STRINGS & SUDS SERIES: Jim Lauderdale
Jim Lauderdale is a tornado of creativity. He has performed, collaborated, written, or recorded with a staggering number of musicians. Most of them are considered “greats”; like Ralph Stanley, Buddy Miller, Roland White, George Straight, Elvis Costello, Dixie Chicks, Vince Gill, Dwight Yoakam, Rodney Crowell, John Leventhal, Larry Campbell, Hot Tuna, Emmylou Harris, Tanya Tucker and Robert Hunter.
He has won Grammys, and been nominated for even more. But Jim’s recognition did not come easily. A perpetual case of “right place, wrong time,” Lauderdale suffered his fair share of disappointments. He got dropped by multiple record labels, he recorded albums that didn’t see the light of day, yet he plowed ahead. Lauderdale has released over 30 albums in the past 28 years, on a dozen different labels. But by the sounds of it, he is the busiest he has ever been.
Born in Trautman, NC, Lauderdale moved to SC for a spell, before he came back and finished High School at Carolina Friends School. He then went on to University of North Carolina School of the Arts before hitting the road. Since then, Lauderdale has lived in New York City, Los Angeles, and Nashville. But NC has always been home to him; He currently has a home in Flat Rock, outside of Hendersonville.
BT: How has North Carolina influenced your music?
JL: Well, I started listening to the radio, and albums, in North Carolina. I guess you could say I got my ear training there. And developed my singing voice there. One of my favorite memories was going to the Union Grove Fiddlers Convention when I was 14. I had already really liked bluegrass, but right after that camp, I got a banjo. Then I started working at a church retreat center in Flat Rock during the summers called Bonclarken, and I took a few lessons from Marc Pruett, who is now the banjo player for Balsam Range.
BT: When did you first start writing songs?
JL: Songwriting didn't happen until my freshman year at North Carolina School of the Arts.
BT: And you headed to Nashville after school?
JL: I did. I came to Nashville for five months, but I sensed I wasn’t going to “make it” there. So I moved to New York City, where things progressed. There was a healthy country scene going on when I moved there in the fall of 1979. That's where I met Buddy Miller and other musicians in his band: Larry Campbell and Shawn Colvin. I met John Leventhal there too. I played in a couple of bluegrass bands while I lived in New York City.
BT: From that time, how long did it take you to put your first album out?
JL: Well, I did record an album with Roland White when I was in Nashville right after school. I thought I would get a deal with that record, but none of the bluegrass labels were interested. Because I wasn't playing the circuit, and I was not known. I shelved it. My first record didn't come out until 1991. Which was 12 years later. Things didn't really catch on. There was another record I did in 1989, that never came out. I was in LA by then. So, before my first record came out, I had already had two recorded that never were released. When I finally started putting out records, Roland White and I realized we didn’t have a copy of the master we did in 1979 (in Earl Scruggs basement). And I had no idea where it was. A couple of years ago, Roland's wife found a copy at the bottom of a box. So Yep-Roc Records, which I released Time Flies on last year, released the recording of Roland and I. Time Flies is my 30th album, and what would have been my first, became my 31st album.
BT: Timing is one of the most essential ingredients in the music industry. You had some crappy experience in the beginning. But man, it really came around for you. You were tenacious.
JL: I had a lot of dreams early on. But they were taking so long. And there were a lot of ups and downs. That just made me more determined through the years. In so many ways, I am grateful that things didn't happen for me earlier. It was a slow steady trajectory. I don't think I was mature enough when I was younger to handle things. Disappointments turned into a blessing. I am more productive now that I have ever been.
BT: You have had the opportunity to work with Ralph Stanley and Robert Hunter, who are both legends in their own right. What were your experiences like working with each of them?
JL: I was turned on to The Stanley Brothers on my way to a fall retreat at the camp I worked at. I stopped by a convenience store, where they were selling records at the time, and I bought my first Stanley Brothers record. And I was so hooked. Ralph was my go-to inspiration when I was learning to sing harmony. Years later I did a TV show called Ricky Skaggs Live at The Ryman. Ralph was on the show, so I mentioned to him I was going to be recording a country record for RCA, and I would love to have him to do a song with The Clinch Mountain Boys. I wrote that song, and it came out on an album called Whisper.
The day after we recorded that, Ralph invited me to be on the album Clinch Mountain Country, where I did an old Stanley Brothers song. Then when I went to MerleFest for my first time, they told me Ralph Stanley's son was sick, and I had to go on in his place. I was excited, yet terrified. So I crammed and made some cheat sheets. We did a couple of sets and it was a right of passage for me. Eventually, I got the courage to ask Ralph to do a whole album with me, and he agreed.
