Jim Lauderdale has never been one without a sense of humor. Over fifteen years of hosting the Americana Music Awards, Lauderdale has had to ad lib in comic moments to fill time during inevitable delays of set changes and live programming. But the North Carolina School of Arts theater major, who once portrayed George Jones in a play about Tammy Wynette (with the Possum watching), outdid himself onstage at the Country Music Hall of Fame.
As the featured guest of the museum’s ongoing songwriter series, Lauderdale seemed like the perfect person to talk about the craft of writing songs. He brought with him thirty-something years of credits for George Strait, Patty Loveless, Lee Ann Womack, Vince Gill, and the Dixie Chicks – among others. But Lauderdale, who also has a plethora of co-writes with Elvis Costello, John Oates and Robert Hunter, had a surprise. He announced he would be interviewing himself and proceeded to play both moderator and interviewee.
“Jim Lauderdale, welcome,” he said to himself.
“Thanks a lot,” he said, turning to answer. “It’s great to be here. Fire away.”
“I was wondering if we could get you to say something controversial,” he said back, in questioning mode. “What is Americana music to you, Jim?”
“Well,” he said turning again, “I think Americana is a kind of umbrella definition of American roots music which includes bluegrass, folk, gospel, soul, blues, R&B and country. It’s American roots music. I’m so glad it’s happening – it’s opening up a lot of opportunities for listeners and artists alike.”
“You are releasing your 28th album This Changes Everything. It’s a country album. I thought you were Americana?”
“I am but it was like I was saying…” Lauderdale said, clearly enjoying poking fun at himself.
Lauderdale, widely seen as the ambassador of the Americana genre, has just revealed another side of his musical personality. This time, Lauderdale casts his new album as hardcore country.
“To me it’s a very hardcore, traditional country record,” he told me via phone between stops on tour. “I need to put out one of these every so often. It’s country rooted in traditional sounds, but it’s pushing the envelope in some ways.” Two years ago, Lauderdale released I’m a Song, a record that had a lot of twang and a Countrypolitan, Bakersfield feel. Afterwards the realization came to him that it didn’t have any shuffles, something he views as a traditional part of country’s fabric. On This Changes Everything he includes four shuffles that help capture the Texas dance hall sound.
This Changes Everything came in large part as the result of an act of nature. When Texas floods forced a cancellation of a gig in Monfils this past summer, Lauderdale decided to take advantage of the situation and booked time at a studio in Austin. He did so in typical fashion, not having any new songs ready. His patterned behavior of writing on deadline was about to reappear, bringing back images from Jeremy Dylan’s documentary Jim Lauderdale: The King of Broken Hearts, as he finished a song wandering the halls of RCA Studio A in the wee hours of the morning. He thought about devoting an afternoon to writing ten new songs. But he was struck by the thoughts of songs that might fit with the locale.
Lauderdale thought about a bunch of songs he’d written with Bruce Robison, including “There Is a Horizon” and the title track, and asked himself, “Why haven’t I recorded it?” Another is “All The Rage In Paris,” which fit in with the geographic milieu.
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. On “It All Started and Ended With You,” Lauderdale recalls the spirit of Johnny Bush and the late Frank Dycus, his friend and co-writer who produced some sides for the Texan legend.
“That influence came through and I thought it was the perfect time to do it,” Lauderdale said of the song. For the new album, Lauderdale dialed up three songs he and Dycus wrote together.
At the Country Music Hall of Fame, he brought out the album’s producer, pedal steel player Tommy Detamore. It was the first time they’d played “Drivin,’” the album’s closing track that Lauderdale co-wrote with Hayes Carll.
“Traditional country music is like traditional bluegrass,” he responds, when I ask him if the record makes a statement about country music. “It’s almost a style of folk music that needs to be preserved. It’s something I enjoy doing and is part of my make-up.”
When we spoke, Lauderdale rattled off all of the things he had to do. A heavier tour schedule. Trying to write for the record after next. He leads not one but two bands, a bluegrass ensemble and a country band. Lauderdale also hosts Music City Roots on Wednesdays in Nashville and is a co-host of the Buddy and Jim Show on SiriusXM radio.
There was another stop planned at the Grand Ole Opry. He says it is always an adrenaline rush to appear on the Opry. When he got out of college, he went to Nashville for five months to try and get his foot in the door. Two of his roommates played on the show.
Lauderdale guesses he has played on the Opry one hundred and twenty-five times but adds he hasn’t kept count. The first time he appeared on the Opry was with Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys after Ralph became a member.
Back in the Eighties when his career began, Lauderdale’s idea of success was to record and tour. “‘I just have to get a record deal,’” he remembers thinking. “When it didn’t happen, it felt like it was the end of a dream. The next phase would have been to have hits. It didn’t happen. I never thought about other people recording my songs.”
