Interview: John Hiatt on working with Jerry Douglas and the ghosts of RCA Studio B

Singing while Jerry Douglas is playing dobro is like singing a conversation according to John Hiatt.

The impact of the COVID pandemic is incalculable but one of the small benefits is that it provided a random series of events that enabled John Hiatt and Jerry Douglas to make a record together. If this wasn’t enough, through another set of COVID related events they were able to record at the legendary RCA Studio B on Nashville’s Music Row. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with John Hiatt to discuss how the two artists got together and what it felt like to record in such a legendary facility. John Hiatt explains how he felt that singing with Jerry Douglas’s dobro was akin to singing a duet or a conversation, so similar to the human voice was the sound of his dobro. He is also very open about his approach to songwriting and how he is always amazed when he can complete a song and, as a treat for fans of Little Village, he talks about his admiration for their sole record of thirty years ago. While John demonstrates his awareness of the history of Studio B and reflects on his own early days on Music Row, he also tips his hat to recent music that got his juices flowing making it clear he is still moving forward at the age of 68.   He also shares his pride in his children and particularly the success that daughter Lily Hiatt has carved out for herself in the music business. In case anyone thought that Americana UK was showing any favouritism, Martin Johnson has also spoken to Jerry Douglas and that interview will be posted soon.

How are you? I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of COVID?

We have been cautious and careful, just minding each other’s health. My wife and I have just had our two Moderna shots and we felt pretty good about that, getting us older folks vaccinated. So yeah, things are looking up.

You have your new album ‘Leftover Feeling’ coming out. I assume that was recorded safely during COVID restrictions?

We recorded it at RCA Studio B back in October, we took all the precautions and everybody got tested before the four days of recording. We separated everybody in the room and we were at least 10 to 15 feet apart, we wore masks while we were in the control room listening to playback. Yeah, it went really great.

It must have been good getting together with other musicians after so long.

It was like your first drink, haha, the angel’s tears. Yeah, it was really, really good.

How did you hook up with Jerry Douglas and his band for ‘Leftover Feeling’?

It is one of those things really, it is strange how the mind works in a pandemic. It twists and turns and funny ideas pop up and I was talking with the guy who looks after him, Ken Levitan, and he said have you ever played with Jerry Douglas and I said I may have years ago, he could have been on a session for something I recorded but what a great idea we should call him and see what he is doing. So we gave him a shout and he was just all amped up and ready to play any kind of music.

That’s his special thing though isn’t, any kind of music.

Yeah, I could have said I’m making a classical record and he would have been up for it. We have crossed paths over the years but we have never really gotten to know each other other than to say a hello and goodbye. It was a great experience getting to know a wonderful human being, he has a great band of young musicians who wanted to play on our record, and man, we sent him a bunch of songs to listen to and he picked out about thirteen, I think, and in four days, boom, we had the songs and the performances recorded. Then we had just a couple of days of odds and ends and overdubs and fixes and bob’s your uncle.

You don’t always produce yourself. Apart from his band, what did Jerry bring to the recording as a producer?

Oh man, I don’t think either one of us knew what it was going to sound like so we were both equally in the dark, but he is a bandleader, he is the lead chair in the orchestra so to speak. I don’t want to compare ourselves, but I was thinking I wonder what Frank Sinatra was thinking about doing all those records with that great arranger he used to work with, you know who I am talking about.

Yes, Capital studios in Los Angeles with Nelson Riddle.

Yeah, so it was kind of like that, or what I imagined that to be. All I had to do was my little rhythm groove thing to set the tone and then sing it, you know.

Whose idea was it to get rid of the drummer?

Haha. I kind of came in with that idea. I said let’s just do this acoustic, I made a record kind of like that ‘Crossing Muddy Waters’ back in 2000 and I just kind of thought, you know what, let’s make it acoustic, and it is. The guitar player picks up his electric guitar a couple of times but it is pretty acoustic sounding and I said, you know what, we can lay down a groove, you don’t need a drummer to lay down a groove and I think with this record we achieved that. Jerry wanted to use his drummer though.

That is interesting. I was surprised when I listened to the record that while the songs would work with a drummer, you don’t miss the drummer.

Yeah, yeah that’s good.

Where did you get the songs for ‘Leftover Freedom’ from, did you write them during lockdown?

I can tell you which ones I wrote during lockdown. ‘Long Black Electric Cadillac’ was written during the pandemic, ‘Mississippi Phone Booth’, ‘Keen Rambler’, ‘Buddy Boy’, ‘Sweet Dream’, ‘The Music Is Hot’, ‘Changes In My Mind’, I would say more than half of them. There are a couple of oldies, ‘Little Goodnight’ I actually wrote when our third child, our first together, was born 33 years ago. She was one of those colicky babies and she would scream all night long, haha, so that was the inspiration for that song. I never recorded that song and I pulled it out when we were choosing songs for this record and I sent it to Jerry and he said we just have to do that song. ‘All The Lilacs In Ohio’ I had actually recorded that on a record I put out in 2003 called ‘Beneath This Gruff Exterior’ with The Goners, and we did a hard-edged rock sort of track on it, and it always felt that the lyrics had kind of gotten lost in that interpretation, and that was the first one Jerry and I recorded for this record. It just seemed to fit.

