We recently spoke with Jim Lauderdale and wrote about the fabulous documentary “The King of Broken Hearts.” The film’s title is based on a comment Gram Parsons made about the great George Jones being the king of broken hearts. The song was made popular by George Strait and began a long string of Lauderdale covers popularized by Strait, Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, the Dixie Chicks and numerous others. Jeremy Dylan is the creative force behind the film bearing the same name. As Creative Director of Seven Shells Media, Dylan works in the Australian music industry as part of the team that promotes the CMC Rocks Queensland country music festival which just announced Kasey Musgraves will perform in March. He is a filmmaker and editor and serves as a member of the Americana Music Association Australian Advisory Group. He is also the host of the podcast “My Favorite Album” in which he invites musicians to talk about their favorite record over the course of an episode. I decided it was time to have a chat of my own with @mrjeremydylan.
You’ve made your first documentary and talk to artists on your podcasts. I think of you as someone who gets people to tell stories and reveal themselves. Is that fair?
I think so. I’ve always been fascinated with storytelling – as a writer and director and also as a consumer of interviews, podcast, books, etc.
The thing that my documentary work and now the podcast has afforded me is the opportunity to have conversations with people I admire about their work, which I try to do in both a selfish way – to satisfy my own curiosity – and to reveal insights and anecdotes to an audience. The idea of an interview sets up a kind of formal structure to it so if I’m talking to someone like Jim Lauderdale or Peter Cooper who I’m friendly with anyway, I can ask questions about their work and art and really dig in ways that would be odd in everyday conversation. Then the other aspect of that is I’ve gotten to draw interesting stories out of real heroes of mine like Neil Finn and Elvis Costello, who aren’t the kind of people I hang out with a pub on a Friday night.
I always believe that people have something they want to tell you and reveal. Can you tell us about how you get people to talk about themselves? The idea of “My Favorite Album” is brilliant because it’s not focused on the people you’re interviewing yet it becomes about them.
Well I think you’ve hit on it there. I started doing the podcast because it was taking so long to get my Jim Lauderdale documentary film released and I felt really frustrated to I hadn’t really put anything creative out in the world for a few years. The idea of a podcast, which I could record on a Wednesday, edit on a Thursday and release on a Friday, seemed incredibly appealing. The format came about because of the experience I’d had talking to people like Rodney Crowell and Elvis Costello and Gary Allan for the documentary. Elvis for example has a reputation as kind of a prickly interview subject – which I think is mainly due to him getting a bit irritated at answering the same questions for thirty-odd years. So because I was asking him about what makes his experiences performing at MerleFest unique, his co-writing process with Jim or life on the road with his acoustic rock band the Sugarcanes – instead of “Why did you call yourself Elvis?” or “Who is Alison really about?” for the nine thousandth time – we had a great chat and he seemed to really enjoy himself.
It was that thread that led me to the idea of interviewing artists I admired about the music they’d been influenced by – and I liked the idea of celebrating the album as an entity at a time when it seems to be faltering slightly in people’s purchasing habits. So when I talk to Neil Finn and ask him about David Bowie or Radiohead, I can lead that back to a commonality in their processes for making music which could get him to reveal something new about how he writes songs, or the recording of some classic Crowded House song. But if I’d just opened the interview with “So tell me about Don’t Dream It’s Over, Fall At Your Feet and Locked Out” – all songs that he brought up himself during the episode – he might have approached it a bit more wearily.
You grew up and live in Australia but are a huge fan of Americana and chose to do your documentary on someone people view as the face of Americana. Can you talk about your perspective on American music growing up and what attracted you to this genre?
I think America is going to shake out as being the source of the most great music in the end, just because of your cultural attitude of celebrating individual exceptionalism. The British character is cynical and the Australian character is skeptical, which can be great when casting a critical eye over elected officials, but isn’t often conducive to creating iconic musicians. Even the great artist from here and the UK – The Beatles or AC/DC for example – are largely inspired by American music and musicians. So that’s part of it.
The other part is just that I heard country music around the house as a kid, so I didn’t grow up with the prejudices that a lot of Aussies have against that kind of roots music. I could see the connections between Hank Williams and Neil Young and The Stones and Merle Haggard. Americana music is kind of the grand melting pot that encompasses the contemporary incarnations of my favourite musical styles – rhythm and blues, traditional country, folk-rock, etc – so the fact that I grew up as the term was being established (I was 9 when the Americana Music Association was born) and the music, led by people like Jim, was really building into a movement, meant I was perfectly positioned to full in love with the genre and become a bit evangelical about it.
