Working On A Song
– By Mikaella Bella –
Who is Jim Lauderdale? His current resume quotes: host of the weekly Music City Roots live broadcast, radio co-host of the popular The Buddy & Jim Show and MC for the Americana Music Awards and Honors show in Nashville. He’s also a pioneer of the Americana sound and a multiple Grammy winner. A harmony vocalist heard on numerous George Jones, Tanya Tucker, Sara Evans and Dwight Yoakam records and songsmith extraordinaire!
Jim’s jam-packed calendar saw me catch up with him driving between gigs.
“I’m driving back to Nashville from Bristol, Tennessee,” Jim says over the phone. “They were opening up a ‘Birthplace of Country Music’ museum because Bristol is where they had the recording sessions of Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family, The Stoneman Family – the explosion that began what we know of as country music. Ralph Stanley was on the opening show with me. He’s a real hero of mine and he’s in his 80s, but is still performing his own style of bluegrass. Carlene Carter was also on the show and that was very meaningful, with her being the daughter of Maybelle Carter from The Carter Family. It was a wonderful show.”
Next, he is off to New York City with Buddy Miller for a live recording of their radio show at the Americanafest NYC concerts. Jim called upon his pal to provide harmonies on a song called ‘I Lost You’ for latest Lauderdale album I’m A Song, co-written with another mate, Elvis Costello. “I always try to include Buddy Miller when he’s available, but now he’s so busy as the music producer of Nashville.” A number of Lauderdale tunes have made it onto the TV show, with Jim himself popping up on-screen.
The quirky, humble Jim puts the title of his new album – outstandingly, his 26th album – down to self-reflection. “I’ve had many regrets, shortcomings and failures as a person. But the best I have to offer someone, and the best part of me, is a song coming out of me. The creation, recording and performing of a song, and setting it up for someone else to also do,” he says.
There’s a line in the song – seems like I’ve known you forever – that sums up the magic of Jim Lauderdale. There’s something so familiar about his tunes, with their pleasing melodies, playful lyrics and building choruses, that you can feel you’ve been enjoying his music for years.
His decades-long career has spanned genres. “Because I never really got pigeonholed into one style, I think I’ve been given the freedom to do whatever style I want. I think I’ve pushed the envelope with instrumentation on my country records, to try and take them to another place. On I’m A Song, the instrumentation is all acoustic based except for ‘Neon Hearts’, where I added an electric base player.” The song’s lonesome sound suggests it could be an Eagles hit. It’s written with fellow Strait go-to Odie Blackmon, who Jim previously paired with for ‘This is the Last Time’ on his The Bluegrass Diaries –Bluegrass Album of the Year at the 2008 Grammy Awards.
It comes as no surprise that Jim wrote or co-wrote each of the album tracks and this collection is a return to balladeering and honky-tonkin’ after a string of bluegrass, blues-rock and solo acoustic releases. “It’s been a few years since I’ve released a straight-ahead country album. I actually started this record two years ago when a talented young Aussie named Jeremy Dylan came to the States to start work on a documentary about me [King of Broken Hearts]. So I went into what used to be RCA Studio A – a very historic studio, about as big as a gymnasium – and got together people like James Burton [on guitar] who used to play with Elvis Presley and Gram Parsons, and Al Perkins [lap steel guitar, pedal steel] who used to play with Emmylou Harris and Parsons.”
The album sees Jim pick the acoustic rhythm guitar back up and lay down his unmistakable twang with some talented peers. “I’d not recorded with Lee Ann Womack before but I thought she’d be great on the song ‘Doin’ Time in Bakersfield’,” Jim explains. He reclaims the co-write with Frank Dycus, recorded by Scott Joss (fiddle player in Merle Haggard’s band The Strangers ) in 1997, in a cut that is slower paced and soulful by comparison. “Usually when we think of Bakersfield we think of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. So I thought, instead of having a high male vocal, it’d be great to have a female voice on there and Lee Ann was just perfect.”
Jim pairs with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter (also on his Carolina Moonrise) to offer the sombre titled ‘A Day With No Tomorrow’. It’s here Womack makes another appearance. “I thought it’d be real cool to have the pure country voice of Lee Ann on Robert’s and I collaboration,” Jim says. The second Lauderdale/Hunter collaboration on the album is the rollicking ‘End of The World Rag’, where piano, guitar, percussion take off for a high energy musical romp..
The album’s 14th track is a zippy number featuring Patty Loveless, who had a hit with the Lauderdale-penned ‘Halfway Down’. “I was in the studio with a melody and title for ‘Today I’ve Got the Yesterdays’ and I envisioned Patty singing it with me. It kind of helped me finish the song and luckily she was able to come sing on it.”
This fusion of talent surprisingly marks Jim’s first double-album, “I went in and recorded nine songs one day. Then I went back in this January and ended up recording 11 songs, so that made it an even twenty. I’ve always wanted to make a double album and now I’ve done that.”
It seems there’s not much Jim hasn’t done, though his successes have certainly not come overnight. He moved to Nashville in ’91, released the album Planet of Love (taken up by the pre-Natalie Maines Dixie Chicks and reprised as a Felicity Urquhart single title) and struggled to get notice or airplay. Then George Strait cut ‘King of Broken Hearts’ and ‘Where the Sidewalk Ends’ for the Pure Country soundtrack. “George is one of my favourites and those two songs were my first two really big recordings from another artist. That helped me to feel validated as a songwriter and allowed me to be accepted by the music community and Nashville.”
