I first became aware of Jim Lauderdale when he had a track featured on the second volume of the Town South Of Bakersfield compilation. That collection was produced by Pete Anderson who went on to produce a whole album on Lauderdale that went unreleased at the time of recording (1988) though a couple of singles went to radio at that time. It was later released thanks to fan Tony Rounce on Westside in 2001. Planet of Love was the first Jim Lauderdale album to be officially released coming out in 1991 on Reprise. It was produced by John Leventhal and Rodney Crowell and contained Jim’s classic song about George Jones, King Of Broken Hearts. In support of this Reprise arranged a European tour that found Lauderdale playing in Dublin alongside fiddler Mark O'Connor and the band Little Texas as part of their label's sponsored tour of Europe.
I was totally taken with this slice of country that was in marked contrast to Little Texas' pop-orientated confections. Jim Lauderdale had brought with him a dream band that included the late Donald Lindley on drums, Dusty Wakeman on bass, Gurf Morlix on pedal steel and Buddy Miller on guitar. They were exceptional. Jim noted that that particular gig, in Bad Bobs, was one he still remembered as one of his all-time favourites. After their set I made it my business to meet Lauderdale and we have stayed in touch ever since.
During his career Jim has been with both major and independent labels and now releases albums at a pace to keep up with his prolific writing talent. His next release will be a double CD of country songs entitled I'm A Song. It showcases 19 tracks of new material and a new version of King of Broken Hearts and features such guests as Kenny Vaughan, Al Perkins, Patty Loveless and Lee Ann Womack. Lauderdale was in Ireland for the Belfast Songwriter's Festival and an Ubangi Stomp-promoted gig in Dublin.
Prior to the show Jim and I caught up and I started by asking Jim how technology had changed his life. He said that it had taken him a long time to get comfortable with the process and he only started to text in recent times but, aside from communicating, it had allowed him to co-write. "The two songs I co-wrote with Elvis Costello were written when we were on the road in two different busses. So I had to get someone to send him the ideas I had. Also with Robert Hunter I've written quite a bit with him over the internet".
This way of writing has enabled him to be more prolific with his album releases. In eighteen months Jim hopes to have released five albums. He has lately been releasing albums two at a time and he felt that at this stage in his career it can't hurt. "Though I love live gigs, my favourite thing to do is to go into the studio". Song ideas come to him all the time, but without a project in mind he may not finish a song without a deadline which becomes an important part of the writing process. I wondered did he then go over his notes when he had a recording project upcoming? "Sometimes, but I'm very disorganised. There have been several instances where I can't find the exact melody. For instance there's a song called Vampire Girl that I thought might suit Buddy (Miller) and myself. I started to hum the melody when I was on a plane, I felt when we come to record we can do this. But when it came time to do the recording I couldn't find it so I started again and then lost that version. Buddy still liked the idea and so it wasn't until the night before we recorded it that it all came together". Other songs though, he has completed and knows where they can be found, but overall Jim finds that, though it's stressful, working under pressure produces results.
Jim also has to remember all the song details, so that when it comes time to release an album he has to put all the writing credits together. Something he was in the process of doing for I'm A Song, so that copies could be manufactured for an upcoming Australian tour. He had been working with Jeremy Dillon, an Australian director who was doing a documentary on Jim. When Dillon arrived in Nashville there was no studio footage shot, so a session was booked. "I wanted to have James Burton and Al Perkins come in, so we went into the old RCA Studio A". The studio is leased now by the artist Ben Folds who rents it out. They spent a day recording and filming there and they cut around nine song in the old way, all tracking together. But after the session Lauderdale realised that he only had these nine songs and he wanted to add a new version of King Of Broken Hearts. Jim thought about how George Jones had re-recorded some of his classic songs and he felt it might be a good thing to do, as the original album is long out of print. He felt the need to add a couple more songs to complete the album. The list of possible songs kept growing and then a waltz melody came to him in the studio. Musicians like Kenny Vaughan and Russ Paul were on a break. "I had no lyrics so I thought’ I'll send this melody right now to Robert Hunter’ and the very next day he sent me a lyric which was great". An old writing partner, Odie Blackmon, was his co-writer on a number of songs. He has also included a version of I Lost You one of the songs he'd written with Elvis Costello that was on the Costello's National Ransom album. Jim also expressed disappointment that Costello's band The Sugarcanes, which included Jerry Douglas, didn't have a longer run. They played Vicar Street during that particular tour to much acclaim.
Towards the end of 2013 he released a bluegrass album called Old Time Angel which he wanted to record in the old way, using just one central mic for vocals and a couple of other mics to pick up all the instruments. His man of choice for his bluegrass albums is Dobro player Randy Kohrs who produced Old Time Angel. The other album that came out around the same time was an album Black Roses, one that he'd had in the can for a while, which he'd recorded with the North Mississippi Allstars in their studio. Spooner Oldham was on piano and David Hood was on bass. Both were musicians that he had wanted to work with. He described that as a "blues, baroque soul" style of album. There is also an acoustic solo album that he wanted to do called Blue Moon Junction a reference to the fact that he often tours solo and wanted an album to reflect that. That situation has often been dictated by the expense of taking a band out on the road.