In many ways it seems it doesn’t matter where you are today because of the internet. Was it always this way for you and how has this impacted your life and work?
I have no idea what kind of person I would be without the internet. Maybe I would have learned sport.
The greatest thing about the internet for me is that it has meant that all cultural artefacts from all parts of the 20th century are readily accessible. If I’d had to trawl through racks of cassettes or used LPs at garage sales and music stores to track down music, I don’t think I would’ve become as much of a musical obsessive as I am today. Within a few minutes, I could go from thinking “Maybe that Al Jolson dude is worth checking out” to reading his Wikipedia article and some reviews, watching video of him on YouTube and buying a Best Of compilation on iTunes. I went through a whole bootleg collecting phase in my teens, largely focused around Bob Dylan and John Mayer, which was fuelled by the internet.
It is also entirely responsible for me being able to make Jim Lauderdale: The King of Broken Hearts. There is zero percent chance I could have got that off the ground or set it up from the other side of the world with essentially no money without email. I raised some of the budget through crowd funding on IndieGoGo. I did all the rights negotiation with people in Nashville via email. The film would never have happened without the internet.
That all said, I wouldn’t agree that it doesn’t matter where you are. If I lived in Nashville instead of Sydney, I could have shaved a quarter of my budget off the documentary – no international flights and half the hotel costs would vanish in an instant. I also could have picked up a few more interviews with people who were totally willing to be in the film, but happened to be on tour in Europe or Canada the two times I was in the US shooting.
Tell me about Jim and the day you met him in Liverpool I believe. What was it about him that attracted you to his story? How soon from the time you met did you decide you wanted to do a documentary?
Well it was eight and a half years actually. We met when I was a kid at a country music festival in Australia the first time Jim came out. He was doing a songwriters in the round gig and I had no idea who he was. He look really cool and was so funny just talking that I instantly liked him, but then when he started singing and playing, I realised I knew half his songs already from other people’s cuts of them – the Dixie Chicks, George Strait, Patty Loveless and so on.
We met then and over the years, especially once I got into the music biz myself around ’07, we became good friends. I headed over to England mid-2010 on a pilgrimage to see Paul McCartney, who was headlining a festival in Hyde Park. There was a lot of great music on in London around that time, including some Elvis Costello gigs. At the time, Elvis was touring with the Sugarcanes, a band he’d put together by shanghaiing the best players in contemporary bluegrass into playing rock’n’roll with him after cutting a record they had all played on, produced by T Bone Burnett. Jim was in the band, lending his deft skill as a harmony singer and guitarist, and we connected after the McCartney gig – Jim and Elvis had played earlier in the day. We caught up again after an incendiary Sugarcanes show in Liverpool the next day – brain expanding concert experience that will be forever stamped in my memory – and spent the following afternoon visiting the Beatles museum. Looking at the artefacts of the Beatles early career led to a chat about Jim’s early career, which had turned out to be a weird story filled with rejection and frustration hand in hand with the making of incredible music.
The more I learned the more I thought there was a compelling cinematic story there, and one that could have resonance for people who didn’t know Jim’s music going in. The timing also came as I was wrapping shooting on my first feature film and needed a follow up project – this seemed like the obvious next step.
For someone who wants to do documentary where do you start? Did you have a plan or approach or did you make it up as you went? I imagine that you kind of follow the story and where it takes you.
I did write a pitch document for the film – just a one page outline of the areas of Jim’s career I wanted to cover – which helped me decide who I wanted to interview and what I needed to get out of them. What I didn’t do until much later – and maybe should have done earlier – is actually go back to my screenwriting eduction and all the stuff my mentor Allen Palmer taught me and break down Jim’s life like it was any other movie, like he was Bogie in Casablanca or Robert Downy Jr in Iron Man and work out the exact story I was telling. So at first I was letting the story tell me what it wanted to be and my first version of the film, which was a 45 minute cut I worked up for television, was a long way from the potential of what the story could be. It felt like more an appreciation of Jim than a really engaging well told story of Jim’s amazing career.
So when I went back to the US with my producer Chris Kamen for our second round of filming in 2012, I knew exactly what story beats I needed to hit and what I needed all my interview subjects to tell me. For example, I knew that when I interviewed Pete Anderson, the key piece I needed to get from him is how great Jim’s first, unreleased album was, and how unjustly Jim got screwed over by the record company deciding at the last minute not to put it out. So I tailored my questions to that and Pete gave me great insights into both those subjects.
