I am sitting in the front of Ashland Coffee and Tea just outside of Richmond, Virginia but I am thinking of that Dos Equis commercial. “He is the most interesting man in the world.” It’s James Goldsmith but I think there might be another worthy candidate. I am about to meet him in a few minutes and his name is Jim Lauderdale.
I’m also hearing the voice of Sunny Sweeney from the documentary I watched last night called “The King of Broken Hearts.” It’s about songwriter Jim Lauderdale who and wrote the song of the same name dedicated to George Jones and has quietly made over 25 albums. Lauderdale, widely revered as the face of Americana music, is a songwriter’s songwriter, first made popular as a writer by Vince Gill who covered “Sparkle” on his breakthrough album “Pocketful of Gold” and George Strait who sang both “Where The Sidewalk Ends” and “The King of Broken Hearts” on the “Pure Country” album. Strait has covered fifteen of his songs and Lauderdale is hoping he’ll do more. Sweeney, who performed the duet “Lavender” with Lauderdale, said in the documentary of the joy when a singer gets to sing “a Lauderdale” and she hoped she’d have one someday too.
Here comes Jim Lauderdale rolling up in his Dodge Charger rental, star of stage, screen and radio, carrying his own guitar and having to make a second trip back to get the oversized suitcase he travels with on his solo tour of the eastern seaboard. A woman sipping coffee and waiting to hear him in a few hours, suddenly is nervous. She doesn’t have a pen so I offer to lend her mine and she awaits Jim as he comes back inside, sheepishly asking him for his autograph. In Jeremy Dylan’s documentary we learn of adoring female fans of Lauderdale from a younger yesteryear when they were known as “Jimettes” and I think I’ve just witnessed one.
Jim has been here before so it’s like coming into one of his remote offices. He is greeted by club owner Truman Parmele and after getting coffee, invites me into the Listening Room where he will perform tonight. I notice his black t-shirt still looks new and commemorates the opening of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum which Jim helped open just a few weeks earlier in Bristol, Tennessee with bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley and Carlene Carter, a descendant of the Carter Family.
We move into the small dressing room immediately adjacent to the small stage. “Do you have any of my new cd’s” he asks reaching into his suitcase and pulling out a stack of four cd’s, including a double-country album, a bluegrass disc and two albums of songs he’s written with lyricist Robert Hunter. They represent a year’s work but I forget to ask how he managed to do everything in this time frame. Later it makes sense when I remember a line someone says in the documentary: “Jim thrives on chaos.”
The week’s been busy enough with Lauderdale’s solo tour but is just a taste of what is to come. Tonight Lauderdale will do a two-set and play over 30 songs before heading back to Nashville where a busy week awaits. There is the U.S. premiere of “The King of Broken Hearts” documentary. Americanafest begins and then there are the annual Americana Music Awards at the Ryman which he has been hosting for the last 11 years.
Back in Nashville just a few days ago, his song “Storms Are Coming” was recorded for a third season of the television show “Nashville,” the ABC television drama that his longtime friend and collaborator Buddy Miller oversees as the show’s music producer. (Miller and Lauderdale co-host the weekly radio program “The Buddy & Jim Show” on SiriusXM Outlaw Country.) This is the third song Lauderdale has contributed to “Nashville.” His songs “Tough All Over” and “Tears So Strong” have appeared in the first and second seasons. Lauderdale also played banjo in one episode when Scarlett made her Opry debut.
Lauderdale is no stranger to either Nashville landmark. Thirteen years ago he portrayed George Jones in a musical play at the Ryman about Tammy Wynette called “Stand By Your Man.” “He played such a big role in her life so it was a pretty major role,” the theater major from the North Carolina School of Arts tells me. “I felt hopefully I could portray his essence and get his mannerisms in the way he talked and moved.”
Jones once dueted with singer Patty Loveless on one of Lauderdale’s signature songs, “You Don’t Seem To Miss Me.” Thirty years ago when Lauderdale had his first record deal with Epic, he and Jones recorded “Tavern Choir” by Dennis Knutson. But it never made to the public until a few years ago when a posthumous album was released called “Burn Your Playhouse Down: The Unreleased Duets.” Lauderdale did get to sing “The King of Broken Hearts” at the Ryman for the legend they called “The Possum.” Jones undoubtedly heard the tribute as performed by Lee Ann Womack.
You’d think after a decade of hosting that the Americana Music Awards would be just another show but Lauderdale admits the annual ritual is nerve racking and hectic. “A lot of times it doesn’t come together for me until right before the show starts,” he says of the program which will be broadcast on Austin City Limits November 22. “There’s a lot of information to convey to people. I’m becoming more and more relaxed in doing it. But the adrenaline is definitely flowing.”
Lauderdale’s country album “I’m a Song” was the focus of a two-hour plus “Buddy & Jim Show” where Lauderdale discussed the making of 20 songs with co-host Buddy Miller. “Patty Loveless’ voice popped into my head and helped me write it,” he tells Miller of “Today I’ve Got The Yesterdays.” “A Day With No Tomorrow” features Lee Ann Womack. “I had this melody and was thinking ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have Lee Ann Womack’?” “Doin’ Time In Bakersfield is another pairing with Womack, the honky-tonk milieu reminiscent of a time when Lauderdale was called “The New Buck Owens.”
