Genre Bender

The prolific Jim Lauderdale creates a diverse blend of music

Talk about prolific. Genre-busting singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale just released his 16th album since his debut in 1991. And although he is primarily known as a country artist, Lauderdale is equally at home with pop, roots rock, blues, folk, R&B and bluegrass.

"I guess I have such a wide diversity in the music that I like, that when I make music, it just seems to come out in all sorts of different ways," Lauderdale said recently during a telephone interview from his Nashville headquarters.

Lauderdale will perform Wednesday, April 9, at Vaudeville Cabaret, as part of host Mark Insley's regular "Outlaw Country" concert series.

Lauderdale's latest CD is Honey Songs, the second in a trilogy of records in three different genres expected to be released over the course of nine months.

The first was The Bluegrass Diaries, which hit stores last fall; the third will feature collaborations with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter.

Honey Songs, though, is a near-perfect rockin' country record. Or maybe it's more like a country-styled rock album, such as those made by The Byrds or Gram Parsons, or such Rolling Stones tunes as "Faraway Eyes," "Tumblin' Dice" and "Country Honk."

The new disc is extra-special as well, because Lauderdale plays with a band he calls the "Dream Players." Included are guitarist James Burton and drummer Ron Tutt, who played with Elvis Presley; bassist Garry Tallent from Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band; and legendary session musicians Glen D. Hardin on piano and Al Perkins on pedal steel. Among the backup vocalists are longtime Lauderdale associates such as Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller, Patty Loveless and Kelly Hogan.

Songs such as "I Hope You're Happy," "Hittin' It Hard," "Borrow Some Summertime" and "Stingray" sound so familiar and right, you'd think they've been around for years, and "It's Finally Sinkin' In" is just about the best forlorn breakup song since The Band's "It Makes No Difference."

Although they are new songs, it's hard not to think of them as standards you've never actually heard before. Part of what makes them special is the abundance of snappy hooks, which sound as if they have derived from some musical universe in which The Beatles share space with classic countrypolitan guitar flourishes.

Lauderdale was born in 1957 in Statesville, N.C., and lived for a while in South Carolina, too. His catholic tastes first developed as a child, he said.

"In the Carolinas, bluegrass was pretty much in the background a lot, as well as country. When I was a kid, The Beatles first came out, and rock 'n' roll was going through a huge explosion and becoming more of a force in the culture in general. Then on the radio, too, there was a lot of cool soul music."

His mother a piano teacher and his father a minister ("who had a really good voice"), Lauderdale felt music all around him as a kid.

"My parents were pretty cool and let me go to concerts at a pretty young age. When I was 13, I saw Led Zeppelin on their first big American tour, and I saw the Allman Brothers Band when Duane Allman and Berry Oakley were still alive."

Lauderdale's first instrument was drums, but he switched to banjo after being exposed to a bluegrass festival. "I guess I started wanting to be a bluegrass-banjo player, but then I started writing songs when I was 19 or so, and never really stopped."

That pursuit led Lauderdale to Los Angeles in the early 1980s, where he began playing in the Palomino Club, a pivotal alternative-country hotspot. He eventually recorded a tune for the seminal compilation album A Town South of Bakersfield with Dwight Yoakam's producer, Pete Anderson.

That attracted record company attention and Lauderdale's first deal with CBS Records, which fizzled before a resulting 1989 album could be released. That recording, titled Point of No Return, finally was issued in 2001. Among the labels that have released Lauderdale's albums have been Reprise, Atlantic, Upstart, BNA, RCA, Dualtone and, now, Yep Roc.

Lauderdale's career as a songwriter has been busy. He's seen his songs recorded by other artists including the Dixie Chicks, George Strait, Patty Loveless, Vince Gill, Mark Chesnutt, Kathy Mattea and George Jones.

No slouch as a singer, Lauderdale has sung backup on albums by Yoakam, Lucinda Williams and Rosie Flores, among others. "I feel lucky to be able to say I am equally a singer and a songwriter, not just one in service of the other," he said.

Many critics have hailed Lauderdale's solo records as being among those that laid the foundation for what is now known as Americana music. He demurred politely, saying simply, "I don't know about that. I think it's been more like people such as Joe Ely, Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris who have been more responsible for that."

Even if he won't take credit for helping create it, Lauderdale is fully in favor of Americana as a style and a radio format, he said.

"I think that because there are various radio stations that might play eclectic music, music that doesn't fit one category, with Americana, you can hear songs by country artists who don't get played on country radio, such as George Jones and Merle Haggard, as well as younger musicians influenced by them, but also by rock or folk or blues at the same time. It's such a broad mix of things that it allows a lot of artists to get heard when they wouldn't otherwise."

Speaking of labels, Lauderdale said playing an installment in Insley's "Outlaw Country" series seems appropriate, even though he's not always played music that fits into the 1970s Waylon-and-Willie, hard-core country vibe.

"In some senses, it feels right, because I'm not a mainstream radio artist in terms of country music, so I guess I could be considered a stylistic outlaw."

Lauderdale said he previously played in Tucson with bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley, with whom he has collaborated on two albums, including the Grammy Award-winning Lost in the Lonesome Pines.

"And that was several years ago. I think I've gotta come back down there to Tucson more often."

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