To look at the man with the pewter hair scraping his collar, deep set eyes and face that can soak up any emotion, you’d never think he was a multiple Grammy-winner, Americana legend or soon-to-be-inducted member of the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. The second most recorded songwriter in George Strait’s catalogue – after Dean Dillon – Jim Lauderdale is his own musical force field.
“Oh, yes, absolutely,” Lauderdale says, in a voice like a Vanilla Wafer, as he brushes away the obvious. “Of course, I am.”
And then he looks at you. Not quite a “you’ve got to be kidding,” but more a “can we please get past this” with a side order of “why are you embarrassing me?” Humility runs deep in the North Carolina born songwriter who frequently collaborates with the North Mississippi All-Stars, Donna the Buffalo, Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, Buddy Miller and the late Dr. Ralph Stanley.
“There’s a lot of music to make, and I have so many different kinds of records I want to do,” he explains half-apologetically. “To me, it’s all exploring and finding out what’s out there – and I get to do it with some of the best musicians there are.”
This week, Lauderdale is surrounded by some of the best musicians roots music has to offer. Last year’s WagonMaster Lifetime Achievement Award recipient gets ready to host his 15th Americana Music Awards, as well as appear at myriad events around the Conference and Music Fest.
But the man who coined the oft-repeated refrain, “Now that’s Americana…” remains steadfastly a wanderer. Equally at home in bluegrass, mainstream country, jam band explorations or rural soul, he weaves together his influences in a way that maintains purity and reminds contemporary listeners of the essence that made these genres sparkle.
Most recently, Lauderdale’s musical sojourn has taken him to the United Kingdom for an album called London Southern. Recorded with Brit pubrocker/songwriter Nick Lowe’s band over two sets of dates at London’s Gold Top Studios with producer Neil Brockbank and Robert Trehern, the dozen songs have a sleek sheen that hearkens back to the Beatles, cocktail jazz, Britsoul and the Merseybeat pop of a certain era.
“I wanted a different sound, kind of a throwback to the early '60s. All the players had the same sort of experience I did, only from where they were,” Lauderdale says of the decisions surrounding his latest work. “This wasn’t making a retro record or a tribute. It was more trying to capture the feel of that period of time and how innocent it all felt. We all knew each other and our previous work, so I wanted this to come up to their work, to respect what and who they are.
“So it was that thing of how much British musicians loved American music, and how they interpreted our roots, then we interpreted them. They love a lot of the same things I do, only from a very different perspective. … It was very American to British to America to Britain to America to, well, here.”
Lauderdale’s here is also there, and everywhere. If it seemed the prolific songwriter’s recording career took forever to launch, he’s not looked back since releasing 1991’s Rodney Crowell and John Leventhal produced Planet of Love on Warner Brothers. The progressive country album, with strong roots and unconventional songwriting, suggested Lauderdale wasn’t like the other kids in Nashville’s post-credibility scare of the late '80s – and his ability to maintain his classic roots, while pushing the possibilities of country songwriting, saw him becoming the go-to guy for songs that were slightly left of center, but heading for the top of the charts. Three of the songs became hits for Strait, as well as providing singles for Gary Allan and Mandy Barnett.
“I write to try to find something new in something old,” he offers, “and I try to find something that feels good or true to me. And it feels like there’s always music, everywhere.”
“One thing about Jim Lauderale,” says Frank Liddell, respected music publisher and Grammy-winning producer of Miranda Lambert, Lee Ann Womack and Aubrie Sellers, “when I moved here to be a songplugger, he taught me it’s OK to be great – without ever saying, ‘This is great.’ You know, puffing his chest out, and making a big deal of it.
“Every time he brought me a song, I had no idea what I was gonna get, or where it came from. But he showed me that we should find our own way, and carry a torch, too, rather than just going along. Figure out what you do, and then do that. His greatest influences are blues and bluegrass, George Jones and the Beatles.”
“I can’t say strongly enough how powerful seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan was,” Lauderdale, the soft-spoken son of a revered preacher and music director mother, says. “I’d already had an ear for melodies with all the singers around my house; but when the Beatles came on, it took listening to a whole other place for me. Then hearing those early Beatles records after was incredible. The Beatles introduced me to a new kind of music, but their music was new, too, and you wanted to know what influences them (to make their sound).”
Born in Troutman, N.C., the classic bluegrass, hard country and church music lit a fire in the musician, and the theater major moved to Nashville after college. After making a record with Roland White that never came out, he drifted to New York City in the post-“Urban Cowboy” twang scene.
Meeting Buddy and Julie Miller, as well as Shawn Colvin, they were simpatico musicians trying to twist disparate genres into a cohesive sound. Too progressive for the early '80s, the drifting continued.
At one point a messenger for Rolling Stone, delivering Annie Leibowitz’s photo gear, Lauderdale was a long way from one day appearing in the pages of the storied rock bible. Yet, he kept dreaming, singing and writing songs. A run in the national touring company of “Pump Boys & Dinettes,” as well as Harry Chapin’s musical “Cotton Patch Gospel,” eventually washed the sandy-haired multi-instrumentalist to California.