What was the most important thing to you that you wanted to communicate in the film?
There were really two key messages I wanted the film to give to people who watch it.
The first is a universal story of someone who creates incredible art that doesn’t fit in the mainstream, faces constant rejection and periods of extreme self-doubt, but trusts in his art and preservers – and eventually his ability and passion is so undeniable that a whole new genre is established around his musical philosophy. This has really resonated with musicians of all stripes, and even artists from other disciplines, based on the feedback I’ve gotten.
The other message is that Jim is a really awesome dude who makes great music, is wildly charismatic and funny and dresses like a boss, and everyone should go out and buy his records.
Jim told me that at first it was odd having a camera following him everywhere but that when it stopped, he kind of missed it and said a few times “Oh I wish he was here to get that.” Was he a good subject?
The key thing when you’re making a documentary about someone is trust. If it ain’t there, the process is going to be extremely compromised. With Jim, there was never “Guys, don’t film this bit” from him, because I knew him enough to be respectful, and he trusted me enough not to put anything inappropriate into the film. I was also clear that this was not Jim’s film, but my film about Jim, and Jim really respected that. There were a few things he asked me to cut or change in the finished film, and two of those I said “I understand your concern, but I think this important to the story” and they stayed in, and Jim totally accepted that.
You’ve had multiple versions of the film shown in different countries. Can you tell me about some of the reactions and experiences as you’ve had?
Well there have been multiple versions screened, but only one released. The rights clearing process for all the songs, recordings and archival material in the film ended taking much longer that the process of filming and editing the film, so I was constantly revising the cut based on what we could afford to keep in the film. So the cut that screened at our original Nashville premiere is very different than the one that you can now buy on DVD and digital download, which is a much tighter stronger cut.
The reactions have been overwhelmingly positive, which is of course what you want, but the ones that are most gratifying to me are when people I admire tell me they like it – I ran into Buddy Miller in Nashville a couple of months back and he told me thought I did a great job, which was a buzz – or when I can tell it’s really hit someone emotionally. We did our LA premiere at the Grammy Museum, and a woman in the audience asked a question at our post-screening Q&A, and she was crying. She had been dragged along to the screening and was so ashamed she didn’t know Jim’s music and was so moved by the documentary and Jim’s story.
So really I’m just trying to make people cry.
What was your trip to Nashville like for the premiere? How do you see the city and the industry? Do you ever think you’ll move here?
Nashville is my home away from home. I think my most recent visit around the Americana Festival and our launch of the documentary release a few months back was trip number eight – and I’m already plotting my return in 2015.
The great thing about Nashville for me is that it’s a city that lives up to all its cliches. It really is Music City USA. It doesn’t brook assholes, because everyone is so skilled there. If you’re making an album in Ohio or North Dakota and you need a brilliant dobro player, there might be one in town. If he or she’s a jerk, you pretty much have to put up with it. Whereas in Nashville, you get the best dobro player in the known universe, and if they’re a prick, you go to the second best in the universe, and so on. You could pull someone out of a bar band on Lower Broadway and they’d be pretty exceptional. Of course, the best two dobro players on earth are in Nashville (and my documentary) and they’re both lovely, incredibly professional guys, which tends to be true of people in that city generally.
I could definitely see myself living in Nashville someday. I’d have to modulate my eating habits a bit though. When you’re only in town for a fortnight, it’s a lot easy to forgive yourself for constantly eating the Apple Pie at Cantina Laredo after breakfast at Noshville and Chicken Fried Chicken for lunch.
One of my favorite scenes in the film is the footage you shot in the RCA studios where James Burton of Elvis Presley’s band and Gram Parsons’ “Grievous Angel” plays with Jim. I was just a kid during that era and you weren’t born. Did you feel the sense of history while you were filming? What kind of emotions went through you?
That was a really special day for me. A lot of my favourite records were cut in that space – from Dolly’s “Jolene” through to all of Ben Folds’ recent records – and it just has this vibe and majesty to it. Of course, the actually important thing is that it’s a massive room with spectacular acoustics – and they don’t build places like that anymore. The energy in that day of recording was magical, because these guys all love Jim, and most of them are legends in one sense or another, so there was extreme mutual respect and admiration abounding. John Oates sat in on acoustic guitar for a few tracks – that’s a guy who’s sold millions of records as part of Hall and Oates just chilling, buzzed at getting to hang with James Burton, and playing beautiful tasteful parts on some songs. Halfway through the day Kenny Vaughan of Marty Stuart’s Fabulous Superlatives wanders in with his telecaster and suddenly he’s in the mix, trading these awesome licks with Burton.
