The grass is blue

Writing hits for the Dixie Chicks has given Jim Lauderdale his own wide open space

We live in a time when country music is divided into two nations: the commercial dictatorship of Nashville, and the anarchic republic ineptly named alternative country, Americana, No Depression music -- anything but what it always was and still is, which is basically country-rock. And the rule seems to be that you can't live in both realms.

Yet somehow, Jim Lauderdale has managed to do just that. He's scored Music Row success as a songwriter, and won four major-label Nashville record deals (with CBS, Warner/Reprise, Atlantic, and now RCA/BMG). Yet he's also a darling of the Americana audience, and in the past year or so has done everything from touring with roots music goddess Lucinda Williams, singing harmonies and playing rhythm guitar, to releasing an album with bluegrass patriarch Ralph Stanley on the independent bluegrass label Rebel Records. Lauderdale has been cool enough for the corn-fed hipsters, yet also savvy enough to work successfully within the Music City system.

Ask him how he does it, and Lauderdale gets stymied by the question. "I don't know. I guess it's just because of the..." Lauderdale says, pausing. "I don't really know. If you figure this out, tell me. I don't know, because I kind of don't really fall into any category. As far as my records go, for the mainstream, I'm too different. And then it used to be with the alternative stuff, when I was turning out albums that were really raw, some of the alternative folks, press-wise -- just a couple -- thought I was too slick. Which really baffles me, but whatever. I don't know."

But perhaps being neither countrified Phish nor Nashville foul affords Lauderdale a certain creative freedom. "It does," he admits. "That's the great thing. And luckily, my record company said, with Onward Through It All [his latest], that I could make whatever kind of album I wanted. They said even a bluegrass album, but I wanted to do that separately.

"I just kinda fall between the cracks," Lauderdale says. "But that's OK, though it used to bug me."

Perhaps one source of succor for Lauderdale has been the success he's had as a songwriter on Music Row. To date he's landed 10 George Strait cuts, including last year's hit "We Really Shouldn't Be Doing This"; Strait's current single with Melba Montgomery, "What Do You Say To That?"; and "Where The Sidewalk Ends" on the Pure Country soundtrack, which "people think was a hit because they used it in the movie so much," Lauderdale says. He's also charted with the Patty Loveless-George Jones duet "You Don't Seem To Miss Me," the Loveless hit "Halfway Down," and "I'm Gonna Get A Life" by Texas Golden Triangle honky-tonker Mark Chesnutt. And he just landed a song that he and Buddy Miller co-wrote and both recorded, "Hole In My Head," on the new Dixie Chicks album, whose all-but-assured multimillion sales should buy Lauderdale a few hot dogs and burgers in the years to come.

"Or soy dogs and Gardenburgers," says Lauderdale with typical sweet modesty. Because even though his songwriting has no doubt made Lauderdale a millionaire, it hasn't gone to his head, his habits, or his ego. In fact, Lauderdale is one of those rare folks who made it big in the music business, yet retains a sense of class and grace.

His debut, 1991's Planet of Love (co-produced by Texpatriate Rodney Crowell), gave as much hope that Nashville might go smart and stylish in those pre-alt-country days as the emergence of Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, and Dwight Yoakam did in the mid-1980s. It was country music with grace and intelligence, and established Lauderdale's trademark way with a song. Like a modern folk artist, he uses traditional materials, but crafts something artful and contemporary.

On his next -- and probably best -- disc, Pretty Close To The Truth, he made Muscle Shoals-style country, stitching soul and twang together into a vivid tapestry. And maybe the reason his current label is letting him do whatever he wants on Onward Through It All is that the last album he made for them, Whisper, was the most credible attempt yet by a left-field act to make a record that country radio should have played. So maybe, just maybe, the RCA folks feel so guilty that they couldn't break it that they want to make it up to him.

Lauderdale followed the new, 16-song-strong Onward Through It All with his collaboration with Ralph Stanley, I Feel Like Singing Today. Timing being what it is, the fact that it followed Steve Earle's bluegrass disc, The Mountain, may deflect away some of the attention Lauderdale's bluegrass release deserves. Because where The Mountain was a wonderful graft of the very Texan Earle oeuvre onto bluegrass, I Feel Like Singing Today is much more of a bluegrass album from the inside out rather than the outside in.

A native of North Carolina, Lauderdale cut his musical teeth picking banjo at bluegrass festivals. And hearing him in that context also sheds light on how all of his other albums, no matter how stylistically progressive they get, always somehow remain on the radar screen of what is truly country. And a good part of that is the high lonesome trace of mountain music one always hears in Lauderdale's voice, an indelible trait that becomes clear once you hear Lauderdale singing in the late Carter Stanley's proverbial shoes, with brother Ralph picking banjo and trilling harmony.

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