Jim Lauderdale: COUNTRY, SOUL and BLUEGRASS
Jim Lauderdale is a musical chameleon of sorts. One of the best living country songwriters, his incredible range of styles is an amalgam of everything that weaves our popular music together—country, soul, gospel, bluegrass, folk, rock, rockabilly and even jazz. Just like the Americana genre the he helped start.
Lauderdale is pure bluegrass, though, on his creative, full-sounding new record, When Carolina Comes Home Again, released March 27, 2020, on Yep Roc Records. The album features North Carolina artists such as Asheville’s Steep Canyon Rangers (who play regularly with comedian-actor-banjoist Steve Martin), Town Mountain and other groups. The track "Mountaineer" has a beautiful, unexpected melody. On the weeper "The Last to Know," written with Charles R. Humphrey III, Lauderdale offers one of his classic, country-songwriting turns of phrase: "When you decide it's time to go, I want to be the last to know."
Originally from itty-bitty Troutman, N.C., Lauderdale spent his teenage years not far from where I grew up in South Carolina. Lauderdale lived in the village of Due West, S.C., where his father was a Presbyterian minister.
After some years in New York City, where he made friends with such music luminaries as Buddy Miller and Shawn Colvin, he made it to California, then landed in Nashville, the perfect home at the time for a bohemian, country-loving soul. When I interviewed him years ago (for a magazine that never launched), he drove a big, long older car, and kept a tape recorder with him in the front seat—a way to document ideas, melodies and phrases for songs. I was introduced to Lauderdale’s music in 1998, I believe. He had just released his mainstream country record Whisper. He was opening a small club show for and played in Lucinda Williams’ touring band, at the Orange Peel in Asheville, N.C. It was just after Williams’ seminal album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, on which Lauderdale sings, had began to take hold for so many music lovers. I’d met my friends Baker Maultsby (a great songwriter), music writer Peter Cooper, and others at the club. A young reporter at the time, I had to drive three hours back to Columbia, S.C., where I lived, after the show; the band was still jamming on blues tunes by Memphis Minnie, Howlin’ Wolf and others when I left, with Lauderdale on blues harmonica, if I remember correctly—and this was all an encore following Williams’ main show. It was incredible.
If you’re not familiar with Lauderdale’s vast catalogue, this article is a good primer, which I’ve gathered from my own organic knowledge of his work over the years. His vocal phrasing borrows from Buck Owens, George Jones and soulster William Bell, and his music is as eclectic as all the land.
By following his own heart and muse, Lauderdale's a real inspiration and true American original. Here’s my quick tour of Jim Lauderdale’s wide-ranging albums:
Planet of Love, 1991
Not unlike The Mavericks who emerged around the same time, Lauderdale’s first album, produced by Rodney Crowell and John Leventhal (the ex- and current husbands of Rosanne Cash), it’s a roots rock-country-Americana-soul affair that never really found an audience. This describes much of Lauderdale’s career. He cared then; I don’t think he cares about such things much now, and he shouldn’t. The album’s terrific overall and features the classics “King of Broken Hearts” (a tribute to both George Jones and Gram Parsons, with Emmylou Harris singing harmony, appropriately) and “Where the Sidewalk Ends.” Both songs would be covered nicely by George Strait on his 1992 album Pure Country, the first of many Lauderdale songs the king of country would record.
Pretty Close to the Truth, 1994
Lauderdale’s second album was even better than his first. Dusty Wakeman’s crystalline production (Dixie Chicks, etc.) holds up well today. The genre here again is unclear; it’s California country rock (Lauderdale lived in Los Angeles for a time) that dips pretty deeply into rockabilly and soul, and his lyrical themes here get a little more abstract. The rollicking opener “I’m On Your Side” was later covered by Kathy Mattea. Lauderdale sounds like a 1960s soul singer Percy Sledge on the belter, “Why Do I Love You?,” “Grace’s Song” and “Run Like You” are roots-rock standouts here. “Divide and Conquer” and especially “Three Way Conversation” could have been covered by Dwight Yoakam. That such a wide range of styles is featured shows the Lauderdale’s breathtaking talent.