You have always had an ear for great guitar players and slide players, with Ry Cooder and Sonny Landreth. What was new about working with Jerry Douglas and his resonator sound, it must have been pretty amazing I would have thought?

Very much so. Sonny has also done stuff with Jerry. To play with the heir apparent in the lineage of all the great dobro players in America was amazing. I remember when I moved here to Nashville in 1970, Tut Taylor was sort of the king of the dobro and then within a year or two this young kid out of Maryland called Mike Aldridge showed up and he was second in line to take up the mantle, you know, and not long after that a young kid from Ohio call Jerry Douglas showed up and he was like the third guy, haha. It was nothing but a joy and the thing I think I get out of these three players, they are not really playing an instrument it is like they are singing so you feel like you are doing a duet in a way. I just love that call and response feeling that you can get, and we got it on this record. I would say something and Jerry would just respond and I would say something and Christian the fiddle player would respond or Mike the guitar player. I just love that kind of stuff, it is like a singing conversation.

How did you get to record in RCA Studio B? Did you see any ghosts while you were in there?

Haha. Many, many ghosts but all friendly, with the possible exception of Chet Atkins, haha. He was quite the taskmaster in his day and there is a little room in Studio B, and it is like a closet, and it still has the sign on it that says Chet’s Office, and that’s where he had a little desk and I guess he would drag the artists in there when they were working and give them a good talking to if they weren’t getting up to snuff, haha. The music is just seeping out of the walls, all those Elvis Presley records, everywhere you went there were things, you could hear Floyd Cramer’s piano when you looked at the piano in the corner, you had a little X on the floor where Elvis stood when he sang ‘Blue Christmas’, oh my God. Then there were the more contemporary records in the ‘60s like Waylon recorded there, Merle Haggard cut ‘Mama Tried’ there. How did we get in there? We have a friend, haha, who is on the Country Music Foundation board and you can get into record at night if you tear down your gear for the visitors the next day on the tours and what have you. That is very problematic because you can imagine once you get set up you have the sound and you don’t want to move the microphone or what have you. Anyway, we spoke with them and because it was the pandemic and they had slowed down the tours they said we can give you four days, and we said sold. That is all the time we had for ‘Bring The Family’. Perfect.

If you met your younger self from 50 years ago, what would he think about the 2021 John Hiatt recording in Studio B on his own terms?

You are telling what happened when I went back to Music Row, which I hadn’t spent any time on since my youth, since my first five years in town. So it was like going back to that kid and, it was like, I was walking down 16th Avenue again. When I first got to Nashville and I finally got a little publishing deal, and making about $25 a week, I moved into one of the houses on Music Row. Music Row in those days had little small houses, a third of them were boarding houses for songwriters, a third of them were recording studios and the other third were music publishers, and that was Music Row when I got here in 1970. Studio A and B were there in the RCA Complex and so it was like I was talking to that kid in Studio B going could you ever have dreamed this, no you could not, haha.

You have written an awful lot of songs and produced regular and consistent albums for a long time. Where do you get your motivation from and why do you keep doing it?

When I picked up a guitar when I was 11, I took lessons for about two months, and I quit the lessons because the lovely lady guitar teacher was trying to teach me music and I just wasn’t interested, I just wanted to learn some chords and play some rock’n’roll. I quit my lessons, I talked my mother into giving me $32 to buy a little plywood Stella acoustic and I bought a Mel Bay Chord book, learnt three chords and wrote my first song in the 6th Grade. It is just what I am supposed to do, haha. It is what I am here to do, write songs and sing them, make these recordings and then go out and play the damn things for people and try and bring a little joy or good, bad or indifferent feelings into people’s lives, I guess. It is the way I communicate, haha.

You do it very well. In terms of your songwriting are you a disciplined songwriter and treat it as a job or is it as and when the muse hits?

Thank you. I haven’t treated it like a job for years. I tried that when I was younger I would employ various forms of discipline, haha, I even had an office at one point for about six months, and I would go in every day and try and write with varying degrees of success. It seems that in the last twenty years or so I just do the same thing every day and I pick up a guitar even if I only play for half an hour, but I do play every day. It is just habit, it is something I have done since I was a kid and if a song comes that is when it is going to come. If you have your hands on the tools you might just end up making something.

It certainly works, haha.

Haha, thank you very much, haha. You know, I am never less than amazed when I write one. It is always a surprise, it is like how did this happen, thank you to whoever the powers might be and I have no idea how I wrote it, and here you go.

Do you ever worry that one day you might not be able to write a song?

You know, no. because one day no longer has any meaning to me anymore. If I didn’t write one until a day next year then that would be fine. One day means nothing and yet one day means everything, so I don’t worry about it, no. I’ve got today and if I write one today I’m in good shape and if I don’t I’m still in good shape because they will come. They come when they come, they kind of show up when they want to show up. It is always surprising to me. You know, it is interesting, I was just reading there is a brain study been done at McGill University up in Montreal, and it was a fascinating story about how we hear music and it is not that we have a compartment on the left side or the right side of our brain that takes a song and the lyrics in, it’s an interplay between the left and the right side of the brain, and I forget which one does which, but one side processes the words and one side processes the melody and they do it simultaneously. So the entire brain is engaged in the act of listening to music and it is part of our survival, haha, to do that. I have been trying to put into words how much music means and I think they just figured it out, haha. You know, it is amazing.

