On The String: Jim Lauderdale Finds Cause For Hope
The best song - okay my favorite song - on Jim Lauderdale’s new album Hope comes at the very end. Talk about showing restraint. I mean, the album is colorful, tuneful, meaningful and enriching throughout. But just when you think it’s winding down, we hit track 13, which bursts forth with a propulsive, insistent two-chord acceleration and a soaring harmony line, as Jim and guest vocalists Lille Mae and Frank Rische sing the hallelujah title: “Joyful Noise.” It’s a good encapsulation of Jim’s spirit. His music almost always smiles.
Full disclosure here, more than any other prominent singer/songwriter in roots and Americana music, Jim is one with whom I share a personal and vested interest. He and I have worked together since the Fall of 2009 as co-hosts of Music City Roots. It was a completely unexpected treat to find myself - a 20-year Lauderdale fan even then - as a colleague to this fascinating and unique artist as I supported him in his role as musical host. Now I’m a 30-year fan, and while there’s no honorary pin for that or anything, I did get to have Jim over for a long, entertaining conversation for Episode 177 of The String.
Lauderdale took a winding path to his admired perch in Nashville, and we hear about some key chapters. He was a teenage DJ in South Carolina then a bluegrass kid who took banjo lessons from future star Mark Pruett of Balsam Range. He made his way to Nashville in the 1979 for a spell, where he made his first official album, a bluegrass duo with mandolinist Roland White. (The album couldn’t find a label home and then literally got lost, but the tapes were discovered a few years ago and mastered into an album release in 2018.)
Then Jim settled in the heart of two of the vital country music revival scenes happening in the nation. In New York City, he befriended Buddy and Julie Miller, John Leventhal and Shawn Colvin. In Los Angeles he was a mainstay at The Palomino Club, where the legacy of Bakersfield country music was reborn in the 1980s and where he made cause with Lucinda Williams, Pete Anderson and Rosie Flores. It was a song publisher - Blue Water Music - that first really understood Lauderdale’s potential and gave him reason to move to Nashville. We talk about how that led to the deal that helped him make Planet of Love with Rodney Crowell and John Leventhal about that time. That iconic album is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and will reportedly be the subject of a special forum during AmericanaFest at the Country Music Hall of Fame.
While his albums have never broken through in ways that impressed the country music industry, they did become vehicles for his songwriting career to grow to impressive stature. Most of his first album was cut by other artists, including big hits for George Strait. Numerous cuts by Strait and others over the years have provided Lauderdale a substantial living and freedom to write, record and release new music on his own schedule. And it’s quite a schedule, given that the new album Hope is number 34 in his catalog.
Hope, which came out last Friday, was largely inspired by the stasis and national ennui of the Covid pandemic. He wrote the proudly marching “Brave One” with front line workers in mind. “Breathe Real Slow” is a meditative piece that inspires calm reflection, grounded in his long-time practice of Tai Chi. The opener with the improbable title “The Opportunity To Help Somebody Through It” is a danceable tribute to selflessness. The most melancholy moment comes from “Memory,” one of the roughly 100 songs Lauderale wrote with the late Robert Hunter.
That long working relationship with the Grateful Dead’s legendary lyricist is covered in my favorite part of this talk. It turns out Jim was noticing Hunter’s lyrics all the way back in his teens, and his outreach to co-write, a rather audacious ask, was met with openness and vulnerability. Given that Hunter’s co-wrote with very few people, among them Jerry Garcia and Bob Dylan, the connection is yet another validation of Jim’s prowess with song form.
“I think he influenced me through the years, you know, before we even got together,” Jim says. “Since he's passed, there are so many melodies that come to me that I go ‘Oh, Robert will be great on that.’ And I don't know what to do with them. Because I held Robert in such high regard. And the bar he set was so high, that there are certain things like, man, I don't know if I'll ever be able to finish this thing. I think about him every day.”