Jim Lauderdale: The Man with the Melody
With 19 albums and hundreds of songs to his name, Jim Lauderdale has become one of the leading voices in the country and Americana genres. His collaborations include everyone from Ralph Stanley to Elvis Costello. In fact, it’s probably easier to come up with a list of people that haven’t worked with him than those that have.
Though his songs have ranged all over the musical map, Lauderdale’s recent albums have tended to stick to a certain genre, be it traditional country or bluegrass. Whatever he’s done, though, he’s done it well. He’s won two Grammy awards for his bluegrass albums, and many of the songs on his country and Americana albums have gone on to be recorded by other artists.
“I do a cyclical thing with music that’s more traditionally based with my own twist on it, to something that’s pushing the envelope a little more stylistically, but still within a roots format,” he explains.
The songs on his latest album, Patchwork River, are more eclectic, ranging from the pure country of “Turn to Stone” to the soulful “Louisville Roll.” As diverse as the songs are, the unifying feature is that they all come from the collaboration of Lauderdale and master lyricist Robert Hunter.
Hunter is probably best known for his work with Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, having co-written classics like “Truckin’,” “Friend of the Devil” and “Uncle John’s Band.” Lauderdale, a long-time fan, first got the chance to write with Hunter about a dozen years ago, while he was recording I Feel Like Singing Today with Ralph Stanley. He wanted that album to be a mixture of classic songs and originals, so he reached out to Hunter through a mutual friend.
“I sent him a fax, and he sent me these lyrics back for a song called “Joy Joy Joy,” Lauderdale recalls. He came up with a melody, put it on a cassette and sent it to Hunter. In turn, Hunter liked the melody and sent more lyrics, this time for “I Will Wait For You.” Both songs ended up on the album, and a third, “Trust (Guiding Star),” found its way onto a Lauderdale solo project.
Those three songs helped set the tone for a partnership that has grown ever since between Hunter, the lyricist, and Lauderdale, with his knack for melodies. Patchwork River is the second album to feature songs written exclusively by the duo.
“When I write with Robert, if he’ll hand me a lyric, a melody will come immediately, or else I’ll give him a melody on a cassette, and he’ll put a lyric to it,” Lauderdale explains. Many of the songs from the new album were written while Lauderdale was visiting Hunter in California.
“We would just sit and chat, and a melody would come up for me. I would play it for him several times and record it, and I’d go off in another room sometimes while he’d write to it.”
The resulting 13 songs on Patchwork River show both men playing to their strengths. The songs are loaded with catchy melodies, and lyrics that can be straightforward in some cases or out of left field in others.
“Turn to Stone,” a fun, bouncy song about a man too petrified to speak to the girl of his dreams, would fit perfectly on an Alan Jackson album. The protagonist in “El Dorado,” on the other hand, is a world-weary explorer whose best days are behind him.
“Alligator Alley” tells the story of a man trying to escape a massive fire in the Everglades. It features the aforementioned out-of-left-field lines, “She said ‘You look like Elvis Presley’/I said, ‘I know, it tends to stress me.”
“When we write together, I don’t mess with his lyrics at all,” Lauderdale says. “To me, he’s such a master at it, I don’t give him titles or anything. It’s always so different. You never know what he might cook up.”
He points to Hunter’s versatility when referring to his contributions on an upcoming Ralph Stanley gospel record being produced by Stanley’s son.
“They needed some last-minute things, so I sent Robert an email,” Lauderdale says. “Over the course of 24 hours, he sent me three really great lyrics that could have been on a Stanley Brothers record.
“So sometimes his lyrics are so creative that it’s something that nobody else could have thought of, and then he can also write to fit whatever style.”
Co-writer of Choice
Lauderdale admits that lyrics don’t come as easy to him as melodies do, but it needs to be mentioned that he is a gifted lyricist in his own right. His songs have been cut by many of country music’s finest, including George Strait, Patty Loveless and Gary Allan.
While working with other writers around Nashville, the process can change from day to day. In one instance during a writing session with Frank Dycus, Lauderdale provided the melody and Dycus came up with the title, “Gonna Get a Life.” Mark Chesnutt took the song to #1, making it Lauderdale’s first chart-topper.
More recently, he wrote “Twang,” recorded by George Strait, with Jimmy Ritchey and Kendall Marvel.
“I had never written [with them] before,” he relates. “I went over to Jimmy’s house, and they had a good bit of it. I added my part to it, and it didn’t take very long in that case.”
Lauderdale has written with several of his heroes, including Harlan Howard and Del Reeves. He also had the chance to complete an unfinished Gram Parsons song, “Blessing for Being,” on a compilation called The Gram Parsons Notebook – The Last Whippoorwill. John Nuese, one of Parsons’ bandmates in the International Submarine Band, had a journal filled with lyrics, and producers Mike Ward and Eddie Cunningham contacted Lauderdale about contributing a song.
“I took one look at [the lyric], and this melody–it was very chilling for me–this melody just started coming out,” he recalls. “It needed another verse, and I added the second verse and tweaked the lyrics a little bit to complete it. That was a real thrill, because I am a huge Gram fan.”
Along with Lauderdale’s remarkable success as a songwriter, he is also an in-demand harmony singer; he recently appeared at a few shows with Willie Nelson and will be touring Europe this July with Elvis Costello and his band, The Sugarcanes. Additionally, he hosts a weekly roots music show at Nashville’s Loveless Cafe and maintains a busy touring schedule to promote his own albums. With all that work, he admits that sometimes he feels out of the loop in contemporary country music.
“I feel like my natural writing style is so rooted in traditional country,” he explains, “that sometimes I feel like I’m not very current with what’s been going on in the country scene. But I made a conscious decision years and years ago not to try and write something that sounds like some current hit.
“That’s why I’m grateful for George Strait, who’s cut 14 of my songs, that he does what he does. And I think maybe, because of some of the different influences that I had, someone like Gary Allan will record my stuff, because some of it has more of a rock edge to it,” he adds.
Somewhere in between his live shows, his co-writing, and his work with other artists, Lauderdale has still found the time to release an average of one new album a year throughout most of his career. Sooner rather than later, then, he’ll be back with a new album. It might be country, or bluegrass, or something that covers the span of American roots music. Certainly, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a third album of Hunter/Lauderdale songs eventually come out.
“As long as he’s interested in writing with me, I want to keep doing it,” he says, “because I think he’s a true genius. It’s a real honor to get to work with him.”
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