Musician Jim Lauderdale: ‘Downs have helped me just as much as good things’

Americana legend discusses his new album, made with songs pulled from a trick bag he wrote previously with a range of respected songwriters but never released

Time has caught up with Jim Lauderdale. Since 1991 the Nashville songwriter and vocalist has released a dizzying number of albums 28 in all that span honky-tonk, bluegrass, power-pop, southern soul, psychedelic and many of their hybrids. With country music in a perpetual identity crisis, Lauderdales music somehow has managed to encompass all that is best about its traditional side.

In September he won a lifetime achievement award from the Americana Music Association that bears its name. But Lauderdale isnt keen on being seen as any one thing. Thats one thing I really love about being involved in Americana is that there is no one thing. That No, you are this kind of recording artist you cant just branch out, its going to ruin things. Or you have to stay within that box and so thats great and liberating just to do whatever I want, he says.

What Lauderdale wants to do and what hes able to do has been changed by countrys move away from the auteur approach of writing hits, which has been replaced by the process of a committee. That shift has forced Lauderdale to devote more of his time to getting his own records out than providing songs for other people.

With more of his music out there, Lauderdale started receiving jobs to collaborate with people such as Elvis Costello, and with the Buddy and Jim Show, a SiriusXM program he co-hosts each week with Buddy Miller, and he started to be recognized by people outside Nashville as representing the rich traditions of countrys glory years.

His latest album This Changes Everything (Sky Crunch) would be an accomplishment for any budding songwriter, but for Lauderdale it is the testament of just a single day in Austin, Texas. Not only did he track the record in one spontaneous session earlier this year, the songs were pulled from a trick bag of songs he had written previously with a wide range of respected Texas songwriters but never released. Country poets such as Daryl Burgess, Odie Blackmon, Frank Dycus and Bruce Robison are represented here via songs that capture the classic honky-tonk era of the 1950s but fail to sound like museum pieces. To round out the set, Lauderdale recorded We Really Shouldnt Be Doing This, his own original given to George Strait years ago.

In a way, Lauderdale is the Robert Pollard of country music. Like the Guided By Voices man, Lauderdale makes a dizzying number of records, not necessarily according to audience demand, but to create order among the guitar riffs, melody hooks, or lyric ideas he has collected all his life and exist on cassette tapes in boxes and inside digital recorders waiting one day to serve a purpose.

Thats just the way my mind works, it spins around in chaos and is in so much disarray that I really work best when I have this structure of having an album in front of me, he says.

Despite that confusion, he has another record out in February 2017 and it is yet another stylistic turn. It replicates the early days of rocknroll when R&B and country music existed together before format segregation. The touchstone was the earliest days of the Beatles, when they spun through everything Bakersfield country, Broadway show tunes and Motown without skipping a beat.

That dexterity came to Lauderdale at a young age when growing up in North Carolina, his father a Presbyterian minister and his mother a high school choir director and piano teacher. He immersed himself in the bluegrass scene at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem before moving to Nashville to make a bluegrass record of his own. After a stint in New York he went to Los Angeles and found himself in the middle of a community of songwriters that included Dave Alvin and Lucinda Williams who revered tradition but also strove to make it work in a rock club. The scene allowed Lauderdale to soak in the vibe of his fallen hero Gram Parsons while scoring a major label deal with Epic Records but it was never released. Today Lauderdale sees the experience as a blessing.

I really wasnt ready in 1988 when that record was supposed to come out, he says. The years have had ups and downs. But I think at the end of the day the downs have helped my live performances, the writing and recording just as much as the good things, he says. The breakthrough was Planet of Love, his 1994 debut on Warner Bros. While the album didnt get a marketing push, mainly because Lauderdale was too country for rock stations and too pop for country, eight of the 10 songs found new life with other artists.

Like many roots-oriented songwriters during the time, Lauderdale struggled to maintain interest from the major labels that signed him despite winning a Grammy and earning the respect of chart-topping stars. It would challenge me. I developed this philosophy where I wouldnt want to get out of bed in the morning and get so depressed that Id say, Ive got to write myself out of this situation, he remembers.

Lauderdale got by through supplying hits to his songwriting patrons including George Jones, the Dixie Chicks, Elvis Costello, Vince Gill, Shelby Lynne and Patty Loveless, which fed his creative hunger especially during low periods when he had trouble getting record deals. The only thing that is going change things is get my guitar out and paper and come up with something to change things, he says. I still feel that way.

Since then Lauderdale has been on a mad tear of productivity, recording albums with a wide range of collaborators, from a Grammy-winning set with Ralph Stanley to Patchwork River (Thirty Tigers) in 2010, one of his strongest albums featuring lyrics by Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. Lauderdales gift for bright melodic hooks and charismatic vocals are the threads connecting all the records. Like the way he puts them together, they feel spontaneous and on the fly, which translate to the music sounding fresh, bright and untamed.

The Americana phenomenon, which he and his peers helped pave the way for in the 80s and 90s, now serves in providing a commercial identity and an artistic community. The artistry and talent has been there a long time, but Americana is just putting a name to it, he says. Its not about personalities or somebodys abs. Theres no salaciousness about it, it is purely about the music.

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