If you’re a struggling musician I suggest you take a look at the career of Jim Lauderdale. Between early setbacks as a Bluegrass banjo player, and being marginalized in Music Row there were plenty of opportunities to chuck his guitar in the gutter and call it quits. But he persevered and used his songwriting as a musical dowsing rod to move him always forward toward unexpected and exciting places.
If the Americana genre didn’t already exist it would have to be created for Lauderdale. He’s worked in multiple genres (Bluegrass, country, rock, soul) with multiple artists (George Jones, Ralph Stanley, Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle and more), but the music has always been grounded in honesty with a twist of risk. This will to be daring, attention to legacy, while pushing forward has allowed Lauderdale to become something you don’t see music in the music industry, unique.
He’s now a Grammy winning singer/songwriter, the subject of a crowd-sourced biopic (Jim Lauderdale: The King of Broken Hearts)
He hosts, along with Buddy Miller, “The Buddy & Jim Show” Saturdays 10 pm ET on SiriusXM Outlaw Country. He also hosts the “Music City Roots: Live from the Loveless Cafe”, weekly Americana music show broadcast live on WSM from the Loveless Barn on Highway 100 in Nashville. He is also the MC for the Americana Music Awards and Honors show in Nashville where his catch-phrase “Now THAT’S Americana” is as much of a delight as the stellar performances on the storied Ryman Auditorium stage.
I talked to Lauderdale, through spotty reception, on the road to Nashville the day after his birthday performance at the Music City Roots spin-off, “Scenic City Roots, in Chattanooga Tennessee
Twang Nation: Jim? How are you today?
Jim Lauderdale: Just fine. Driving on a beautiful, crisp spring day heading back to Nashville from Chattanooga Tennessee.
TN: Happy belated birthday, You share a birth with Bob Harris ( “‘Whispering Bob Harris” the legendary is the host of the BBC 2 music program The Old Grey Whistle Test, and a supporter of country and roots music)
JL: Really? It’s also George Shuffler’s birthday, who played guitar for the Stanley Brothers.
TN: Cool. So you’re taking some time off from your tour supporting the “Buddy and Jim” album. How’s that going?
JL: It’s been great! We too some time off because Buddy is producing the Wood Brothers and he also co-produces the music for the TV show Nashville with T Bone Burnett. He’s got a pretty full plate most of the time. Our next date is in San Francisco at the Great American Music Hall. I love playing that space.
TN: I’ll be there. The first time I saw you and Buddy working with the new material it was at last year’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. It was a morning slot but the place was still full.
JL: I love that festival. Warren Hellman has done so much for the community. He’ll be missed.
TN: True. So let’s visit your childhood in Troutman, North Carolina. Your father was a minister and your mother was a music teacher. How did this shape you musically?
JL: I believe it helped to train my ears. They were both great singers, so it was a combination of hearing a lot of church music. Hearing my mother, who was a choir director at the church, a chorus teacher, and a piano teacher, I was hearing stuff all the time. My older sister was the first to start buying records like the Beatles when I was in the first grade. At the time music was just exploding and so much was coming from the radio and in North Carolina radio then was a mixture of rock and roll, soul music like Stax and Motown, and then there were peripheral country stations where Bluegrass was being played. So there was just so much great music being played and available. I think Buddy and i share a lot of the same influences. that’s how all these influences made me want to sing. I started singing really early and then started playing drums for a few years when I was 11 and then, when I was 13, I started playing blues harmonica. When I was 15 I started playing the banjo and getting more into Bluegrass music. I always wanted to do a Bluegrass record but it took me a long time to get a deal to do one. When it happened I got to do it with Ralph Stanley and his band, the Clinch Mountain Boys (1999’s I Feel Like Singing Today)
TN: Not bad company to keep for your inaugural Bluegrass venture.
JL: That was kind of a dream because I grew up loving his work. I used to try and play banjo in his style and sing in a tenor like Ralph would. One of the best things to happen out of that was that I began writing with Robert Hunter (poet and lyricist for the Grateful Dead.) A friend of mine, Rob Bleetstein, put me in touch with him in the Bay Area. i knew that Robert and Jerry Garcia were huge Stanley Brothers’ fans, so that’s how I started writing with Robert and since then we’ve created 4 albums. The last two were Bluegrass of stuff we’ve done together. I have an upcoming album with the North Mississippi Allstars coming out in the fall and it has stuff that Robert and I wrote as well. So, even though it took me a long tie to get something out in that world, it was worth the wait because of all the good things that have happened.