Before I started recording that album with Ralph, I reached out to Robert Hunter, and asked if he would be interested in writing something with me for the record. We wrote some things together long distance. That record (Lost in the Lonesome Pines) got a Grammy nomination, and Ralph expressed interest in doing another. I was overjoyed. In the meantime, Robert came to Nashville for a few months, and we wrote about 33 songs, so I had them ready for the next record with Ralph.
Then I made a record called Headed for the Hills, with thirteen of the songs Robert and I had written. Most of that album is acoustic, but there is one electric cut at the end. The album featured Gillan Welch, David Rawlings, Tim O’Brien, Darrell Scott, Buddy Miller, and Emmylou Harris.
A few years after that, I went out to visit with Robert Hunter for a few days, and we did some writing together. That evolved into Patchwork River. Then we did a bluegrass record, which we got a Grammy nomination for, and Robert really liked it, so when I went out for his 70th birthday, he said we should do a follow up, so I stuck around for a couple of days. In a day and a half, we wrote the bulk of the second bluegrass album, Carolina Moonrise. Then I did a record with North Mississippi All-Stars, and that wound up being all songs Robert and I wrote. And did a solo acoustic record with songs I wrote with Robert. I think that's 6 records in all where Robert Hunter and I collaborated.
It has been such a big thing for me to have written with him. We have written over 100 songs together. I would love to make a record with some of the songs that haven't been released yet. He is such a brilliant, important songwriter.
BT: I have always imagined that Robert Hunter’s depth of musical knowledge is insane.
JL: It is. It really is. He can quote tons of older songs, and always has a historical reference for something. He is like an encyclopedia.
BT: He is a folk historian.
JL: He really is. His roots are so deep.
BT: Writing 100 songs with Robert Hunter must have really impacted your songwriting away from him.
JL: Definitely. He is about as high as the bar can go. I will never be the writer he is. Not in many lifetimes. But, a lot of times when I write, I ask myself if he would like it.
BT: You just released a new album, From Another World, but you have a lot of other projects going on, too. What are you up to right now?
JL: I have a soul record I recorded in Memphis, which is in the same vein as the album I recorded with North Mississippi All-Stars. When I was growing up in Charlotte, I was bitten by the Stax and Motown bug.
Then I have another record I did with Yep-Roc called Honey Songs. I wrote the record 10 years ago. I wrote it around James Burton and Al Perkins, who played guitar and steel on Gram Parsons records. James used to play with Elvis and Rick Nelson, too. These guys were my muse for the album. So I want to finish that record and maybe do some shows with them.
Also, I was just in the studio with the guys that played on Time Flies, so I have a follow-up record to that. Which I like. It could come out tomorrow if it needed to. But It's better to give things some breathing time.
Things have come full circle for me and Mark Pruett, who gave me my first banjo lessons. He and Balsam Range recorded a few songs with us at Echo Mountain Studios in Asheville not too long ago. I have been doing some recording with several North Carolina bluegrass bands and have a record pretty much finished. Which would be part one. There are other North Carolina old-timey and bluegrass musicians I want to work with on another album. I am not sure if that this record will come out in 2019, but I think we will release a single in September.
BT: What other North Carolina artists did you work with on this album?
JL: So far I’ve got Balsam Range, Steep Canyon Rangers, Town Mountain, Songs From The Road Band, Presley Barker, John Stickley, and Lyndsay Pruett. I still have others on the wish list I want to get to, but I ran out of time.
BT: Are you making up for lost time?
JL: Yes. Absolutely. I remember when I first read about Dwight Yoakam, who had just put out an EP. It was close to when Steve Earle put out his Guitartown album. I also recently saw Marty Stuart play with Lester Flatt at a festival near Raleigh when I was in high school, and I was blown away. I thought that I wanted to eventually be peers of those three men. And do what they were doing.
When I was in my late 20s and early 30s, I would tell myself that The Beatles had already broken up by my age, and I hadn't done anything yet. That kind of approach kept me going. Everyone has a different timeline and path, which has been a slow lesson for me to learn. So, yes, definitely, I am making up for lost time and trying to catch up. Since I got such a late start, I don't want to waste any time, nor do I foresee slowing down anytime soon.
Jim Lauderdale will be performing at String & Suds Festival at Pisgah Brewing in Black Mountain, NC on Saturday August 24th.