Jim Lauderdale will be the first to tell you that, try as he might, he lacks the goods for Nashville megastardom. After all, the prolific singer-songwriter knows himself better than any Music City imagemaker could ever hope to; he has heard all about how he's too much of this, too little of that--you know, all the standard cliches they use around Nashville when they like to keep a good man down. "The more I'm just myself, the better off I am," Lauderdale says. "I really don't know what else would work."
First among Lauderdale's supposed deficiencies is his voice--a dusky, substantial tenor that can dip to shivery baritone depths when the mood beckons, no doubt siphoning a tick or two from one of Lauderdale's heroes, George Jones. It's a nice voice, a friendly voice, even downright homey; it's loaded with character--the kind of voice that'd buy you a beer on an August afternoon. Still, it's not quite stunning enough, too rugged and imperfect to set the hearts of young suburban housewives a-beatin'. It's a voice made for radio...about 30 years ago.
Then there's the matter of Lauderdale's image: He has none. More aging rocker than rodeo Romeo, the earthy 41-year-old has a distinct culturally mixed look about him--a little like a Southern cousin of Robbie Robertson's (Lauderdale grew up near Charlotte, North Carolina). He's too weathered, too exotic, and just plain too unruly to fit the clean-cut rebel composite of country hunkdom. Really, what self-respecting hat act would be nuts enough to wear paisley pants to a photo-shoot for his latest CD, Whisper, let alone leave the tails of his fancy, embroidered western shirt flapping in the wind for the cover picture?
It's not like Lauderdale hasn't heard all of this before--over and over and over again. "It does get to [me] a little bit, but you just get used to it," he says. "Because it happens every record."
In fact, Lauderdale has had more than a decade to adjust to the fact that he may never solve the commercial juggernaut that is Nashville, the city he currently calls home. That may explain why he spends so much time away from the place and why he makes a good portion of his living behind the scenes, supplying some of the richest raw materials to keep the business humming along at a profitable pace. He's authored No. 1 singles for the high-profile likes of Mark Chesnutt, Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, and George Strait. The last has already tapped Lauderdale's seemingly endless supply of intelligent, ready-made C&W hits nine times: The list includes such classics as "Where the Sidewalk Ends" and "The King of Broken Hearts," both of which first appeared on Lauderdale's 1991 Planet of Love debut.
But in the end, there's really no good reason that the instantly memorable twang-pop and straight-up romantic sentiments of "Goodbye Song," from Lauderdale's Whisper, shouldn't be chasing the latest single from Strait's new CD right up the charts. But it won't, and it likely never will: Released in February, with a healthy push from Lauderdale's new label, BNA Records, neither Whisper nor its first single, "Goodbye Song" (co-authored by legendary C&W scribe Harlan Howard), have registered a ripple on the country charts. "It just hasn't done anything," laments the artist's publicist, Lisa Shively.
Shively, like many behind-the-scenesters in Nashville, is rooting for Lauderdale, not only as his PR flack but as a fan. So, obviously, she sounds dejected when handing out such bad news, like a wife telling relatives that her husband didn't snag the big promotion for which he'd just spent months smooching duff. She has every right to be blue: Whisper is Lauderdale's most shameless bid for pure country respectability to date, employing well-seasoned songwriting machines Howard, Frank Dycus, Melba Montgomery, and John Scott Sherrill--not to mention his old pal Buddy Miller--to help compose most of the album's material. He then turned to producer Blake Chancey (best known for his work with David Ball) to give his hard-swinging Bakersfield primer a slick coat of Nashville refinement.
Most likely, though, for all its polished, radio-friendly virtues and plain-as-day hook-sense, Whisper will wind up taking its place among the most commercially undervalued country releases of the decade. And for their part, critics will continue to gravitate toward the least mainstream aspects of Lauderdale's muse. In Whisper's case, that would be the bluegrass-leaning ditty that closes the album, "I'll Lead You Home," which features backup from Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. Tacked to the end of the streamlined collection, this rustic, spiritual ditty seems oddly out of place yet somehow right at home. Much like its maker.