Lauderdale also wrote “The Feeling’s Hanging On” with Bobby Bare who he called an underrated writer. “Let Him Come to You” grew out of a conversation Lauderdale had with John Oates at 3:00 in the morning while the two were writing at Oates’ house. Oates mentioned he had overheard a conversation between two women about a relationship and heard one of them say, “Let him come to you.” It was the impetus of the song of the same name but Lauderdale turned it around and wrote from the man’s perspective.
The making of “I’m a Song” is a focal point of the new documentary “The King of Broken Hearts,” a two-hour film that looks at the odyssey of Lauderdale’s struggles to make his way as a recording artist and get played on country radio before being discovered as a writer.
During the documentary, we get a glimpse of the legendary RCA Records Studio A where artists such as Elvis Presley, the Monkees, Eddy Arnold, Dolly Parton, Tony Bennett and the Beach Boys have recorded. The studio, which has been in the news amidst threats of being torn down under new ownership, is where Lauderdale and a band cut nine songs in a day. Director Jeremy Dylan catches Lauderdale at 3 A.M. walking around the hallowed halls strumming his guitar and still working from a long day’s journey into night.
I ask Lauderdale if he ever is up onstage and wonders how it all happened. “Sometimes I reflect on things,” he responds while at the same admitting he’s often too busy to think about it all. “I do have these moments often in my career when I find I’m working with a particular person and I think ‘I never would have dreamt this when I was starting out that I would have met this person let alone write or sing with them.”
Tonight in Ashland we get a glimpse of his creative genius as Lauderdale puts on a clinic in the mastery of songwriting. It’s just Jim on his acoustic guitar aided by Kay Landry on the soundboard who takes great pride in welcoming everyone and reminds us that we are in a listening room. In the documentary, Lauderdale talks about alternating between playing in front of 10,000 people at the annual MerleFest in Wilkesboro, North Carolina or being in a small room like he is tonight. The hundred or so people here realize a night like this is special. Landry treats her console like an instrument and Lauderdale seems like he is one with the room. His singing on “Shadow Fell” soars in the intimate setting. His a capella take of a song he wrote for Ralph Stanley is more like a hymnal. He turns on a dime to speed things up with the hard driving “Throw My Bucket Down,” one of the 100+ songs he’s written with lyricist Robert Hunter, best known for his work with the Grateful Dead. “Sometimes I give him melodies and he gives me lyrics,” Lauderdale says of Hunter.
Lauderdale’s banter between songs suggests a comic in waiting. In front of a table of family and cousins, he recalls how he lost his voice the night before his cousin’s wedding and asks everyone to imagine him singing “Whisper” now two years late in an act of redemption that draws laughs and smiles all around. He spends the night taking us through his catalogue. Before “Twang,” the song George Strait cover, he admits he wasn’t sure anyone would sing it because of country radio. He goes back and forth through his songbook that criss-crosses four decades and names a long-running list of collaborators like Harlan Howard, John Leventhal, Elvis Costello and John Oates to name just a few. One of them is here, John Lawn of the Folk Life Project in Virginia, who is introduced before “I Feel Like Singing Today,” a song that the two co- produced.
Lauderdale lets us know that he remade his tribute to Gram Parsons and George Jones because his album “Planet of Love” went out of print and “I’m Only Halfway Down” shows there’s a lot of the Possum in him. His restrained version of “You Don’t Seem To Miss Me” is just one of the night’s treats. Lauderdale calls on country history to enunciate phrasing and diction. His earnest voice and slight drawl wear like a glove for whatever mood and setting inflections call for. Over two sets and three encores, I count a total of 33 songs.
Somewhere in one of the two sets, I think back on a comment Americana Music Association executive director Jed Hilly made about Lauderdale being the “emblem” of Americana, the genre Lauderdale views as American roots music. Lauderdale shrugged it aside when I asked how he feels about it. “It’s hard because I’m in the thick of things all the time,” he says characteristically downplaying the accolades that come his way.” “I’m just trying to get by whether it be my next record project or getting to my next gig. I don’t identify much with my role but I’m glad to be part of it.”
He opens up a little more when discussing the state of today’s country music. “I was asked by several people before I made this record about what I think of country,” he reflected. “We can’t limit it to just what the state of country radio is. There are still veteran performers who are on the Grand Ole Opry that haven’t had hits in 30 or 40 years but are still performing. People are still selling out concerts but not in the main corporate world of radio. There’s alternative country acts too. I think it’s growing, it’s healthy and there are a lot of people doing it. Country is bigger than today’s country radio and mainstream country.”
As we were finishing our conversation, I present Lauderdale with a parting gift. It’s a vinyl copy of Connie Smith’s 1972 album on RCA “If It Ain’t Love (And Other Dallas Frazier Songs).” I bought the collectible on Amazon after hearing Lauderdale and Miller interview the legendary songwriter Dallas Frazier on “The Buddy & Jim Show.” It was such a revelatory two hours about one of the greatest writers in the history of country music that I couldn’t help but share with him. Lauderdale doesn’t happen to have this album it and is deeply appreciative.
He immediately turns it over and starts studying the credits.
“Jimmy Capps, “he says, “I just did a session with him.”
There isn’t really anyone that Jim Lauderdale isn’t connected with in the world of country music.
Yes, I do believe he is the most interesting man in the world.