“The Palomino Club was definitely a scene,” he remembers, calling from the dressing room of The Conan O’Brien Show to finish the conversation. “Ronnie Mack’s Barn Dance every week, Pete Anderson was making all those records on Dwight (Yoakam), Lucinda (Williams) was part of it. We didn’t realize what we were really doing, but you look back…”
You look back and realize the places you’ve been, the people you’ve met and made music with. His cowriters include country legends Harlan Howard, Melba Montgomery, Del Reeves, Frank Dycus, modern masters Odie Blackmon, Kostas, Shawn Camp and Leslie Satcher, as well as the full albums co-written with Robert Hunter.
Williams, Emmylou Harris, Lee Ann Womack and Patty Loveless have all sung with him, and most have recorded his songs. As Loveless said of her award-winning “You Don’t Seem To Miss Me,” written by Lauderdale and recorded with George Jones: “Jim knows how to gut an emotion. He heads right to the truth and just keeps going.”
“His air of ambiguity and mystery is part of what makes his songs so intriguing,” Liddell, who pitched Lauderdale’s songs throughout the late '80s and early '90s, says. “It’s more from the heart than the brain – though there’s a lot of brain in there. Even now when I go back, I realize: you could live with his songs a lifetime and keep finding new meaning and things you didn’t notice in his songs.
“And understand, he’s a professional songwriter, so he’s not avant garde for its own sake. He’s following his soul when he writes. I probably learned more from him than literally anyone, because he showed me you can pitch ‘The King of Broken Hearts’ to George Strait as easily as the stuff everyone else is writing. But when you pitch a great song like that, you stand out – and give the artist something that really matters as a hit and as a piece of art,” Liddell continues.
Just as importantly, Lauderdale’s own records are art. Twenty-seven releases in all, he’s recorded for Warner Bros., Atlantic, RCA Nashville, as well as bluegrass stalwarts Rebel, Sugar Hill and Compass, indie powerhouses DualTone, Yep Roc and 30 Tigers before starting his own Sky Crunch Records.
While some artists go DIY for lack of interest, Lauderdale finds it’s easier to create and release records on his timetable. From a classic country project recorded in Austin at Arlyn Studios like This Changes Everything, a rootsy spare almost rock project recorded at Jim Dickinson’s Zebra Ranch Recording Studios in Mississippi like Black Roses or the more expected I’m A Song, recorded in Nashville with songs co-written with Bobby Bare, Elvis Costello and John Oates, there’s an odd cohesion that makes sense.
Even merging the North Mississippi All-Stars Cody and Luther Dickinson with the gospel McCrary Sisters and iconic Muscle Shoals sessionmen David Hood, Spooner Oldham and Alvin Youngblood Hart for Soul Searching: Memphis, Vol. 1/Nashville, Vol. 2, Lauderdale comes off as a 21st century embodiment of what Gram Parsons was trying to create with his notion for Cosmic American Music – someone who doesn’t see genre lines, only places where music can rise.
London Southern, especially, illuminates this meld. “Those guys are the best of the best, and that’s – like working with some of the other bands in those locales and knowing how much seeps into the recordings – why I do projects like this. The songs take on so many other colors, and it opens my creativity up in whole other ways,” Lauderdale reflects.
Lauderdale finds that creativity feeds itself. For London Southern, he wrote for the first time with Dan Penn (“The Dark End of the Street,” “Cry Like A Baby,” “I’m Your Puppet,” “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”). The experience was both fluid and inspiring. “I’d been wanting to write with him for a long time, but knowing he and Spooner (Oldham) had done shows over there (in the UK) with Nick, he was very familiar with Neil and the band. After years of knowing Dan, it was the perfect entry way.”
“Dan is as sharp and vital a songwriter as he’s ever been; the ideas pour off him! We wrote ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’ and ‘What Have You Got To Lose’ in a couple of hours. You realize the ways someone’s talent can get stronger over the years.”
Certainly, at 60, it holds true for Lauderdale, who keeps a busy recording, touring and writing schedule. In addition to being everywhere Americana week, he is touring California, Texas, Florida, several festivals and another trip to England and Ireland.
“Somebody told me when I first got to town,” Liddell says, “don’t study your heroes, study your heroes’ heroes. Jim did that. In terms of pure melody, chord structure and progressions, he’s taken all that in – and it comes out fluidly when he writes.
“Jim is one of those rare, truly unique individuals. He’s never back-ended from anything, never sold out or compromised. He’s made it on his terms, often creating a new way of doing it (to protect his music). And he’s generous with what he’s doing: he took me – and so many other people – under his wing, helped me meet people and get taken seriously. Because of him, I was able to sign Chris Knight and Bruce Robison, to produce Miranda and Chris. … and that’s something that’s in his heart, make a difference for people.”
There’s no reason to tell him any of this. He’ll just start shifting from side-to-side, hemming and hawing or pointing in any other direction. Not bashful, there’s enough humility in Lauderdale that the truth – something he’s addicted to in songwriting – when it shines on him is overwhelming.
Liddell calls back a few minutes later. He’s thought about the essence of Lauderdale since hanging up. “You know the thing about Jim’s music? His music is laced with love. You hear it all over the songs.”