Jim Lauderdale is one of the most respected artists working in the bluegrass and country music communities today. His reputation as a remarkable and multi-talented composer, studio musician, live performer, and collaborator is undeniable. Start asking the who's who of the music community, and you will quickly learn that most folks place Mr. Lauderdale upon the highest tier amongst Nashville's very best songwriters.
Mr. Lauderdale has recorded an impressive collection of solo albums and has had his songs recorded by such artists as Patty Loveless, George Jones, The Dixie Chicks, Solomon Burke, Mark Chesnutt, Dave Edmunds, John Mayall, Kathy Mattea, Lee Ann Womack, Gary Allan, Blake Shelton and Vince Gill. In addition to his own prolific writing and recording career, he has also toured with such legendary artists as Lucinda Williams, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Rhonda Vincent and Elvis Costello.
If you do not know Jim Lauderdale by name, you may just recognize him from press and publicity photos, as well as a familiar face you have seen share a stage with one (or more) of your favorite country and bluegrass artists over the years. Mr. Lauderdale has performed and recorded albums with Dr. Ralph Stanley, David Grisman, Tony Rice, Mike Compton, Donna The Buffalo, Roland White, Elvis Costello, and Sam Bush- just to name a few.
Jim Lauderdale has won two Grammy Awards, the first was for his 2002 album with Dr. Ralph Stanley called Lost In The Lonesome Pines, and his second was for his album The Bluegrass Diaries from 2007. He was also nominated for a Grammy in 1999 for his first collaborative album with Dr. Stanley called I Feel Like Singing Today, and in 2006 for his first solo bluegrass album, simply titled Bluegrass. I personally consider these records as essential listening for any bluegrass and classic county music fan.
After finishing my first listen of Reason And Rhyme, the new collaboration between Jim Lauderdale and lyricist Robert Hunter, I immediately reached out to my friends at Sugar Hill Records to put in a request to interview Mr. Lauderdale. I have to tell you, speaking with Jim for over 45 minutes was such a wonderful experience. For those of you familiar with his records, he was as friendly, down-to-earth, insightful, and generous with his time as you might imagine him to be.
Since we covered so much of Jim's history in our conversation, I have decided to compose this interview into four parts. It begins with Jim's musical origins, leads into the beginning of his career, highlights his relationship with Dr. Ralph Stanley, and concludes with his collaborative work with Robert Hunter. It was truly a pleasure meeting Jim, and this conversation easily ranks among my favorite interviews.
Let's start at your beginning. What drew you to playing music?
Jim Lauderdale: Well, I was a teenager when I first started playing. My dad was a minister and he had a really good singing voice and my mom was a choir director and chorus teacher in school and my sister got a lot of records and we saw the Beatles when they first came out. I played drums in a school band when I was about 11.
Shortly after, we moved to South Carolina, and my middle school didn't have Band. So I started playing blues harmonica, oddly enough, in the 8th grade. At this time, I also became a DJ at the college radio station at Erskine College in Due West, SC. So I was then able to get a bunch more music and collect more records.
What kinds of music did you gravitate to and how did it influence your growth as an aspiring musician?
JL: I got bitten by the bluegrass bug and I was just dying to get a banjo. Whenever I would hear "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" I would just go wild. So I quickly started devouring the music of The Stanley Brothers, Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, and others. I just couldn't get enough of it, especially The White Brothers: Clarence and Roland White.
During my junior year I started listening to American Beauty and Working Man's Dead. I got to see the Dead in concert at Duke University in 1973 and it was just something that I thought was really something new. The way they were playing, and their take on country music really hit me, because up until that point, I was mostly listening to a lot of the greats like like Johnny Cash, George Jones, and Merle Haggard.
Then I started playing banjo and finished my last two years of high school up between Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina, at a place called the Carolina Friends School. There was a lot of music going on in the area. I had a lot of freedom to play music there, and I also started playing dobro and acoustic guitar too.
When did you leave North Carolina and how did you begin recording?