Haha, I don’t think mankind has never been without music. In terms of your own music, it took you a while to get established. Did you feel in a way you had to wait until the audience caught up with you because your type of music is very difficult to put into any particular box?

Indeed, I kind of went my own way in the early days and I wasn’t my own best friend, haha, or accomplishing much, also I’m kind of a slow learner and it takes me a bit. Paul Newman talked about his racing career and he said I am slow but I am tenacious, haha, so there you go.

John Prine was snubbed by CMA, but not by the Grammys. Were you disappointed by that?

We’ve known for years. It is like the weekend they were talking about how the Grammys are rigged as if it is something new, haha, twas always thus, haha, you know. Who cares about that stuff, haha.

You must be very proud of your daughter Lily. She is really making her own way in the music business now.

Very, very proud as we are of all three of our kids, but Lily has done some really great work. I’ve got to tell you, she is one of my favourite songwriters, she has just written some real gems, particularly her last album ‘Walking Proof’, I want to record that song I love it so much. She is really something.

She is no longer John Hiatt’s daughter, she seems to be seen as an artist in her own right.

Absolutely, and she did it all on her own. People have a tendency to think of the offspring of established artists as having a special leg up, and that is no way the truth and she did it all by herself. She has also worked very hard at it for the last twelve years since she got out of college.

I don’t think children of established artists have it easy. They may get extra insight and they may see more of the pitfalls but there is a higher expectation on them.

I think you are right, they have a little extra to go through. She is like all the other young artists all over the world because she has had a rough year. She can’t go out and do what she does, she had a whole tour set for 2020 and of course, that was cancelled, but things are going to start picking up and she has made do and she has written a whole new record during the pandemic. She is in recording it as we speak, so it is good.

A long time ago you were in a band called Little Village. Do you ever meet up with those guys now and again?

You know, the last time I ran into Nick was about two years ago and I owe him a call. I am the worst communicator in the world. We crossed paths on the road and I miss him, he is a good friend and a good man. I have spoken with Ry in the last few months and he is doing well. We are still talking about doing something, and I would love it to happen before one of us, you know, passes through the veil.

Yes, tempus fugit. I think I read something somewhere that not too long ago Nick was thinking of retiring when some of his friends and longstanding musical collaborators passed. He seems to have found a second wind with Los Straitjackets. It would be interesting to see if you could try and recapture that chemistry again.

Indeed. I don’t see why we couldn’t. It is funny how that record wasn’t what people necessarily wanted at the time from us but it has held up so well, at least to my ears. I put it on and it sounds as fresh to me as it did twenty years ago, or thirty even, haha.

You managed to get a band sound. It wasn’t a John Hiatt record or a Nick Lowe or Ry Cooder record, it was a Little Village record.

That is so right. It was very well recorded, beautifully recorded by Allen Sides, a wonderful audio engineer.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

Oh man, I can tell you that I just love Lupe Fiasco, he put a record out in 2018 called ‘Drogas Wave’ and it is one of my favourite records. Then there is another guy named Robert Glasper who just makes great, great music with various artists. He is a great piano player and he has a jazz trio and he also has recorded with R&B artists, he made a beautiful record where he took some old Miles Davis stuff and mixed it in with various singers and I think it is called ‘Everything’s Beautiful.  That is a great record, and Robert Glasper to me is just a genius, he is my new favourite and I love everything he does, he just mixes it up so much, he is so broad in what he is able to achieve. I would love to work with him, a pipedream probably though.

Everyone has to dream.

Yeah, indeed. I’m trying to think of something I have heard that is new but nothing springs to mind. Most of the people I am listening to are at least a few years back or even possibly dead, haha., but they live on through their music, haha.

Musicians never die.

That is right, haha.

John Hiatt with the Jerry Douglas Band’s ‘Leftover Feelings’ is out now on New West Records.

About Martin Johnson 140 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

2 Comments

  1. Nice interview despite all the “haha’s’ – BUT, I have one correction for those who go looking for it – “All the Lilacs In Ohio” was on John’s “The Tiki Bar is Open” record, released in 2001 NOT “Beneath This Gruff Exterior” – With over 20+ records out, it must be hard to remember all the details but superfans know.

    • Hi Laura, it is always interesting that fans, and particularly as you say, super fans know more details about an artist’s work than the artist themselves. In mitigation for John, ‘Gruff Exterior’ was the only record that the Goners got a co-credit and it was the record released just after ‘’Tikki Bar’. However, I will be very surprised if the ‘Leftover Feelings’ version doesn’t become recognised as the definitive version. Sorry if you found the ‘haha’ annoying but it is difficult to get a sense of the true atmosphere of an interview in simple written text and John was on very good form when I spoke to him, engaged and laughing and joking and I wanted readers to experience that aspect if possible.

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