TN: Making up for lost time.
JL: Right. And the same with Buddy. We had met back in New York in the early 80’s. We were both living there and both had country bands going and Buddy, to me, had the best band there. There was a nice country scene going on in New York at the time. There were about 5 bars in New York like the Lone Star Cafe that featured country music. So there was a lot of work. Eventually we both ended up on the west coast and started playing gigs together. Then Buddy came to Nashville first and ended up playing with Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris. His career really took off! So we’ve known each other for 33 years and have talked about doing a record for the past 17 years so this new album was also worth the wait. Our schedules just wouldn’t allow it. But last year we started this radio show last summer on SiriusXM Outlaw Country (The Buddy & Jim Show , Saturdays 10 pm ET) and that started moving things toward us sitting down and writing material. It happened pretty quickly, we spent a few days in pre-production and wrote some stuff but we cut the album in three days in his home studio. He produced the album and we’re really happy with it. I love playing with Buddy, he always makes me smile.
TN: There’s a song you wrote that was covered by George Strait called The King of Broken Hearst. It’s got a great story.
JL: I moved to L.A. partly to be in the same atmosphere that Gram Parsons had been in. There was this story that came from (former rock ‘n’ roll groupie and author) Pamela Des Barres, who was a friend of his, who said he had this L.A. party and was playing George Jones records. These people had never heard him (Jones) and he started crying. he said “That’s the king of broken hearts.” It was one of those times when an idea just comes to you. I play that song all the time and I love it.
TN: Gram is seen as the patron saint of the Americana genre and , I believe, you and Buddy have earned a place at that table. With your work with the Americana Music Awards and Music City Roots would you consider yourself an ambassador of Americana?
JL: Oh, I don’t know about that. But I’m certainly happy it’s out there. The guy I mentioned before, Rob Bleetstein, helped to coin there term (along with Jon Grimson of Nashville) for a trade publication that’s no longer around called Gavin Report. It was like Billboard and R&R (Radio & Records) magazine. They needed a chart for rootsy American music and Rob said “How about Americana?” So that put a name on it. But to me it’s just great that Americana allows a broad umbrella for roots music – Blues, Bluegrass, folk, rock, country – music that is not overproduced and it’s all connected, And it’s a place that, in his later years, someone like Johnny Cash can get played on the radio. And Merle Haggard, and folks like Guy Clark and Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and jimmie Dale Gilmore. Stuff that’s too rootsy for mainstream radio. it’s nice to have a place where people can be recognized.
TN: You’ve worked in the Music Row world and the Americana world and been successful in both. What do you think contributes to your success to work in both of those environments?
JL: Well I had plans but things would work out a different that what I thought. It was accidental in some ways. I wanted to make Blue grass records as a teenager, but it never worked out. Then in my early 30s I finally got a record contract in the country genre. But that record was too country at the time to be accepted in 1988. Dwight Yoakam’s producer and guitarist Pete Anderson did it with me (The unreleased CBS album that later appeared on an overseas label as Point of No Return.) My next album wasn’t as traditional but it was pretty far out there. It was co-produced by Rodney Crowell and John Leventhal (1991’s Planet of Love) Even though that album didn’t have a lot of commercial success, 8 of the 10 songs went on to be recorded by other people like George Strait. So that too me into that world of songwriting though my plan was to have a successful career with my own records. I kept putting out my own records and, when it wouldn’t work out, the only way to rise above of the disappointment was to write myself out of it. I still had a contract for a few more majors, but I started doing some independent labels and was more eclectic. Bluegrass with country mixed with R&B ad soul. The work I’m doing with the North Mississippi Allstars I did with Robert Hunter is more blues, rock and soul. I’m also trying to finish up a stripped down acoustic record that I’m writing with Robert. He’s really important in my like as far as music, so I want to keep that going.