Every Second Counts, 1995
Some critics were hard on Jim for this one. Not quite as consistent as Pretty Close to the Truth, it veers a little more toward pop, rock and soul. But I love this record. “Always on the Outside,” written with Nick Lowe, is a soul shouter that could have been covered by Otis Redding. “That’s Not the Way It Works” and the title track are memorable, mid-tempo hymns to humanity. Lauderdale ends with another soul-stirrer, “Bluebell.”
Here’s where Lauderdale goes full-on cosmic, with weirder lyrics on tracks such as “Life By Numbers” and some good country tunes, including “Some Things are Too Good to Last.”
This time, Lauderdale went hard country. And while this album’s sound leans commercial, it’s predictably full of wonderful songs. It includes Lauderdale’s first bluegrass venture with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, “I’ll Lead You Home.” The record also includes the weeper “She Used to Say That to Me” and the charmingly sweet “What Do You Say to That?,” written with Melba Montgomery, both of which would be covered by Strait. Onward Through It All, 1999
This record was another commercial-oriented release on RCA, and should’ve succeeded, as Whisper should’ve, as well. It features the gorgeous “I Already Loved You,” (written with Aimee Mayo), the hard country-rock, steel-guitar based “Please be San Antone,” (written with Emily Robison of The Dixie Chicks), and “Hole in My Head,” which The Dixie Chicks cut for their album, Fly. Also here: “We Really Shouldn’t Be Doing This,” covered by Strait a year earlier, the story-song “Calico” (later redone in a old timey-bluegrass vein ), the country-harmony ballad “Lost Sunset,” and “It’s Just Like You,” written with the exceptional singer Kim Richey. It was around this time I drove from where I lived in Washington, D.C. over to Baltimore to see Lauderdale open for Marshall Crenshaw at a club called The Vault, I believe, inside an old bank building. I arrived early, and who sat down beside me at the bar but Lauderdale himself. He’s always so approachable and kind.
I Feel Like Singing Today, 1999
On his biggest departure to date (really just returning to his roots), Lauderdale teams with one of his idols, Ralph Stanley, and his Clinch Mountain Boys. This straight-up bluegrass album is a batch of incredible performances and other-worldly songs that sound like forgotten hymns—such as the a cappella song-shout, “Like Him." This album appeared around the time I was falling in love with bluegrass, living in Washington, D.C. and listening often to WAMU public radio and its Sunday shows by music collector-producer Dick Spottswood and the gospel show Stained Glass Bluegrass (which still air online at www.bluegrasscountry.org.) This album includes “Joy, Joy, Joy,” Lauderdale’s first song written with longtime Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Gordon, along with “I Will Wait for You,” an earlier Gordon lyric to which Lauderdale added a melody at the songwriter's suggestion. Lauderdale would record six albums of material he co-wrote with Gordon. This album appropriately was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album.
The Other Sessions, 2000
Lauderdale goes back to hard country on this one, and I mean hard, with “Just to Get to You,” the tribute ballad “Merle World,” and the trucker-shuffle “Diesel, Diesel, Diesel” written with Del Reeves. Blake Shelton later recorded the excellent, Gram Parson-influenced, “What’s On My Mind,” written with Leslie Satcher. This overlooked album also includes “I’d Follow You Anywhere” written with Melba Montgomery,” the sweet “Oh My Goodness,” and the perfectly put “You’ll Know When It’s Right” written with the great Harlan Howard.
Point of No Return, 2001
This was Lauderdale's first album for a major label, recorded in 1989 with Dwight Yoakam producer-guitarist Pete Anderson, but was never released. It's solid and follows a Buck Owens-Yoakam template, and includes “Stay Out of My Arms,” a minor country hit single for Lauderdale and later covered by Strait.
The Hummingbirds, 2002
This groovy, mystical country-folk-rock record glistens under the production guidance by Tim Coates. On the opening “Midnight Will Become Day,” the vocal presence of Buddy and Julie Miller is noticeably welcome and fits perfectly. There’s the mystical Dead-influenced gospel number “New Cascade,” the blues-rockers “Rollin’ the Dice” written with Robert Hunter and “There and Back Again,” the gorgeous “Morning,” and the frenetic “Hummingbird,” in which Lauderdale sings, “the Hummingbirds are coming back sooner than expected.”