Jim has handed a total 15 hits to Strait, but sees himself as the one that has scored. In fact, he plans his writing patterns around Strait’s recording schedule. “Whenever he goes into the studio I try to have several songs to pitch to him, but you just never know when you might get lucky and he’ll record one. I’ve already started some songs to pitch to him for his next album, which I hear he’s going to go in and record during the fall. I still can’t believe that he’s recorded my songs. It’s what I strive for, to have him record my material.”
With this outing, Jim re-recorded ‘King of Broken Hearts’ for the first time since that debut.
“Just about every show I do I perform that song, so it felt very comfortable to do it again. It has a lot of meaning as a tribute to Gram Parsons and George Jones. I felt like it was OK to re-record some songs since George Jones wrote to me saying he had re-recorded some of his hits throughout his career.”
With no mention of a wife and kids via Google searches, one might suspect Jim as the King of Broken Hearts himself, and I was blunt enough to tell him so. “To be continued,” is all he says, remaining fairly tight lipped on the subject. He has penned an awful lot of love songs though… “Yes, throughout my life there has, at times, been various muses. And then sometimes songs just kind of come out. You can’t write from personal experience all the time, because you would have to have had your heart broken consistently!”
Plenty of artists out there aren’t as big as the Lauderdale profile, but somehow emerge much bigger in ego and attitude. Just minutes into our chat, Jim paid us quite the compliment. “I’m really very impressed and inspired by the writers and musicians in Australia. From the first time I went there, around 2001, I was just blown away by the artistry there and the scene you guys have for country music.”
And he drew the line in the dirt on where ‘Americana’ belongs, and should stay. “In Australia, maybe it would be better just to call it ‘roots’. They used to call it alt-country here in the States, and then about 13 or 14 years ago they coined the ‘Americana’ genre and phrase. It does serve a good purpose over here for radio but, internationally, it might throw some people off because it seems to have such a nationality about it. To me, Americana just means ‘roots music’, which would include country, bluegrass, alt-country, blues – any kind of stuff that’s not over-produced and hasn’t made it into the mainstream.”
Another term being bandied about and debated in the States is ‘bro-country’ – pertaining to beer, trucks, beer and pickups, and not much more – which Jim decided to put his bluegrass spin on in an hilarious video entitled ‘Birth of Brograss’(www.countryupdate.com)
“I want the artists themselves to get a laugh out of it and I plan to do some more funny videos with bro-grass.” The dig is playful enough though, with Jim viewing country as an ever-evolving genre. “I think there’s something there for everybody. Whether it’s very rootsy and raw or very produced, there’s something that resonates with people.”
I’m A Song also offers heart-puller ‘The Feeling’s Hanging On’, uplifting ‘The World Is Waiting Below’ and ‘Let Him Come To You’, injected with soul by John Oates of Hall & Oates fame.
“John plays acoustic rhythm guitar on that song. He’s such a fantastic guitar player and I wanted that touch on the album.” Oates’ latest album features three co-writes with Jim. Yet to be released is a UK-recorded album with two Oates/Lauderdale co-writes.
The closer, ‘We Will Rock Again’ is about wrapping up a rowdy night.
“There was part of me that was hesitant to put this song on a record because it says the word ‘rock’,” Jim admits. “If I was being a real purist I’d say ‘hey, wait a minute’, but I thought it was a fitting sentiment to close the album.” With the skilful hands of rock legendaries applied to this latest release, Jim reveals the rocking could be a taste of things to come…further down the track. “The record I did in England is like country-ish soul with some rock on there as well. Now I’ve got I’m A Song out there, I feel like I need to release another country album in a year’s time. I’ve already got several of the songs and have started a bunch more to finish it. And I do want to finish another bluegrass album real soon.”
Jim’s schedule is punishing but he still fits in regular visits to Australia. Jim is now an old-hand at CMC Rocks events and Tamworth, even bringing his Music City Roots show to air here, so his ties with the lucky country are binding.
“The last time I was in Tamworth I actually started getting some film ideas which I’d like to shoot in Australia, involving some Australian country artists as well as myself in a small role with a few of my songs. I jotted these ideas down and then got super busy but it’s something I need to refocus on. I think it’ll be real rewarding to work on.”
One thing’s for sure, the movie won’t lack for a stellar soundtrack or costume set. For a quietly spoken, nature’s gentleman, Jim is indeed a loud dresser. “It began when I moved to Los Angeles around 1986. My manager at the time, John Ciambotci, showed me the importance of having stage clothes. So I went to visit Manuel Cuevas who had worked for the famous tailor Nudie (outfit maker for Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton). Manuel kindly worked out some deals with me because I was broke. I’ve painted myself into a corner now because people might be disappointed or angry if I decide to dress more casual!”
The documentary King of Broken Hearts follows among other aspects of Jim’s amazing life, the recording of I’m A Song and footage from his CMC Rocks the Hunter performances. It will soon be available for download at jimlauderdalemovie.com