For decades now, the question has been hotly debated: What truly constitutes bluegrass? The genre’s division between traditional and progressive styles has long been a controversy of Ford-versus-Chevy proportions, made all the fuzzier by the likely notion that the entire genre is benefitting from the diversification. Somewhere between those two opposing camps stands Jim Lauderdale. As staunchly traditional-minded as he is artistically independent, Lauderdale may be bluegrass’s closest thing to a great reconciler.
Over the past decade or so, he’s released music that spans the broad perimeters of the Americana genre, but he has also put out a roughly equal number of bluegrass-centered projects, including 2007’s Grammy-winning offering The Bluegrass Diaries. His two most recent solo albums—2011’s Rhyme And Reason and 2012’s Carolina Moonrise—lean heavily on bluegrass traditions, despite the inclusion of boundary-pushing lyrics by Robert Hunter, noted collaborator with the Grateful Dead. This kind of creative pairing is typical of Lauderdale, who follows his instincts down unlikely corridors and often finds surprising good fortune on the other side of his explorations. For instance, when he first approached Hunter about co-writing songs (at a respectful distance, via the U.S. mail), he didn’t know that the famed writer would prove so compatible in terms of his regard for tradition.
“[Robert]’s a bluegrass lover. He’s like an encyclopedia of roots music,” affirms Lauderdale. “And so I was so pleased when Robert did respond to my overtures of trying to write something together and that it turned out like it did.”
The creative partnership between the two began, notably, with the two albums that rate highly among Lauderdale’s proudest career moments—his pair of collaborations with the esteemed Dr. Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys: 1999’s I Feel Like Singing Today and its Grammy-winning follow-up, 2002’s Lost In The Lonesome Pines. Lauderdale’s collaborations with Hunter, he says, are a “fast process,” which accounts in part for the release of two back-to-back bluegrass albums inside 15 months time.
The other ingredient in that rapid-fire recipe is longtime Lauderdale cohort Randy Kohrs, his award-winning resonator guitar player and right-hand harmony man as well as the producer of all his bluegrass albums starting with The Bluegrass Diaries. Says Lauderdale, “He’s just got great musical ideas, and I feel totally confident in just letting him be the quarterback and guide things along, and he really does it well. He is a really great engineer as well, and he knows where every wire goes.” And well he should. Kohrs works out of Slack Key Studio, a Nashville facility he initially designed for making his own solo albums. Between his collection of unique gear (some of which dates back to the 1940s) and a file containing the phone numbers of many of the finest pickers on the globe, the multi-talented musician/producer is in high demand for outside projects.
Kohrs, who calls Lauderdale a close friend, recalls, “It was 1997, I think, when we first got acquainted. There were stints that I did, playing in his country band as needed, but I think he hired me for the harmony singing, though. I was able to fall into the role of bandleader and, eventually, producer. It’s a really easy role to have, too, as Jim and I have always worked incredibly well together. All the years of playing music together…I just kind of know where he wants to go.” That instinct comes in especially handy when a job requires working on the fly. “Most of the time, working with Jim, I don’t have much in the way of prep time to get to know these songs like I typically do with other clients I produce. He tends to bring the songs in the day of the session, sometimes unfinished. He likes the first-instinct approach to working with his songs, avoiding making [them sound] too slick and overproduced. I have to work very quickly in coming up with arrangements. I always have little licks and things in my head waiting for the right songs.”
Occasionally, Kohrs has the luxury of extra time in which inspiration can strike. “Fiddler’s Heaven,” a track from Carolina Moonrise that name-checks obscure and/or influential bow-pullers including Chubby Wise, Charlie Bowman and A.A. Gray, ends with a surprise multi-fiddle coda that splendidly sums up the tune’s novel Robert Hunter lyric. “Through listening to the song multiple times when editing and mixing,” recalls Kohrs, “I got this vision of ghosts of fiddlers and them trying to talk to me all at the same time through their instrument. I presented the idea to Jim and he loved it. So, we called on the players that have played live and/or recorded with Jim and did it in small sections, with the players having in mind the styles of the players mentioned in the song.”