He justified this level of releases by saying that "I still feel like a newly signed act in a lot of ways and don't feel I'm hurting myself by releasing this many records and I really felt compelled to do them". There is also another album in the can, one he has recorded with Nick Lowe's band. Jim describes it as a combination of soul, mercy beat and a bit of rockabilly. He particularly wanted to play with Lowe’s band and producer Neil Brocklebank. "Nick has always been one of my favourites and I've always loved his band". He recorded the album in London but only arrived there with one completed song, thinking he would write the rest while there. It was stressful as he was writing after playing a series of gig. A further complication was added when his guitar hadn't arrived and he missed his flight so the time he had allotted to write was lost. He finished another song that he had originally sent to Costello as a title and melody. That song titled I Love You More turned out to be one of his favourites. For a second round of recording he had a number of songs he's written with Dan Penn. "He's such a terrific guy". John Oates (of Hall and Oates) was also another collaborator for the album's songs. "John actually has very deep roots and we really clicked as writers".
We talked about the changing face of the Music Row styled song and how many writers were now out of favour, something that must have a deep effect on his career as a writer for other artists. "There was a period in Nashville when I was very fortunate, where people where recording my songs. Now that's over, pretty much. I will pitch some to George Strait, who's going to record soon, as he still has five records left after his farewell tour. But that practice is now ended unless someone comes along who wants to integrate that into today's country". Everyone has a time and he mentioned writers like Dan Penn, who had a lot of cuts for a time, and then directions changed and it got harder to place songs.
The last straight down the line country album that Lauderdale recorded was Country Super Hits, Volume 1 seven years ago, so he felt the time was right to put out this new set of songs. However over the years with Jim's distinctive melodies and vocal phrasing I tend to think of it as all Lauderdale Music; that although the albums take different paths they come from the same place. He also made inroads back to playing and writing bluegrass which was one of his main musical influences growing up. It was an area in which he was having some success. Because they can no longer get played on mainstream radio, the economics of playing bluegrass are more favourable and many artist have also moved in that direction, Alan Jackson being one such artist. Jim does mention though that Jackson's next album will be a country record.
There is a possibility that there may be some more traditional country coming from Nashville, however the odds seem stacked against it. "Nashville still has much of the Brill Building days about it. You get in a room with somebody to try and write a song that will get cut. Oddly enough, that set up rarely worked for me when I paired up with somebody intentionally trying to write for somebody else". Most of Jim's cuts came from someone hearing one of his demos or an album cut. He doesn't listen to radio that often and feels that maybe he should be more in touch with what is current on radio, but just doesn't feel engaged by what he hears. He has recently done a panel discussion with other writers like Bruce Robison. They talked about writing for another artist and that it didn't feel true in some respect, but it would be hypercritical to say that they wouldn't be very happy if someone new cut a song they had a hand in. "But when I've gone through that process it always gives me a sinking feeling".
The quality of demos has been more and more finished in recent times. Sometimes songs being demoed for a particular artist are so close to the artist’s style and arrangement that all that need to be done was to take the demo singer’s voice out of the mix and drop in the particular artist's voice. It was back when Lauderdale was working with producer Tim Coats in Garry Tallent's studio that he realised that what they were doing were in fact finished tracks to all intents and purposes.
Buddy Miller has replaced T-Bone Burnett as musical director on the TV show Nashville. Lauderdale noted that Burnett was a fan of Miller’s and had been helping out when Burnett was one of the show's executive producers. “Buddy is putting a lot of time and effort into it and trying to give some young writers a break, which is good, as it helps nurture a community". He also noted that Miller had used a couple of Lauderdale's songs, one in the first season and one in the current run. One of the producers had spoken to Lauderdale and co-writer Odie Blackmon about some of the scenarios and they had written songs to suit those specific storylines, but that, in the end, the network has the final say on the song choice.
Having an agent is important for any artist, or rather having the right agent is important and Jim felt that he hadn't attracted the agency he would love to be with as he, at the moment, isn't sufficiently well known in his own right to draw a big enough audience. This again showed that Jim Lauderdale is a realistic person in understanding where his career is at the moment. Most of his Irish visits have been shows that he set up except when he came with Emmylou Harris and then later supporting Trisha Yearwood.
We talked about the ageing process and Jim said that photography was something of a hit and miss situation and he when he looked at photography now saw how much he had aged. "I really look like that!" being a common reaction to his own photo. This is something that all artist have to come to terms with as they grow older in the public eye. However he is still around and making records, while many of his contemporaries who started out when Jim did are no longer in the business. That is a tribute to his talent and determination as well as his charm. He is still dedicated to his love of music and its expression.
Jim had been in Ireland a few years back to produce, at my behest, Bray Vista. He asked about them and about any new upcoming acts that are around at the moment. I mentioned a few names to him and the fact that there is a reasonably healthy live scene, especially on the acoustic side of things. Lauderdale reiterated his love of opportunity to come over to Ireland and Jim Lauderdale is a welcome visitor anytime.
Interview by Stephen Rapid. Photography by Stephen Rapid