The King of Broken Hearts Redivivus: An Interview with Jim Lauderdale
If Gram Parsons and George Jones got together to name an heir to their throne, it would be Jim Lauderdale. There absolutely no question that Lauderdale and Marty Stuart—the other heir to the throne—have done more than any other musicians playing today to fill the shoes of Jones, Buck Owens, and Hank Williams, among others. Lauderdale works tirelessly—he’s one of the hardest working artists in Americana music today—as a guitarist, a songwriter, radio host (with Buddy Miller on their Sirius XM show), and weekly host of Music City Roots both to preserve the sound of traditional country and bluegrass music and to produce new songs directly in that lineage. In addition, Lauderdale generously supports emerging artists in their own efforts to join the larger family of Americana music.
Lauderdale’s new album, I’m a Song, illustrates the depth and breadth of his songwriting genius and also of his love of and commitment to the music that’s a part of the fabric of his life, the music that’s made him who he is today. Whether it’s the chicken-picked, Bakersfield riff of the opening tune, “Let’s Make a Good Thing Together,” the duet with Lee Ann Womack on the waltz “A Day with No Tomorrow,” or the jump-off-the-grooves “End of the World Rag,” Lauderdale reveals his mastery of every style, offering yet more evidence that he’s the answer to the persistent question: who’s gonna fill their shoes?
Engine 145 caught up by phone with Lauderdale a few weeks ago at his home in Nashville.
Tell me a little about the story behind the album.
Lauderdale: Well, a couple of years ago I started doing some recording down at Ben’s Studio, RCA Studio A. I’d worked together with James Burton and Al Perkins before, and we laid down about 9 songs that first day. I got busy and got away from the project, and other people were busy, but last January, I wanted to get back to it; so I got more folks, including Russ Pahl and Kenny Vaughan, and we went back into the studio and cut 11 songs. We just kept going and going. You know, I’d always wanted to do a double album, so this is kind of a milestone for me. I feel like this record is pretty hard country. One of my goals in making the album is that this is a WSM album; it’s an Opry album; there’s plenty of good country music on this album.
How did you come up with the album’s title?
I was in one of down-end-up moods, and I thought: “If I was trying to explain myself to somebody—what my essence is—I’d say I’m a song.” I have my foibles and my shortcomings, but what I have to offer the world is a song; music is more my identity more than anything else.
How did you select the songs for the album?
When I was writing the songs, or co-writing them, I could hear certain people on them. I thought, “I need a waltz for this record,” and I thought Lee Ann Womack would be great for the song “Day with No Tomorrow.” I wanted to get Buddy Miller, so he’s singing with me on the song that I wrote with Elvis Costello, “I Lost You.” When I was writing “Today I’ve Got the Yesterdays,” Patty Loveless kept flashing through my mind, so she’s singing with me on that one. I always wanted to write a song with Frank Dycus, and we wrote our first song together, “Doin’ Time in Bakersfield.” I started writing three of these songs—”The Day the Devil Changed,” “There’s No Shadows in the Shade,” “Hope and Find”—in the desert in California near Joshua Tree. I also put “The King of Broken Hearts,” which is on my out-of-print album, Planet of Love (1992), on this album because I wanted it to be available again.
When did you start playing, singing, and writing?
When I was a kid, my dream was to be a bluegrass recording artist. By my late teens, I was real heavily into bluegrass, and I just started going from there. When I went to college, I really started to write; I knew I wanted to be a singer-songwriter; luckily, other people started recording my songs, and I had a career. My first bluegrass album was with Ralph Stanley and that led me to start to collaborate. I came to Nashville in 1979 and did an album with Roland White, who was a big hero of mine. I met Zan McLeod, a guitarist who really influenced my guitar playing. When I was working on my first album with Ralph Stanley I tracked down Robert Hunter because I was listening continually to the Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty; you know the Dead was really a bluegrass band, and those were bluegrass albums. Anyway, I tracked down Hunter and threw out the proposition of our working together.
Who are your three greatest musical or songwriting influences?
First would be Gram Parsons; there is just something about the essence of what he did. Robert Hunter; I’ve learned more about writing from him than anybody. Finally, George Jones for everything he did.
Tell me a little about your approach to writing songs.
Songs happen in due time. I have to clear my head to open myself for them. Usually, though, a melody will come to me, and sometimes it will arise out of a title. Sometimes I’ll record the melody and the lyrics will then come to me; sometimes the song will come randomly to me. When I write with Robert Hunter, he’ll either give me a lyric or he’ll give me a melody and I’ll start from there.
For you, what are the elements of a great song?
Something that is memorable in a good way that you enjoy. A great song moves you in a good way; it’s thought-provoking. It makes you want to dance and experience emotions.
How have you evolved over the years as a writer and musician?
I feel like I’m still evolving. I haven’t got where I want to be writing-wise. I still feel like I’m learning and growing.
What’s next for you?
I have another record in the can that I did with James Burton and Al Perkins. I need to do another bluegrass album, and I did an album in England with Nick Lowe’s band.
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