Jim Lauderdale Does Whatever He Wants on I’m a Song

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It’s stating the obvious to say a new Jim Lauderdale album features strong songwriting. The more pertinent information is whether it’s one of his down-from-the-mountains bluegrass sets, one of his melodically-strapping, loose-limbed, roots-rock collections or one of his hardcore, honky-tonk blues efforts.

Lauderdale channels his creative energy — as he puts it, “lassoing it and dragging it to the corral”– by giving a project stylistic parameters or selecting co-writers, pickers and singing partners with whom he shares particular musical common ground.

On I’m a Song, his latest self-released album, he plays with the potency of country’s heartfelt songs and dancehall heritage. The whole thing has a modernized, tradition-savvy kick, thanks in part to harmonies from Patty Loveless and Lee Ann Womack, co-writes with Robert Hunter, Bobby Bare, Gary Allan and Elvis Costello and licks laid down by Nashville studio fixtures and California country-rock vets alike.

We’ll leave it to Lauderdale to explain the method to his many-sidedness.

CMT Edge: I read an interview in which you mentioned a chronological vision you had at some point. You planned to go from bluegrass to acoustic country to electrified country — kind of follow the trajectory of musical evolution. Could you tell me more about that?

Lauderdale: Before I even had a plan, I just wanted to make bluegrass records. Later, when I wasn’t having those opportunities to do that, I thought, “Well, here’s what I’m going to do: When I do get a deal, I’m going to start out doing bluegrass. Then I’m going to move into Hank Sr.-type country without drums. Then I’m going to add drums. Then I’m going to do hillbilly jazz or whatever.” But it didn’t work out that way, so it got to this place where I would do whatever I wanted after a while.

What difference do you think it’s made to your country sensibilities that you — like Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley — started out focused on bluegrass and then shifted to country?

Those guys are good examples of people that did start out in bluegrass, and so did Marty Stuart. I think there’s something about bluegrass music that is such perfect ear-training. There’s something about the instrumentation and stable of songs. You develop this language out of playing it, and it allows you to go from there to pretty much any style you want to do.

James Burton and Al Perkins play electric and steel guitar on this and previous albums, and I understand you’ve been a fan of their playing ever since you heard them on Gram Parsons’ solo albums in the early ‘70s. What attracted you to their particular sound?

I look at those two Gram Parsons albums [GP and Grievous Angel] as real touchstones for me. … I have certain things about the feeling, but I look at those as such perfect albums that I’ve intentionally had to try not to copy or follow them too closely because they influenced me so much. James and Al, they work so well together. They’re such legendary players who bring so much to recording that it’s such a pleasure to work with them.

I prefer your singing to Parsons’ because of the richness of your timbre and the soul elements in the mix, along with bluegrass and country inflections.

You’re just prejudiced! (laughs)

It’s not for nothing that you’ve been enlisted by Dwight Yoakam to do backing vocals and vocal arrangements. You’ve done that on Trisha Yearwood albums, too, haven’t you?

You know, I can’t remember. Oh, I was on a Trisha Yearwood album. … Lucinda [Williams], though, I’ve worked with a bunch. And those couple with Elvis Costello. I sing on a couple of Carlene Carter’s records, too.

Speaking of kindred voices, Lee Ann Womack and Mark Chesnutt are among those who have cut “King of Broken Hearts,” which you’ve revisited here. It was George Jones that you wrote it about, and all of you are students of his singing, in your own ways.

I actually portrayed him in a play about Tammy Wynette. It was at the Ryman about 13 years ago. He and Nancy came to the show. It was called Stand by Your Man. I just adored him so much. It was like a family member when he passed. I was like so many others who loved him. He made a huge impact on the world.

I had a theory that — not theory, necessarily, just a belief — that when you met somebody that mentioned, “Oh, I like Gram Parsons,” it was like you had an understanding or a link with that person. It was kind of the same with George Jones. There’s something about him that stood out so much. That voice was just magic.

It seems to me that those touchstones, George Jones and Gram Parsons, speak to very different facets of who you are as an artist — the true-blue traditional and the longhaired bohemian.

Years ago, when Elvis Costello was first coming onto the scene, I’d see ads for him and I’d think, “Who is this guy?” I finally read an interview with him where he said, “Two of my favorites are George Jones and Gram Parsons.” That made me want to go listen to Elvis Costello, and I fell in love with his writing and music. … I felt this connection and understanding. It opened my mind to what he was doing, and I think he’s brilliant. He’s so multifaceted. There are so many different things he can do.

You work with clever country lyrical hooks as well as any contemporary songwriter. I’m talking about the kind of thing that you do in your new song “Today I’ve Got the Yesterdays.” What would you say is the key?

I think necessity is the mother of invention. A lot of these songs were written fairly quickly — or several of them were, rather. That was one of them. I was doing my second round of recording, getting these 11 songs in a day, and that phrase came to me, then the melody, and I just thought, “Patty Loveless.” It just kind of came together. …

When I was in session for this record, trying to finish song-wise, I came up with this melody for a waltz, and I was praying that Robert Hunter would like it enough to put some lyrics to it. So I sent it to him — and boom. He came right back with it. He’s really fast. If he locks into something of mine that he likes, it’s amazing how fast he is.

Besides churning out songs and recordings, you’ve developed quite the persona as a drolly entertaining host on Music City Roots, the Americana Honors ceremony and your Sirius XM show with Buddy Miller. Was that something that you envisioned yourself doing?

Not at all. (laughs)

How did you first get those gigs?

A show happened in Knoxville for a couple years called Tennessee Shines. That stopped about six years ago, I guess, and Music City Roots came along, and they asked me. I never planned it, and I have actually hoped that people don’t pigeonhole me as “that guy, the host guy” instead of being a songwriter or singer. I hope that doesn’t overshadow my music.

The perk for me for doing those is to catch new acts. It’s really been a great experience. And also people that I have known or have wanted to see, it’s so cool to stand in the wings and watch these people. I don’t know if it’s kept things fresh for me at all, if I can say that, but it’s definitely been inspiring.

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