Album Review: Jim Lauderdale — Carolina Moonrise
One of the most respected songwriters in Nashville, Jim Lauderdale, is busy these days. The weekly host of popular Music City Roots at the Loveless Barn in Nashville, longtime Wednesday afternoon guest host on WSM radio, host with Buddy Miller—with whom he’s just released a new album—of the Buddy and Jim Radio Show on Sirius XM, and generous supporter of new roots musicians, Lauderdale continues to collaborate with his longtime writing partner, Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, to produce some of today’s most inventive and straight-ahead bluegrass music. On Carolina Moonrise, their fourth album together and follow-up to last year’s Grammy-nominated Reason and Rhyme, the two team up to carry us along on a wave of fiddles, banjo, mandolin, guitar, and bass over the hills and into the woods of broken relationships, human desire for perfection and its consequences, young love, and the glory of the past.
In “Iodine,” a frenetic, driving, comic paean to the overpowering attraction to a woman you can’t live with and can’t live without, the singer is the “meanest man in Tennessee” but his woman’s “even meaner and if you try to two-time me you’ll wish you’d never seen her.” In the refrain we learn more about his woman: “Iodine, Iodine, assorted cuts and bruises/ hangs my heart out on the line any time she chooses.” She’s so mean that “she leaves me every week or two just to see me cry,” but “if she ever leaves for good I’d lay me down to die.” Part of the brilliance of the lyric is her name, of course; you’d expect iodine to heal, but here she hurts.
Like the protagonist of James Taylor’s “Wandering,” who’s “been in the army/worked on a farm/and all I’ve got to show is the muscle in my arm,” Lauderdale’s “Troublemaker,” also something of a wanderer, is “working on the highway, working on the farm/All I got to show for it is the muscle on my arm.” Lauderdale and his tight band deliver a pop bluegrass tune—with a mandolin break that resembles the tinkling tones of Taylor’s “Sarah Maria” and Jackson Browne’s “Linda Paloma”—about an unsettled soul that’s worthy of a sing-along. ”Triple Crossroad Blues” turns the legend of the musician meeting the Devil at the crossroads upside down as Jack meets the Devil, and the Devil contemplates selling his soul to Jack. Hard-driving bluegrass from the first beat, the song invites us to “get on board ’til the end of the line” as the train comes roaring by.
Can lovers ever be truthful with each other? Even when they ache to break up, they sometimes mask their feelings. In “On the Level,” a good slow shuffle, the singer urges: “Let’s both deal on the level tell the truth and shame the devil/ we’re both so tired of lying while we watch our good love dying.”
In both his music and his lyrics, Lauderdale constantly honors the musicians who paved the way for him and brings them back to our attention. In “Fiddler’s Heaven,” he reels off the names of those great fiddlers of the past—Charlie Bowman, Uncle Norman Edmonds, Bill Hamilton, Bob Wills, Uncle Bunt Stephens, Chubby Wise, Kenny Baker, and Vassar Clements, among others—and their contributions to our music. He demands of these folks, as Tim Crouch soars on his fiddle in the background and on solos, “play your fiddle, make my song rejoice/Play your fiddle give my heart a voice.”
Like Jerry Garcia, Vassar Clements, and David Grisman with their Old and in the Way collaboration, Lauderdale and Hunter preserve the musical traditions of which they’re so fond while toying, tinkering, and driving us around musical turns we never saw coming.
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