Reason And Rhyme
We all know the legendary songwriting duos of the 20th century: Elton and Bernie, Burt and Hal, Lennon and McCartney, Leiber and Stoller others. But in the 21st century there really haven’t been any serious contenders when it comes to writing teams whose work will live on after they’re gone, especially in an age of downloaded singles. Perhaps the closest thing we have to that status so far in these modern times is Jim Lauderdale and Robert Hunter. On Lauderdale’s new bluegrass album, Reason And Rhyme, these two show why they may someday deserve to have their names mentioned alongside some of the aforementioned giants of duo songwriting.
Lauderdale, one of the stars of Americana, has somehow managed to walk that fine line on Music Row of being both an artistic and a commercial success. More than a dozen of his songs have been cut by George Strait, and others have been recorded by such artists as the Dixie Chicks and Blake Shelton. Hunter, meanwhile, continues to enforce the adage of how older people can be more creative, as the soon-to-be septuagenarian (!) keeps cranking out lyrics for several acts. The man who supplied The Grateful Dead with words for more than two decades, Hunter has since written with Jesse McReynolds, David Nelson of the New Riders Of The Purple Sage and Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos, and contributed to nearly the entire Bob Dylan Together Through Life album.
So on Reason And Rhyme, their second full collaboration together, Lauderdale and Hunter again show us how it’s done. Hunter’s sense of prosody is amazing, and subject matter on Reason And Rhyme shows he has as wild an imagination as he ever did when working with the Dead. There’s the romantic longing of “Love’s Voice,” the animal imagery and sheer goofiness of “Tiger And The Monkey,” and as close to a gospel song as Hunter gets, “Fields Of The Lord.” Hunter goes historical in a way that Lauderdale himself never would as a writer on “Jack Dempsey’s Crown,” a song about the 1920s boxing icon, and, in a lyric befitting comparison to a script from Seinfeld, Lauderdale sings a Hunter lyric that is masterfully written about, well, pretty much nothing, on “Don’t Give A Hang.”
Lauderdale and Hunter’s last outing together, 2010’s Patchwork River, was more of a rocking affair with some country thrown in. But this new bluegrass record shows the versatility of both men, as well as their innate understandings of the various forms of American music. Songs this good deserve to be performed as well as they’re written, and they are here, featuring the work of mandolin favorite Mike Compton (who almost channels Bill Monroe) and Iowa Dobro monster Randy Kohrs, who produced the album with Lauderdale. And let’s not forget Lauderdale’s vocals. To some, he might not have the most appealing voice in the world, but his singing is confident, distinctive and on pitch (we’d hate to think he Auto-Tunes), and the guy knows how to do something that countless, supposedly better, singers don’t know how to do: make the song the star. Seldom is an album of such good material so well performed, with hot solos that don’t distract or detract from the songs.
If there’s anything negative to be said it’s that the recording could have been longer, clocking in at only about 35 minutes. Stretching out with a few more solos would have given listeners a better bang for the buck, and made it more of a true bluegrass record. But if they make a few more albums, Lauderdale and Hunter may well end up attaining the almost mythical status of some of America’s great writing teams. That’s how good they are together.