If Jim Lauderdale never recorded another note ever again — a most unlikely scenario given his prodigious output — he would still boast a catalog that would be the envy of any other artist, regardless of genre. Known for releasing multiple albums in the space of a single year — sometimes up to three concurrent efforts at a time — he boasts a catalog that’s averaged at least one album for every year of a more than 30 year career.
“The way I look at my body of work, even though a lot of these songs didn’t become hits in the commercial sense, I’m just satisfied they got written,” Lauderdale reflects. “They’re in the grooves forever and that gives me satisfaction.”
That said, Lauderdale’s latest, When Carolina Comes Home Again, may be his most satisfying album yet. It marks a return to his roots, not only in the sense that it pays homage to the state where he was raised, but also because it affirms a sound that’s always had its basis in bluegrass. While Lauderdale’s efforts often cross the boundaries to straight out country and Americana, bluegrass has always remained an integral part of his DNA from early on. Indeed, it can be traced back to his initial influences.
“I attribute any musical ability to my mom, who was a piano teacher,” he recalls. “She was also a choral director at school. My dad had an amazing voice, a tenor baritone. When The Beatles came along, my sister started buying their 45s and albums. But when I got bitten by the bluegrass bug and started playing banjo at age 15, Mark Pruett, who’s one of the players on the new album, gave me my first banjo lessons. So this record really came full circle for me in a lot of ways. I’ve had this theory for a long time that if you can play bluegrass, you can play anything. I was talking to someone last night and when he said that to me, and I thought, ‘Gosh, I thought I had come up with that theory!’ It’s true regardless.
Lauderdale owes his eclectic taste and his songwriting style to the fact that he was tuned into music even as a child. “Listening to the radio in the ‘60s and ‘70s provided me with such a great variety of music,” he muses. “It trained my ears. Years later, I put that into practice when I had the chance to write with folks like Harlan Howard and Melba Montgomery. When I got my major record deals, I made up my mind that I wanted to write songs that sounded like classics. That’s kind of how my ear went.”
Indeed, anyone that’s followed Lauderdale’s trajectory will likely agree that he has the ability to emulate that classic formula, writing and recording songs that sound like standards even at the outset. Whether it’s a turn of a phrase or simply a snappy chorus, Lauderdale’s material always seems to ring with a certain finesse and familiarity.
“When you mention the word ‘hit,’ it becomes kind of broad,” he suggests. “There may be a song that could be a hit commercially, but it could still be disliked by a lot of people. We all hear those songs on the radio and we think, ’I can’t stand this song, but it’s catchy and I can’t get it out of my head.’ I think it’s exciting when I’m writing a song to think of it not as a hit, but maybe as a classic song. I think, ‘This song can be a hit because I love it. I think it’s got those ingredients. There’s something exciting about it that prompted me to write it.’ You have this feeling about it. I’ve had that feeling from many songs of mine and from my records and the songs that I’ve been asked to write for other people. Sometimes I had that feeling, even when those songs didn’t get recorded by other people. Or I would have a feeling about a song but there was no real marketing push behind it, but I’d still think some way, somehow something could happen with it. It just didn’t turn out that way at the end of the day.”
Not surprisingly then, Lauderdale has struck up associations with a wide variety of musicians, all of whom consider them ardent admirers. The list spans artists that charted several genres, from his early bluegrass mentor Ralph Stanley and country great George Jones, to his renowned cowriting partner Robert Hunter (best known as the lyricist for Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead). He’s also able to namedrop any number of other iconic artists as well— Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and John Oates, among the many. Indeed, Lauderdale hasn’t any shortage of anecdotes about each of them.
“I first met Elvis Costello at the Newport Folk Festival and I gave him a stack of CDs, and when he made his Opry debut, I went to see him and I gave him even more CDs,” Lauderdale remembers. “Later, I got a call from him asking if I’d sing harmony with him at Merlefest. Then several months after that, I got another call from him saying that T Bone Burnett was producing an album for him and he asked me if I would sing harmony on it. He had a band called the Sugarcanes with all these monster players from bluegrass, like Dennis Crouch on bass, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Jerry Douglas on dobro. We toured with him for several years, and after that the band also appeared on his follow up album.”
George Jones was an early hero, a country legend that Lauderdale had occasion to see several times, although he says he never got up the nerve to introduce himself. Nevertheless, he eventually got his chance several years later, but their initial studio session was never made available to the marketplace.
“I did a duet with him for an album that never got released,” he says ruefully. “That was in 1988, but it eventually got released on a record of duets that featured people like Keith Richards. Then I portrayed him in a play we produced in Nashville, and that was very cool. I worked with Nick Lowe and Billy Bremner for a couple of years as well. They were once in a group called Rockpile, which was one of my favorite rock bands. A few years later, Nick Lowe called me to open up for him on a tour, so I did that too. I toured with him down in Australia. When Billy Bremner moved to Los Angeles I connected with him again because he was in Rosie Flores’ band. So he played with me a few years out there and then he moved to Nashville and we did a lot of recording there.”
John Oates, the Oates of Hall and Oates, has always been a fan of traditional music, which made his collaboration with Lauderdale a natural next step. In fact, the two co-wrote the title track of the new album.
“I met John Oates at the Telluride Festival when I was performing with Elvis Costello, and we exchanged phone numbers,” Lauderdale explains. “And then when he came to Nashville, we started writing together, and eventually we recorded several of our collaborations. Even though John is a rock superstar, his early influences were folk music, and that’s what he started out with. Doc Watson and Rev. Gary Davis were his early heroes, and he saw them at the Philadelphia folk festival when he was a youngster, and even got to hang out with them as a kid. So that was a big influence on him.”
Lauderdale also offered insight into his own songwriting process as well.
“I go into the studio and sometimes I’ll have something I wrote alone or cowrote,” he relates. “A lot of times, I just lay down an instrumental track and I’ll either play something over it that I hear, or someone else will add a part that they’ve come up with. I’ll let the melody kind of write itself. That was often the situation with Robert Hunter. I’d give him melodies and he’d write something and send back the lyrics. Oftentimes however, when I do those tracks, I finish them off alone. It’s nerve-wracking and a lot of pressure, and I say ‘This is too much’ and ‘This is the last time. I won’t do that again.’ But at this point, I’m learning to discipline myself. I’m working to try to stay on point with this current release, but for the next few years, I’m ahead of the game and that pressure is taken off me, that writing under pressure.”
Ultimately, Lauderdale admits he’s been fortunate to work with the individuals he’s collaborated with thus far.
“It was a matter of reaching out to people who were heroes,” he reflects. “Luckily for me, they agreed to do it.”