TN: Speaking of Robert Hunter lest year you were in the Bay Area with the American Beauty Project. How did that come about?
JL: Those two albums (Grateful Dead’s) Working Man’s Dead and American Beauty opened up a door in my spirit when I heard them. All the things I’d done before – country, Bluegrass, rock – came together in those two records. To me they were like the Gram Parsons solo albums with Emmylou, those records are touchstones. The New York Guitar Festival which was put together by David Spellman, each year, would choose a different album and then singers and guitar players would play a song from that record. A few year’s ago they chose American Beauty and it went over really well. The singer Catherine Russell, Ollabelle, Larry Campbell and his wife Teresa Williams became the core of the American Beauty project which we took around the country. We still do it occasionally and will probably do some more shows in the future. It’s always a lot of fun.
TN: Tell me about your work with the roots-rock band Donna the Buffalo.
JL: I met them at the Newport Folk Festival while opening for Lucinda Williams on her “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” tour. I met this group of folks that were really friendly, but I had missed their show earlier in the day. We made this friendship and we then jammed together at Merlefest in North Carolina. They then invited me to play their festival that they put on in the summer and offered to back me up during my set. So over the years we’ve worked festivals and sat in with each other. I started to write songs for all of us to do and when i had an album’s worth we went into the studio and did it (2003’s Wait Til Spring) We still do stuff when we can. They’ve got a new album coming out in June which I’ve heard and it’s fantastic (tonight Tomorrow & Yesterday – June 18) They are one of my favorite bands as an audience member and I love to sit in with them. We have a few new songs we’ve written but i need some more material to do another record.
TN: Any other new artists that have caught your ear?
JL: There’s a lady that just moved to Nashville, Lera Lynn. There’s another band that just moved from L.A. to Nashville called HoneyHoney that I like a lot. There”s a songwriter named Ryan Tanner I think is really good. And there’s a guy in North Carolina named Daniel Justin Smith that I think is really good. There’s no shortage of new, young singer, songwriter and pickers that are acoustically influenced and have their own style of country and roots music. I’m really encouraged by that. When i host the Music City Roots showcase it gives me an opportunity to be exposed to new performers. There was a band on the other night out of Birmingham, Alabama called St Paul and the Broken Bones. They are a kind of soul review kind of band and they are just out of this world. There’s a woman called Sara Petite out of San Diego who I like a lot. I also love Shovels and Rope, Robert Ellis , Max Gomez and the Milk Carton Kids.
TN: Who would you like to write music with someone that you haven’t?
JL: Gosh, I wish I could work with Eric Clapton. I love his work. I would also like to work with Keith Richards. I got to sing harmony with him on the song Hickory Wind on a Gram Parsons tribute called “Return to Sin City.” Norah Jones was on that, I’d like to work with her. I did a song with John Leventhal called Planet of Love that was pitched to Ray Charles to do with Norah Jones, but that didn’t happen before he passed away. I always wanted to work with Doc Pomus before he passed. And I always wanted to do something with Jerry Garcia and I’m sorry that didn’t happen. I’m slowly getting to work with a lot of folks I hold in high esteem. I got to write with Dan Pen and we’ve been working on some things in England with him and Nick Lowe’s great band. I got to song with George Jones years ago and that was a treat. You just never know in this up and down world of music.
TN: You’ve moved deftly between genres in this time, is there a musical era you would like to travel to and perform?
JL: The 60’s and early 70’s for the soul, country and rock music that was coming out and then the late 50’s early 60’s for Bluegrass. And the 50’s for Blues music. Being able to work in those times at the peak of the music would have been great.
TN: You’re a great singer, songwriter but your also a consummate showman. You’re very personable and funny on stage. Many have also taken note of your rhinestone bedecked clothing when you perform. How many suits do you have and where do you get them?
JL: Oh, I think i have 20 or 25 suits with shirts. I have gotten a few vintage pieces here and there, but i get most of my things new and custom made from Manuel (Cuevas) who is a designer and tailor here in Nashville that used to work with Nudie (Cohn) out of L.A. when he was a teenager. He’s still here producing things for people like Jack White.
TN: Thanks for your time and keep your eyes on the road.
JL: I will and take care.