Lost in the Lonesome Pines, 2002
Lauderdale reconnected with Ralph Stanley and the Boys for this one, winning a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album. While I like some of the songs on I Feel Like Singing Today better, this set is also exceptional. All recorded in Big Stone Gap, Va., the album's title track sounds ancient with Stanley on high lonesome harmony. "Zaccheus" would have been a classic religious song children might sing at church, had it been released generations ago. “She’s Looking at Me” captures Stanley’s comedic stage schtick and Lauderdale’s own notoriously bad jokes on stage, some of which borrow from country stars of the past. He uses the humor to give his and bandmates’ fingers a break from pickin’, sometimes belying his considerable depth and intelligence. This album was released simultaneously with The Hummingbirds
Wait ‘til Spring, 2003
My least favorite in Lauderdale’s catalogue, recorded with the jam band Donna the Buffalo, it's full of mountain hippy love. I've seen him perform with this band, among many other performances during this decade, at Merlefest, the great roots-music festival in North Carolina. One year, I wandered over to Lauderdale’s table at the festivals' music shop/autograph tent. At the next table sat elderly bluesman Robert “Honeyboy” Edwards, whom actually knew and played with Robert Johnson. I’ll never forget meeting Mr. Edwards, who was lovely and seemed appreciative of our little chat.
Headed for the Hills, 2004
A terrific album of songs written with Robert Gordon, the wonderful “High Timberline” (with Emmylou Harris) could have worked well if covered by the Dead.
This record started his long, off-and-on relationship with the North Carolina’s Yep Roc label. It includes the bluegrass romp “Time’s a Looking Glass,” the country ballad “Forever Ends Today” (written with John Leventhal), and the mysterious, eerie “There Goes Bessie Brown” written with Leslie Satcher.
Country Super Hits, Vol. I, 2006
Released simultaneously with Bluegrass, it features the sly “Two More Wishes” (later redone by Strait) and “I Met Jesus in a Bar,” which I featured a video shot in Joshua Tree, Calif., at Pappy & Harriett’s desert honkytonk and where Lauderdale was once a regular. (His earlier album Every Second Counts was actually recorded at Pioneertown, the old western movie set where Pappy & Harriett’s stands.)
The Bluegrass Diaries, 2007
This excellent bluegrass collection won the 2008 Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album and includes the rockin’ “The Last Time I’m Ever Gonna Hurt,” written with regular collaborator Odie Blackmon.
Honey Songs (with the Dream Players), 2008
Recorded with members of Gram Parsons’ and Emmylou Harris’ original band (who also backed Elvis Presley in the late 1960s and early 70s), this eccentric, California-country record includes the bluesy “Hitti'n It Hard” and the heartfelt and beautifully narrated “Those Kinds of Things Don’t Happen Everyday.”
Could We Get Any Closer?, 2009
One of my favorites, this bluegrass album includes a beautifully paced remake of “Calico,” and great melodies on “Tennessee Dawn” and the title track.
Patchwork River, 2010
One of Lauderdale’s best and quirkiest albums, maybe my favorite overall, this one features Gordon’s acid-state lyrics throughout, including on the bizarre and terrific title cut and funky character portrait, “Jawbone.” Equally so on “Good Together,” a soul track that Lauderdale wrote in tribute to the incredible Stax Records artist William Bell. The first time I heard Lauderdale sing “Good Together” live, at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, Ga., Bell himself was in the audience. The lyrics are incredibly clever on “Alligator Alley” and “Louisville Roll." A duet with Patty Griffin, “Between Your Heart and Mine,” sounds like a lost hit by George Jones and Tammy Wynette.
Reason and Rhyme, 2011
Another excellent meeting of bluegrass with Robert Gordon’s mystical lyricism, especially on the title song, this excellent record finds shades of Deliverance on the disturbing “We Will Not Let You Go.” I also love the stunning narrative (and catchy tune) on “Jack Dempsey’s Crown.”
Carolina Moonrise, 2012
The end of a trilogy of bluegrass-flavored albums with Gordon, my favorites here are the fast-paced “Iodine,” the incredible “Fiddler’s Heaven” (which somehow mentions just about every influential country fiddler), and the unforgettable “Troublemaker."
