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.

"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?

"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."

And now Lauderdale has made a record with his hero. "It's hard for me to believe it happened," he says. "He's a very gracious, kind, funny guy." One could say much the same of Lauderdale. His current plans call for him and fellow alt-country hero Buddy Miller to cut a record together in the spring.

"So I've been writing for that, and my next record. And then I'm going to be touring on the West Coast with Ralph in February, so I'm trying to come up with a bunch of stuff, so if I get enough stuff when we're out there, maybe I can pop into a studio somewhere. Because I want to keep my bluegrass output up. I've been trying to make a bluegrass record since I was a teenager, and now that I've finally gotten the chance to do one, I want to keep up a regular output."

And even though Lauderdale never exactly comes out and says it, his generosity, modesty, and kind words for others belie a wise knowledge of how his bread is kharmically buttered. He's had country chart hits without losing his credibility. He's gotten to make the records he wants to make. He's heard George Jones sing one of his songs, become a pal of Buck Owens, and made a record with Ralph Stanley. So does it amaze him that his heroes are now like his peers?

"Well, I don't consider them my peers, but it is unbelievable. It is just really fun to do a few gigs with Ralph. I finally got to do the Opry the first time the week before last, with Ralph," he notes, accenting the fact that he hadn't yet played the Opry on his own, "and that was really meaningful. It's just hard to believe it's real."

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