JL: After I graduated high school, I went to college at the North Carolina School of the Arts and I moved to Nashville for about 5 months and became friends with Roland White, who is one of my heroes. We actually recorded a duet record and we couldn't get a deal for it. And that was really disappointing. So after that, I ended up going to New York at the end of '79 and there was quite a country scene up there going on at the time. So I started playing the clubs there.
And I'll fast forward a little bit to provide some background: I went to LA because ever since I was a teenager, I always wanted a record deal. I tried making that happen with my writing and gigging but never had any luck. Finally, with a producer named Pete Anderson, who was producing Dwight Yokam at the time, I ended up getting a deal with Epic Records and that record was supposed to come out in '89. It was a very "Bakersfield" sounding record.
I should also say that I had a very specific mission, both chronologically and stylistically, in my mind of how I wanted to release music. I wanted to start out with bluegrass and then move into acoustic country. Next would be electric country, and then I would go on from there and keep moving forward. But it just didn't work out that way. That first record that I did for Epic with Pete wasn't released- and that was really disappointing.
What happened next?
JL: I did get a deal with Reprise Records in '91, and that record, Planet of Love was co-produced by John Leventhal and Rodney Crowell. There was a big delay in getting it released and things like that, and it just didn't catch on with country radio. Then I did a couple of records at Atlantic with my buddy Dusty Wakeman and used people that were living out in LA. I was living out there at the time and there was quite a country scene going on and then that started fading a little bit and I ended up spending more and more time in Nashville.
Things had just fallen into place when I moved to LA and then they started doing that in Nashville, so I just ended up after a while relocating here. I did another record called Permissions for Upstart Records, a subsidiary of Rounder, and I did a deal with RCA and did a couple of country records with them. Close to the release of one of my records on RCA, I ended up working with Ralph Stanley and recorded the I Feel Like Singing Today record with him. And finally, that was my first bluegrass record.
Can you describe how you began working with Ralph Stanley?
JL: Well, the fist record I did for RCA was called Whisper, and I wanted to make it a hardcore country album. I thought it would be great to end it with a song with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, as a way to pay my respects to him.
So at the time, we were taping a TV show together with Ricky Skaggs at the Ryman. I approached Ralph and I asked him if I could write a song for him for my country album and have him and the band play on it. He agreed. It took me several months to write the song and it was the last thing recorded for that record.
I should also mention that when he agreed to do that song, he was working on an album called Clinch Mountain Country at the time. He had a lot of guests on that album including George Jones and Bob Dylan. I got to sing one of my favorite Stanley Brothers' songs for it called "If I Lose".
And then this led to I Feel Like Singing Today?
JL: I was coming back from the tour I did with Nick Lowe in Europe, and I wanted to go to this festival called Merlefest, which I had never been to. But before this happened, Ralph had kindly asked me to sit in with him several times. So if I was anywhere near the area where he was playing I would let him know and play a couple of songs with him.
So when I got to Merlefest and got to the dressing room to say "Hi" before the show, and not knowing if whether or not I would sit in or not, they said "Listen you got to go on because Ralph II is ill and can't sing". So we did a quick rehearsal and I kind of winged by way through, and it was just one of those life-changing experiences. I'd should also say that David Grisman was there and he sat in too. David later played on my last record for RCA called Onward Through It All, which was great.
So after doing that set at Merlefest, I had felt like I had gotten up the guts to propose my idea to Ralph for doing a record together with him and the Clinch Mountain Boys. He agreed. So I picked out some older songs, including a few Stanley Brothers songs and a Bill Monroe song that Ralph had never recorded. I also wanted to write a few things for the record too, so I got a hold of Robert Hunter. That record was a real milestone for me on a lot of different levels.
It's interesting to hear about how all of these different experiences, like dropping in with Ralph Stanley, playing with David Grisman, and connecting with Robert Hunter. It sounds like you were intuitively led you down this path pointing to making this record?
JL: Exactly. Then after that, I did a record called The Hummingbirds with Tony Rice, Sam Bush, and Stuart Duncan, who were some guys I always wanted to record with.