Everyone took a break for lunch and are swapping war stories – John Jarvis talked about a gig he did with Rod Stewart back in the 70s where the Spinal Tap style stage construction and consumes wound up getting him a head injury on the way to the stage, causing him to play the first song with blood dripping down into his eyes. I look around and Jim has wandered off, so I grab my camera. Turns out the song they were due to cut after lunch wasn’t finished – he had a bit of a verse and a chorus – so he wandered off into the hallways of the historic building with his guitar and came up with a melody and structure for the rest of the song on the spot. They recorded it ten minutes later and it’s on Jim’s new “Like A Song” album. It’s called “There’s No Shadows in the Shade”.
It was a real “Nashville” day, and if I hadn’t finished the film, the time I spent with those guys in that space would’ve paid off all the work I’d put in. The studio was under threat of being demolished recently – it got saved at the last minute – and I wrote a letter to the developer recounting my day at the studio and making a case for its preservation.
I love your podcasts. I feel like I learn something everytime I listen to one and I feel like you and the guests do too, sometimes about themselves. Would you agree?
Well first, shucks.
Secondly, yes I think that has happened a few times. My interviewing idol is Elvis Mitchell, who hosts a great film interview show on KCRW called The Treatment. He’ll often make an observation or ask a question that will provoke the guest to say “You know, I never thought of that, but now that you say it…”. I’ve had that happen a few times from my guests, and it’s always a great moment. I think that what makes the format of the show special is that it invites both the guest and the audience to look at their work through a different kind of prism than they normally do.
The show you did with Peter Cooper of the Tennessean (now on staff at the Country Music Hall of Fame) talking about Tom T. Hall was fascinating when he talked about how Tom would travel to go and find some songs, almost like a journalist looking for stories and listening to people’s conversations for ideas. He recalls how he checked into a hotel and the clerk recognized his voice and asked him what he was doing in town and he said he was looking for some songs. When he came back to the hotel there were a bunch of people waiting with their tapes but that’s not what he meant. These are the kinds of things that come out in your conversations. What have been some of your favorite learnings and moments?
Well the one with Peter was cool because I almost didn’t need to be there. Being a brilliant journalist in addition to his own musical endeavours, Peter knows his stuff in stunning depth and knows how to tell a story, especially about Tom T.
I did two episodes earlier in the year with Pete Thomas, the greatest drummer alive, best known for being a member of Elvis Costello’s Attractions and Impostors, on the Jimi Hendrix Experience “Are You Experienced?” album. Aside from great anecdotes about stalking Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell when he was a teenager and playing Foxey Lady with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers while Flea hang upside down from the ceiling, the best moments were Pete revealing how he’d taken some of the great drum parts from the Hendrix record and worked them into iconic Elvis Costello tracks like “I Don’t Want to Go to Chelsea” and “Beyond Belief”. They similarities and never occurred to me, but as soon as he demonstrated I could immediately see how they’d weaved their way through.
Jon Auer from the Posies told me a great story about almost getting burned to death while working on the classic You Am I album “Hi FI Way”.
But my high point of the podcast so far is probably Neil Finn making threesome jokes as he talks about his future musical plans on the second episode I did with him. There’s little more gratifying than making one of your idols laugh.
When I listened to Emma Swift talk about Lucinda Williams, she described Gillian Welch’s liner notes for Emmylou Harris’ album “Wrecking Ball” and how there was a chance to reclaim country music but it was different and it needed to be called something else. How do you make sense of Americana’s evolution, where it’s going and where country music links, then and now?
I think when you talk about this you have to make a distinction between “country” the musical genre and “country” the radio format. In the same way that Tony Bennett is not going to get played on Top 40 pop radio today, you’re not going to find a lot of country music that sounds like a Buck Owens record in the top 40 country radio format in 2014. So to an extent, more traditionally sounding country music, made by people like Jim, Lee Ann Womack and Marty Stuart, now lives in the Americana genre and radio format.
But Americana is most useful for defining a style of music that can accommodate that, but isn’t limited by it. I wouldn’t call Lucinda Williams albums or most of the stuff Emmylou has put out from Wrecking Ball on country music in either sense. That is quintessential Americana – it’s taking elements of country, blues, folk and rock and blending it in dynamic ways. I was at the Americana Music Awards this September and Taj Mahal and Jackson Browne performed and were awarded. Neither of those cats are in any danger of being labeled country.