“I thought that was such a great idea,” enthuses Lauderdale, “I thought, ‘Yes, perfect!’ So Randy throws that extra bit of creativity into the mix…no pun intended,” he deadpans, clearly intending the pun.
Kohrs is quick to return the compliment. “Jim’s the most ambitious writer I’ve ever encountered. He brings elements of all the genres he works in into the bluegrass world and doesn’t trap it into a bluegrass stereotype. It makes him unique, interesting, and a fun listen every time.”
Lauderdale has a philosophy about bluegrass being a kind of core musical DNA—what he calls a “blueprint”—that provides a foundation capable of supporting a wide variety of other styles. “I think if you start out with bluegrass, you can go from there and play anything,” Lauderdale asserts. “I mean, when you see someone like Marty Stuart, or Vince Gill, or Ricky Skaggs, who started out in bluegrass, and just seeing the versatility that they have now, and have had through their careers…maybe I’m wrong, but that just seems like the perfect style of music to start with,” says Lauderdale, citing the “universality of the bluegrass catalog. There’s a common thread there.”
In hindsight, that bluegrass blueprint was always in Lauderdale’s back pocket, informing the career map he would eventually draw for himself—to start out as a bluegrass artist and gradually expand his sound to incorporate other influences. That’s not what happened, though not due to any lack of preparation on his part.
As a youngster living in North (and later, South) Carolina, Lauderdale explains, “I was listening to everything bluegrass and whatever was current on the radio. And my folks listened to different things…jazz, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra, Broadway shows, too.” As a 14-year-old, Lauderdale had something of an epiphany after traveling with some older youths to a bluegrass festival in Union Grove, N.C. (In years to follow, he would, when necessary, hitchhike to area concerts.) “To be there for several days with non-stop music, with the jamming going on all night in the tent,” he recalls, “it kind of blew my mind.”
By the following year, Lauderdale, who had begun playing the banjo in earnest, returned to the annual festival ready to play. “I entered a contest. We didn’t win, but we got our admission fee back,” says Lauderdale with a slight chuckle, “which I think at the time was five dollars for the weekend.”
It was at gatherings such as these that Lauderdale’s knowledge of bluegrass styles quickly began to expand. Browsing through albums being sold from the back of a station wagon, Lauderdale met Rounder Records co-founder Ken Irwin, who was among the first to introduce the young musician to the more progressive side of bluegrass. “I was looking at these crates of records, and I said, ‘What do you recommend?’ During this time, I’d been listening to the Stanley Brothers. He said, ‘Well, this album, Act Two by the Seldom Scene, I think you’d really enjoy them.’ And so that kind of added a different dimension to the traditional stuff I’d been listening to. I really loved the Seldom Scene a lot, and everything they did, singing-wise and picking-wise, the way they mixed traditional stuff and newer songs, too. It kind of opened my eyes to how that could be done.”
Another regional festival that had an impact on the teenaged Lauderdale was Carlton Haney’s Camp Springs Festival. “They just had such a great lineup all the time, and it was like heaven to go to these festivals. And I realized that bluegrass music, it just had such broad appeal. So North Carolina was a fertile place to hear great stuff. Of course, North Carolina has always been a hotbed of bluegrass music. So there were a lot of folks that I got to play with.”
Lauderdale’s interest in music remained strong as he prepared to attend college at the (since renamed) North Carolina School of the Arts. By this time, he was veering away from banjo in favor of rhythm guitar, having come to terms with certain limitations that he concluded would not allow him to distinguish himself on the instrument.
Not long after completing high school, he stuck out his thumb once again for the love of music, this time to see J.D. Crowe & the New South—the now-legendary version of the group featuring Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs, and Jerry Douglas. It was, one might say, a show “to die for” and had it not been for good fortune, that figurative phrase might have been more literal than is normally intended. As Lauderdale tells the story, “I hitchhiked to a festival in Wise, Virginia, just to see them. I didn’t have any place to stay or anything, and so I hitchhiked back, and actually the guy that picked me up wrecked on the way back…lucky we didn’t drive off the other side of the mountain and fall down. So I got out and finally made it back [home] at about five in the morning. But it was worth every minute of it. I just love those guys.”