And then Lost In The Lonesome Pines?
JL: We got nominated for a Grammy for I Feel Like Singing Today, and Ralph and I talked about doing another one, and that became Lost In The Lonesome Pines.
What would you say was most different about making Lost In The Lonesome Pines, compared to your previous album together?
JL: On that record, we only did one cover song, and then I co-wrote the rest of it with Robert.
I'd like to dig into your working relationship with Robert Hunter. Can you briefly discuss how you began working together?
JL: I tracked down Robert through a friend of mine, and he sent me some lyrics and I put down melodies to them. These songs ended up on the first album I did with Ralph Stanley, I Feel Like Singing Today. Robert then came down to Nashville and spent a few months. We wrote about 34 more songs, and then I made an acoustic album of 13 of those songs, called Headed for the Hills for the Dualtone label. Then I put out the second record with Ralph, Lost In The Lonesome Pines.
How has your working relationship with Robert Hunter developed over time?
JL: When we first started, he would fax me some lyrics. That was before I learned how to use a computer or use the internet. Then I was dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, which made it easier because he could email me lyrics. But whenever he came to Nashville we would do it both ways. Sometimes he would come over and we would chat for a while and a melody would come to me and I would record it. Sometimes we'll be together, and a melody will just come to me and I'll play it, record it, and leave it with him. Other times, he may have given me a lyric to work with. He's very quick, just lightning fast with his ideas.
Does Robert have have free reign over developing the lyrics?
JL: Absolutely. I don't do any of the lyrics. Sometimes when he has written a lyric, he will also suggest certain patterns he wants me to accent. He is very collaborative. Robert always has great ides as far as that is concerned.
How did your new record with Robert Hunter, Reason And Rhyme come together?
JL: When I got back from touring last summer in Europe, in last August, I just got a drive to write with Robert and to do something quickly. So over a 10 day period we wrote 18 songs. I would send him the melodies and he would send me the lyrics. So I chose 11 of those and when I got home, Randy Kohrs, who is a great singer dobro player and producer, got the band together, and we recorded the album the next day. We did the whole record in one day. And that's the quickest I have ever recorded a record.
Back in the day, you know, a lot of bluegrass folks would do records really quickly. So my hat is really off to Randy for making this happen like that. And it's also a real testament to the band's playing ability and Randy's mixing. It was the least amount of time I have spent on recording an album, and it was such a welcomed experience.
It was also around this time that I got a call from Ralph Stanley's son last summer when they were going in the studio. He wanted some songs for what would become his dad's new album, A Mother's Prayer. So I contacted Robert and he sent me three sets of lyrics within about 5 hours and then we put music to them. But unfortunately it was too late to get them on the album. But out of that was born "Fields of the Lord", which is on our new album. I just love it. Robert just never ceases to amaze me.
You work between recording collaborative projects, your own solo albums, guesting on recording sessions, as well as touring and frequently playing live. It seems as though you are constantly working. How do you decide what direction to go next? How do you see these experiences add up for you?
JL: They just end up working together. I get an idea and it can either be put into place quickly, or it can take several years. For example, the time when I was working on Bluegrass and Country Hits 1. The Bluegrass album took longer to complete, so sometimes things will overlap. But sometimes I get a strong sense of something I just want to do and it ends up happening right away somehow.
It is also a matter of simply hoping a project will turn out and following its lead. Sometimes I'm not even expecting that people can work on something with me, but somehow it all just works out and comes together.
On a final note, I'd like to ask you about your live performances. You are playing a solo show at The Living Room in New York City on June 27th. As someone who performs between a wide variety of settings, what is most rewarding of each experience?
JL: I enjoy playing solo, with a electric band, and with a bluegrass band. I enjoy all of them. It's really fun to play in different configurations. It's such a treat to do the songs with great players, bluegrass-wise or the county versions, and solo is a nice challenge to do too.
As far as venues, they are all different, whether it's a club or playing the Opry, they are all different kinds of experiences, but it's just a pleasure to do all of them. And I just feel grateful to play all of them.