The grass is blue

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

"I think bluegrass music and that mountain music has always crept into the stuff I've been doing," Lauderdale says. But it's also just one strand, albeit a thick one, in the tapestry of his style. The first music that really hit him as a youngster came from a college friend of his parents, "a guy that was in this group called The Ron LaSalle Quartet, who were kind of like a Lambert, Hendricks & Ross type group who never made it, really. But they put out a few albums. And my parents used to play them. And I think somehow, ear-training wise, I picked up on that."

As a teen, Lauderdale played in a duo whose repertoire included "a little bit of everything: a little bit of Grateful Dead, bluegrass, George Jones, old folk," he recalls. While studying theater at North Carolina School of the Arts, he played in country and bluegrass bands. After graduation, he moved north to New York City, where he joined former Asleep at the Wheel pianist Floyd Domino's group, fronted his own act, and frequently sat in with Buddy Miller's band.

His day job for a while was in the Rolling Stone magazine mailroom. "I used to have to pick up Annie Leibovitz's equipment and take it places. So one day, I had to go to The Dakota," he recalls, "which was about three blocks from where I lived, and I had to go drop off some stuff and pick other stuff up. It was kind of at the end of the day, and Annie had done a shoot there earlier with John and Yoko. So I waited outside for a little while hoping to see them, but I was really tired. And I thought, well gosh, I really need to go home, take a nap, and go do this gig. I'm gonna see them. They live right down the street. Am I going to stand around here like this geek here with the album, waiting for an autograph?

Jim Lauderdale co-wrote "Hole in My Head" for the Dixie Chicks' latest album, Fly. Don't hold it against him.
Sandra Johnson
Jim Lauderdale co-wrote "Hole in My Head" for the Dixie Chicks' latest album, Fly. Don't hold it against him.

"So I go to the gig later, and this guy comes up and says, John Lennon was shot. So when I saw the guy who did it, it was the geek, Mark David Chapman."

After a few years struggling in the Big Apple, Lauderdale landed a part in the road company of the musical Pump Boys & Dinettes, which took him to Cleveland, Houston, Chicago, and finally Los Angeles. "I never wanted to come to L.A.," Lauderdale says, calling from the place he still maintains there while making his home in Nashville. "I was going to stay for two months. I was determined not to like it.

"Then I went out one night to hear this girl that I heard was really good called Rosie Flores," he continues. "And she had this great band with Billy Bremner [ex-Rockpile] on guitar. So I developed a friendship with Billy and invited him to do a gig with me, and he said yes. And I got to know Rosie, and [Dwight Yoakam producer and guitarist] Pete Anderson came out to that gig, and John Ciambotti [former bassist-manager for Lucinda Williams and Carlene Carter]. So John started managing me, and I signed a production deal with Pete, and he got me a deal with CBS, but the record never came out. My A&R guy got transferred when we were making the record -- that old scenario. It's a very cool record. Very Bakersfield-y, a 1980s Buck Owens record."

When asked which of his songs are his favorites, unlike so many songwriters with their lines about how "they're all my babies," Lauderdale has a ready answer. "Probably 'King Of Broken Hearts' and 'You Don't Seem To Miss Me' are two. You know, 'King Of Broken Hearts' is a tribute to George Jones and Gram Parsons," and one of the finest country songs of the 1990s, at least to this writer's ears. "And then George sang on Patty's version of 'You Don't Seem To Miss Me,'" Lauderdale notes, completing the circle.

Despite getting the George Jones stamp of honor, it still must have been daunting to fashion nine songs that would be appropriate for the record with Stanley (two of them co-written with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter), especially as they had to stand up next to old-time chestnuts by Carter Stanley and others -- another way in which I Feel Like Singing Today differs from Earle's all-original bluegrass set.

"It was challenging to write within that framework, because he has a definite style all his own in bluegrass, so it had to fit that Stanley Brothers-Clinch Mountain style," Lauderdale says. "It's a pretty raw, kind of gutbucket bluegrass style. Not that most bluegrass isn't. But there's this unique stamp that Carter and Ralph both put on bluegrass which made it a distinct style. Ralph doesn't even like to call it bluegrass; he likes to call it mountain music. It's hard for me to quite define it, but it's just more of a feeling. So I listened to a bunch of Stanley's stuff, which I did growin' up."

I Feel Like Singing Today is an airy, bracing affair, and a perfect companion piece to the recent multiartist Clinch Mountain Country tribute to Stanley. Its musical potency is no doubt fueled by the fact that for Lauderdale, doing bluegrass with Ralph Stanley is truly bringing it all back home. "I remember the first time I heard Ralph," he says. "I was about 13. I got my first Stanley Brothers record and put it on. And I remember him coming in on the chorus of 'Rank Stranger,' and it just took me somewhere else." By age 15, Lauderdale started playing banjo, and "modeled myself after Ralph. I also listened to Earl Scruggs and guys like Ben Keith, but Ralph was who I really wanted to play like. He has this style that's very simple, or at least it sounds simple, though it's not at all easy to play."

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