Buddy and Jim, 2013
I couldn’t wait for this long-expected, country-soul duet album by Lauderdale with longtime close friend Buddy Miller, a brilliant guitarist who was named No Depression’s Americana Artist of the Decade. The soulful ballads and duo’s harmony singing stand out on Julie Miller’s “It Hurts Me” and “That’s Not Even Why I Love You,” along with the gutsy cover of the old-timey “The Train That Carried My Girl From Town,” a song I first heard on a Doc Watson album. Some of this album never quite comes together as the guys try some new things. But the passionate remakes of Johnnie and Jack’s 1950s country hit “Down South in New Orleans” and Joe Tex’s slinky “I Want to Do Everything for You” really couldn’t be better:
We make love to the Rumba beat Down south in New Orleans The prettiest girls I've ever seen, Sparkling eyes, lips so sweet, We make love to the Rumba beat. Ship's at anchor, my suitcase packed, Got a one-way ticket, ain't a-comin' back. Life's a pleasure, love's a dream, Down south in New Orleans.
Old Time Angels, Black Roses, and Blue Moon Junction, 2013
The proliferation of albums continued in this year. I was thrilled about Lauderdale’s collaboration with the North Mississippi All-Stars, who serve as the backing musicians on Black Roses. That record features some cool, darker Robert Gordon lyrics. My favorites are the soulful “Ride On” and the protest song “When Jones Came Home.”
I’m a Song, 2014
The title song describes Lauderdale himself aptly. “I Lost It,” co-written and originally recorded by Elvis Costello is here, on this collection of terrific, country-flavored songs. (Lauderdale sang and played on Costello’s two bluegrass-flavored albums, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane in 2009 and National Ransom the following year. Costello then went on to make an album with The Roots.) Lauderdale also re-records “King of Broken Hearts” on this one.
Soul Searching, Memphis Vol. I, Nashville Vol. II, 2015
One side soul-oriented, another side leaning country, Lauderdale says he wrote many of these songs hanging out at Royal Studios in Memphis. I like the Gordon co-write “One Big Company” as a tuneful commentary on corporate America.
This Changes Everything, 2016
This nice country collection includes the beautiful hard-country ballad “It All Started and Ended with You,” written with Frank Dycus, and the Bakersfield-influenced “You Turned Me Around” written with Terry McBride.
London Southern, 2017
Recorded in England several years earlier with Nick Lowe and his band, this one is especially soulful and jazzy, even including a horn section. I like the soul number “What Have You Got to Lose?,” written with Memphis/Muscle Shoals great Dan Penn, the shuffling, “You Came to Get Me,” and the two tracks written with John Oates. One reviewer called London Southern the best album Van Morrison never made.
Time Flies, 2018
Lauderdale polishes his sound here but explores all kinds of country-tinged styles. Highlights here are “The Road Is a River” and the catchy midtempo title cut, written with Mando Saenz. In a just world, the song "Time Flies" would have been a country hit, like so many of Lauderdale’s best songs—and of course, many of them have been by other artists. I also really love the quiet, graceful, “Violet."
Jim Lauderdale and Roland White, (self-titled), 2018
One of Lauderdale’s most recent releases was actually recorded before any of his other records. A long-lost duet album made in 1979 with bluegrass master Roland White in Earl Scruggs’ basement, it was never released. Then the recording was re-discovered by White's wife after his passing. It’s damn good, including the duo’s original “Forgive and Forget” and “Nashville Blues,” with Lauderdale sounding so very young.
From Another World, 2019
Somewhat resembling Time Flies, the best cut here is the poignant “Listen,” as political as Lauderdale gets, and full of advice for all of us—co-written with producer/musician Buddy Cannon (who’s worked with Willie Nelson and Alison Krauss in recent years), complete with a music video that features Lauderdale doing tai-chi.
When Carolina Comes Home Again, 2020
Lauderdale’s newest bluegrass project, his third consecutive album for Yep Roc Records, is his 33rd record. The title track was co-written with John Oates, with whom Lauderdale has collaborated often in recent years.
A bonus track: Don’t miss the Lauderdale song recorded by Patty Loveless and George Jones in 1997, “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me.”