Naturally, the only one in the Lauderdale camp who doesn't seem down about Whisper's paltry showing thus far is Lauderdale himself. At this juncture, he's simply too busy to care. Between trips to Europe, road work here in the States, special appearances with various friends, colleagues, and mentors in the biz, and his regular tai-chi classes, Lauderdale has had very little time to mull over Whisper's fate.
At this particular moment, the artist's restless lifestyle has taken a bit of a toll on his health. Just in from Europe, Lauderdale is suffering the effects of jet lag, which causes him to zone out at choice moments during a phone conversation. He's also nursing a badly swollen left hand, which he slammed on the banister while running up the stairs of his home (subsequent X-rays , checking for any breaks, were negative). Both conditions were doubtless exacerbated by a breathless weekend jaunt to North Wilksboro, North Carolina, where he performed with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys at the Merlefest folk and bluegrass extravaganza.
"Man, I must have just dozed off," Lauderdale cracks at one point, his funky sense of humor saving him the embarrassment of semi-coherence. "I was going to take this tai-chi workshop, but then this thing came up with Ralph...he was one of my ultimate heroes ever since I was a kid. I got into the dressing room about five minutes before they were supposed to go on, and they say, 'Oh good, you're here. [Ralph's son] is sick, so you're going to fill in for him.' I just kind of froze. We did a couple of sets, and it was probably one of the greatest experiences of my life."
And what about his hand? "I'll tell ya," he laughs, "I didn't even notice."
Born in the little Carolina hamlet of Troutman and brought up on a steady diet of George Jones, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, and the ethereal mountain bluegrass indigenous to his home state, Lauderdale made his way to New York and Dallas before eventually settling in Los Angeles in the mid- to late 1980s. One would think L.A.'s rampant superficiality would have made it ill-suited to Lauderdale's rural constitution--and it might have, if he hadn't fallen in with the right people.
"I sang and played guitar in this country-rock musical, and we had a run there," he remembers. "I didn't think that I would like it or want to stay very long. But it was a good scene--Rosie [Flores], Lucinda [Williams], Dale Watson--a really neat writer's scene. I lived up in the hills in a real quiet place. I liked to go to the desert to write."
Curiously, Lauderdale's first real full-length recording, 1987's The Point of No Return, was a stone-cold country album produced by Pete Anderson (best known now as Dwight Yoakam's right- and left-hand man) for Epic Records. It has never been released.
"It's got a little more of a Bakersfield sound all the way through, very heavy pedal steel guitar and Telecaster. It was basically Dwight's band," says Lauderdale of the release. "I like it, but the A&R guy who signed me got transferred."
Always talented enough to get a deal but never predictable enough to stay around for long, Lauderdale spent the next 10 years pinballing from label to label. He recorded the honky-tonk-tinged Planet of Love for Reprise in 1991; it fizzled. "There just didn't seem to be the interest with radio," Lauderdale says. "But, ironically, eight of its songs have been recorded by other people."
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Planet of Love was, in essence, Lauderdale's entree into the potentially lucrative songwriting trade, which eventually landed him in Nashville; once there, he signed with Atlantic for a pair of brilliant rock-flavored releases, Every Second Counts and Pretty Close to the Truth. From there, it was on to Rounder's Upstart imprint, which released the stripped-down, poppish Persimmons in 1996. Whisper is just one more record in a very long assembly line--and one more underrated, underplayed record made by a man who is getting very used to being the anonymous hero of country radio. They may never play his records, but he'll keep making them.
"I wish that I could put out more than one record a year," he says. "I wrote a few things with Jack Ingram, so hopefully they'll be on his next album. Then, when I was in Europe, a bunch of melodies came to me--a whole bunch of bluegrass tunes came into my head. I'd just love to write a whole album for Ralph Stanley and his guys to play on."
There Lauderdale goes, waxing all eclectic and unmarketable again. Maybe he's trying to tell us something.
Jim Lauderdale performs May 21 at the Sons of Hermann Hall. Clay Blaker opens.