I think part of the reason Americana was established as a distinct format and movement was to give a home to people who had started out country but where getting a bit broader in their musical palette and were struggling to find a home on radio for their new brand of roots music – people like Jim, Lucinda, Emmylou, Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell. From early on, they’ve been clear that country is just one element of the Americana pie. The easiest way I’ve found to explain what Americana is anything that would fit on Music From Big Pink by The Band.
When she described Lucinda’s “Metal Firecracker,” Emma had a great line about getting inarticulate when we try and describe the things we love. I understood exactly what she meant but part of me was like it that was true, the whole premise of your show would be for naught. The other thing that was fascinating about that show was her perspective listening to “Car Wheels On a Gravel Road” in her twenties and then much later after the experiences of her own life. I guess we look at art and music through the lens of where we are in time.
It’s funny – I know that to be true intellectually, but I’m 24. The longest I’ve loved an album is the White Album, which I fell for when I was eleven. So even that’s only thirteen years, many of them adolescent. So I think it’s an interesting question to ask my guests, and I always close the episode by asking them how their perspective on their favourite album has changed over the years, but I can’t speak much to it personally so far. Ask me when I hit 30 and we’ll see how my taste has changed then.
E-Swizzle was a great guest because, as much as she may proclaim inarticulateness, she can speak very articulately and passionately about the music she loves, because she’s been a radio broadcaster for years in parallel to her musical career. We’ve had plenty of long, full on, sometimes contentious chats about Americana music and albums, before and since the podcast – although they normally involve more scotch.
Do you have a list of country albums would you like to feature and who would you like to talk about them? I suspect some of them are out there and may read this so now is your time to name names.
As you can imagine, the list is vast.
The first person who came to mind as a potential guest was Dierks Bentley, who has a real deep understanding and respect for country music history, which is clear from his music, but also his taste as I’ve heard it from interviews and mutual friends. I’d be fascinated to see what he chose to talk about, but I’m sure it would be a great chat.
The trick is to find people who are as good at talking about music as they are performing it, which is not a massive list. But people like Marty Stuart, Tony Brown, Miranda Lambert, Jeffrey Steele, Brad Paisley, Elizabeth Cook, Gary Allan, Vince Gill, Keith Urban, Kix Brooks – to name just a random few – would be terrific guests.
In terms of albums I’d love to talk about with a guest from the country end of the spectrum – Tom T Hall’s I Love, Ray Charles Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison or any of the American Recordings albums, Garth Brooks’ No Fences, Either Fly or Home by the Dixie Chicks, Wille Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger… There’s a lot more, but those are all albums that are both interesting in their content and incredibly influential for subsequent generations of artists, which is the two criteria for the show.
My big aim for 2015 is to feature more international guests. I have some UK and US guests in the pipeline for 2015 and want to put a bit of time in traveling to Nashville, LA and London and recording some episodes there next year.
Who can we look forward to hearing from and how can people subscribe to your podcasts?
You can subscribe to the show in all your usual podcasting facilities – iTunes, Stitcher, the Android pocasting app – just search “My Favorite Album” and you should find the show. If you want to listen to the show on your computer or download MP3s of the episodes directly, just visit my website mrjeremydylan.com and click on the “Podcast” link at the top of the page.
Guests I’ve got coming up in the next couple of months include Robyn Hitchcock (talking about John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band), Doug Pettibone (talking about Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball) and Catherine Britt (talking about Patty Griffin’s Living with Ghosts). Subscribe and stay tuned – you never know will end up on the show soon – and neither do I.
Now that “The King of Broken Hearts” is out, are there other stories that are stirring inside that you’d like to film?
Always. Ideally they won’t take four years to finish and release like that did, but I’m developing a few projects now – some for TV, some that would be feature docs like the Lauderdale one. I’m also writing a music based thriller film, so depending on my speed writing that, it could end up being my next project.
Can you tell us what’s next for Jeremy Dylan?
There’s this hobby I’ve heard some of my friends talk about called “sleeping”, so I think I might give that a try for a few hours around Christmas time. I’ve also got some books to finish.
In reality, I’m splitting my time between podcast, editing and my day job, working in the Australian music industry as part of the team that promotes the CMC Rocks Queensland country music festival and my role as a member of the Americana Music Association Australian Advisory Group. My goal is to be busier next year than I was this year.
Jeremy thanks–I really love your work.
Steve, you have impeccable taste. Great to type with you.