The story of Lauderdale’s rise to musical success is peppered with similar stories in which risk, serious difficulty, musical passion and serendipity intertwine. His first trip to Nashville in 1979 lasted five months. He met Roland White, a hero of his, with whom he ended up recording an album. But the record never saw the light of day, severely curtailing Lauderdale’s chances to launch a career in bluegrass. “Understandably, when I look back on it, I was not in the circuit, the festival circuit,” says Lauderdale. “It was like a catch-22. I couldn’t get in the circuit unless I had a record and was working.”
He did find work in New York City playing both country and bluegrass. There he played in the bands Charged Particles and the West River Boys (where he first met fiddler Ollie O’Shea, who remains a friend and musical accomplice today). He appeared in the theatrical stage production Cotton Patch Gospel (scored by the late Harry Chapin), where he worked with longtime Lester Flatt bassist Pete Corum. He stayed busy playing the kind of music he loved, but New York City wasn’t a place where country record deals were made. A move to Southern California won him the chance to cut a record, though not the bluegrass record at which he’d initially aimed. Even then, his first solo album, a Bakersfield-styled country affair, also got shelved (eventually to be issued under the title Point Of No Return in 2001). After 27 years of waiting to release a bluegrass album, it happened.
The amazing story of Jim Lauderdale’s unorthodox journey is simply too long to recount here in full. And besides, it’s now been made into a film. Filmmaker and longtime Lauderdale fan Jeremy Dylan recently completed his documentary, Jim Lauderdale: The King Of Broken Hearts, connecting the numerous dots that comprise Lauderdale’s career thus far. Dylan, a 22-year-old Australian who first met the singer/songwriter more than a decade ago, presented the film’s world premiere in December at Nashville’s Country Music Hall Of Fame And Museum. (Watch for it to become available on DVD and Blu-Ray in the not-too-distant future.) His goal, he says, was to serve as “a primer on Jim” for newcomers and to “expand people’s perception of him. A lot of people know the [Lauderdale] songs that George Strait cut, but don’t know his bluegrass work. Or they may only know him as a WSM deejay [he does a weekly show on the powerhouse Nashville AM station] and not as a musician at all,” notes Dylan, who directed and co-produced the project. “This film aims to give you as complete a picture of Jim as can be compressed into 90 minutes.”
Dylan, an authority on the entire multi-hued fabric of Lauderdale’s career, commented on its bluegrass aspects, saying, “I think he approaches these bluegrass records with an absolutely sincere desire to emulate and continue in the tradition of his heroes, like the Stanley Brothers, but his expansive musical vision is going to creep in anyway. Because Jim doesn’t have anyone limiting what he can write and record,” notes Dylan, “he can focus on making his bluegrass albums purely bluegrass and leave some tools in the tool kit. But a Jim Lauderdale bluegrass record is still going to be a Jim Lauderdale record.”
For his part, Lauderdale is too involved in the work of creating music to fully comprehend how he’s perceived, or why he’s been made the subject of a documentary. “I’m not that self-aware,” Lauderdale admits. He confesses to having felt self-conscious when being observed by the camera, which is understandable coming from an artist whose songwriting method involves minimizing his conscious mind. “Playing, and letting a melody come to me, and then letting it go where it’s gonna go. You can’t think about it too much,” he muses. “It just kinda has to happen.
“I got used to having Jeremy be there at gigs and certain writing things and interviews and whatnot. I am humbled by the film,” says Lauderdale, “but I don’t know if there’s anything about my life that is interesting enough to make it worthwhile to sit through. But I hope so.”
Attendees at the world premiere clearly found it worthwhile, though the question-and-answer session held afterward found the star of the documentary comically referring to himself in the third person, perhaps due to some unease with this particular moment in the spotlight. “Getting to the serious side of Jim [in the film], that was pretty difficult for him,” he joked, his dark eyes glinting mischievously. Then, shifting to first person, he revealed why. “When I’m serious, I get boring.”
Now, with filming complete, perhaps it’s best to just let Jim Lauderdale get back to his comfort zone, creating a diverse and idiosyncratic body of roots-based music—building it, as always, from the bluegrass blueprint he keeps in his back pocket.