice and it is just unbeatable if you know how to set it up. I made John go up there and he got up there and he was like, OK, [laughs]. We took some pictures up there, and I love that stuff and while I am not an engineer I know a lot of great ones. The whole thing from beginning to mastering and releasing the record has been great, I will be excited to see what happens when it comes out. Pre-orders are already up and John and I have to go sign like 1,200 CDs, and John is like lefthanded so that’s a challenge with his sling. When we get to the tour we are going to be in fighting condition and we will really ready to go play but the middle of August. People now are getting so excited to hear a live band and it is just as exciting for us to play to people instead of a camera. You see the movement in the sea of the crowd in front of you and I miss that, at 8 o’clock every night I make my family watch me play [laughs]. Not really, but I have thought about it, [laughs].
You do really need to get back on road by the sound of it.
We were the first ones to be shut down and the last ones to be allowed back. People are ready to go to the movies, ready to see live music. You can’t really do that at a drive-in in a park. I think it is going to take people time to be able to sit next to each other, vaccination cards could come into play this year because why take the chance of starting it all over again when we have gotten this far. We will see what the medical professionals say about it and we will honour it because that is what we have done so far.
This year will be better than last year.
Oh yeah. One of the things that did happen to me during this time is that I would sit here and see something blooming and I would go to my wife is that new? She would say, no, it happens at the same time every year. I have gotten to enjoy my home, my property and my studio. Danny Thompson wrote me a letter saying so far so good but the other day I did find a lady who says she has been living in my house for over forty years and while she doesn’t know a damn thing about football she makes a good cup of tea. That is kind of it for all of us, you know. A lot of things you took for granted and then all of a sudden it is look at what you have been missing, but I also know what I am missing by not being out in front of people and my life’s work.
Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?
I am really looking forward to bringing this record to you guys. UK audiences read, they know about people and that is something that has been lost over here because there is just too much to take hold of. I feel over there people are more knowledgeable and I love talking to people after shows and there will be a lot of that.
John Hiatt with the Jerry Douglas Band’s ‘Leftover Feelings’ is out now on New West Records.