Lauderdale’s breakthrough occurred when Vince Gill recorded “Sparkle.” Then, when George Strait sang “Where The Sidewalk ends” and “The King of Broken Hearts” on the Pure Country soundtrack, it drew attention to Lauderdale the songwriter.
On the new album, Lauderdale re-recorded “We Really Shouldn’t Be Doing This,” a song Strait covered. It also originally appeared on Lauderdale’s album Onward Through It All which has since gone out of print. Lauderdale says that he wanted it to be available just as he did with “The King of Broken Hearts,” originally recorded on Planet of Love and recorded again on I’m a Song.
It seemed fitting then that Strait stood onstage at the Americana Music Awards to present Lauderdale with the Americana Music Association’s WagonMaster Award for Lifetime Achievement. Strait commemorated the night by joining Lauderdale to sing perhaps his most famous song “The King of Broken Hearts.”
Lauderdale wrote it after reading a book about Gram Parsons. The story goes that Parsons was at a party and saw George Jones singing on television and said, “That’s the king of broken hearts.”
The WagonMaster award is named after legendary country singer Porter Wagoner. As a high school student growing up in Due West, South Carolina, he watched and learned so much listening to the Opry. Lauderdale loved watching Wagoner and Dolly Parton on their television set and saw Wagoner as a real visionary. When Lauderdale came on the Grand Ole Opry, it meant a lot to appear during Porter’s segment.
Lauderdale remembers coming out and delivering a line that prompted Wagoner’s distinctive laugh. “I have a saying that I like my classical music Wagoner,” Lauderdale would say. Then holding a pause, he would deliver the punchline. “Porter Wagoner.”
The first WagonMaster award was to be presented to the man himself. But Wagoner passed away in 2007. The award was instead presented to Wagoner’s daughter by Lauderdale, who was accompanied by Buddy Miller and Emmylou Harris.
“‘Dad would say ‘I think that boy’s trying to be like me.’” Lauderdale recalled her saying that night. Lauderdale wore some of the same Nudie suits that Wagoner used to sport.
When Lauderdale first set out in Nashville, he told me he had two goals. One was to hang out with George Jones and the second was to play with one of his bluegrass heroes, Roland White of the Kentucky Colonels. The first didn’t happen (although Lauderdale later recorded a duet with Jones that came out after his death.) But he got to sit in on shows with White. The two ended up recording a duet album that Lauderdale thought was going to be his big break. When the album was rejected, it was his first taste of disappointment.
The masters were thought to have been lost. Recently, however, Lauderdale found himself sitting in with White at the Station Inn when he casually mentioned “Oh by the way, my wife found the tape.’” You could have pushed Lauderdale over with a feather. He’s since enlisted bluegrass producer and collaborator Randy Coors to remaster it.
Lauderdale began our conversation talking about “writing the album after next.” But he has another project that will come to life in 2017. Several years ago, he recorded with Nick Lowe’s band in the south of London. John Oates, a close friend and co-writer of two songs from the sessions, suggested to Lauderdale that he call the record London Southern. Lauderdale calls the music a tip of the hat to the early Beatles and has flavors running through of R&B and country. He expects it to be released in February to the European market by Proper Records, and later in the year for the U.S. He is hoping to come to London for an Americana night early next year.
Lauderdale admits he has a huge place in his heart for Lowe, who produced Elvis Costello’s early records and fronted the band Rockpile, which also included Dave Edmunds and Billy Bremmer. When he lived in New York and played in the emerging country scene of the early Eighties, they were one of his favorite bands. “When Rockpile came, they blew me away,” he says. “I’ve always had a spiritual affinity for Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe.” Lauderdale remembers reading an article about Costello and about how he loved Gram Parsons and George Jones. “I thought, ‘This guy is right down my alley.’”
Lauderdale couldn’t have imagined he’d write with Costello two decades later. When I ask him if someone had shown him a crystal ball to peer into his future, he might not have believed it.
“I do find it hard to believe,” he says, before putting it all in context. “Touring and writing with Elvis Costello, working with Nick Lowe, writing with Robert Hunter, writing with Ralph Stanley and recording with Ralph Stanley, George Jones and Emmylou Harris.”
He pauses and then reflects.
“It didn’t turn out the way I thought it was going to be, but in some ways it turned out a lot better.”
Lauderdale admits it is still difficult in the music business. “It’s like so many things in life. It gets harder and harder for all of us. I still really get off on writing and performing and the challenges that presents.”
He admits he marvels at how many good musicians and songwriters are out there.
“I’m not a competitive person or jealous person but if I was, I would really be at a loss.”