As prolific a music maker as Jim Lauderdale is, it’s not inconceivable that he could have forgotten about writing a song for Conway Twitty three decades ago with Melba Montgomery (George Jones’s duet partner before Tammy Wynette) and a couple other country tunesmiths – a song to which his name is attached in a purportedly authoritative online music database. He sounds plenty skeptical, though, when I quiz him on the phone about said co-write. “I don’t think I even knew about that,” he says slowly.
I’m staring at the information on my computer screen as we speak, I tell him, although the timeline of events seems a little suspect to me, too.
In the end, we conclude it’s not Lauderdale’s memory at fault; somewhere a keeper of publishing info has simply confused two different songs of the same title. He indeed wrote with Montgomery, but that didn’t happen until the 1990s, when he was commuting from Los Angeles, after his stint in New York City’s briefly bustling country bar scene, and before his move to Nashville. The ’90s was also the decade when he first had an album out with his name on it.
Planet Of Love, Lauderdale’s debut was called, and it was a vivid, vital update of hard-swinging honky-tonk. One of the songs, a ballad titled “The King Of Broken Hearts,” was inspired by a story about Gram Parsons – the longhair responsible for a pair of foundational country-rock albums Lauderdale idolizes – spreading the gospel of Jones – whose searing country-soul singing Lauderdale, and plenty of others, hold up as the standard. The album didn’t get the hearing it deserved, which is not to say that it went entirely unheard. George Strait soon snatched up “The King Of Broken Hearts” for the soundtrack of Pure Country. “And that kind of kicked the door open to acceptance of me as a writer in Nashville,” explains Lauderdale. “I was labeled ‘left of center’ as a writer, but then people started cutting the stuff.”
That “The King Of Broken Hearts” took on a life of its own – eventually being interpreted by two other very fine country singers, Mark Chesnutt and Lee Ann Womack (and becoming the title of a documentary exploring why full-blown stardom has alluded a fellow as talented as Lauderdale) – is a testament to the durability of his songcraft. “It’s one of those songs,” he says, “that I felt so strongly about and connected with so much. I probably do it every show, just about. I don’t get tired of it. A lot of folks have a song or two that they’re kind of linked with, and I guess that’s going to be mine, or one of ‘em, at least.”
Lauderdale recorded it again – same key, sparer arrangement, with a vocal performance even suppler, bluer and more ornately expressive than the original – for his latest album I’m A Song. That this would be a country set wasn’t a given. Of the roughly two dozen albums he’s made, a good many from the turn of the century on have leaned toward roots-rock, or groove-driven roots-pop, or down-home R&B, or bluegrass, or new-grass, all of which he has a fluent feel for. He’s as intuitive a writer as you’ll find in Nashville in 2014.
Lauderdale had intended, way back when, to retrace the electric evolution of American roots music with his output, from string band to unamplified honky-tonk and presumably up to and through country’s rock-ish countercultural offshoots – which makes him the quintessential Americana act. But the music didn’t arrive in that order, for reasons both professional and, you’d guess, spiritual. No style seems to summon greater conviction in his singing than red-blooded, cleverly crafted, hardcore country, which is what he’s up to here.
I’m A Song weaves together various strands of Lauderdale’s career to date, from that calling card composition of his, to a tune he co-wrote with Elvis Costello (a fellow devotee of Jones and Parsons), a bunch he wrote with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter (who’s become his chief collaborator), backing vocals from Buddy Miller (a kindred spirit since their New York days) as well as Womack and Patty Loveless (beneficiaries of his stick-to-your-ribs material over the past couple decades) and the sinewy elegance that guitarist James Burton and steel guitarist Al Perkins, Parsons’ go-to players, brought to the proceedings.
The album title, nonsensical as it may at first seem, is a philosophical framing device for what Lauderdale invested in this album, and many others before it – though, of course, in that nonexistent Twitty cut. “I’m A Song – That’s who I am,” he offers, “and the rest of it doesn’t make much sense. I don’t make much sense to me the rest of the time, but I can identify with that. I feel like I’ve had a lot of failings in other aspects, but the essence of just singing something, singing one of my songs or writing, having it come to me, that’s who I am.”