Songwriting ace Jim Lauderdale to play Durango
The two-time Grammy winner has become the face of the Americana genre since 2000
FARMINGTON — Jim Lauderdale is certainly no stranger to honors or recognition, earning two Grammy awards, and receiving the Artist of the Year and Song of the Year awards in the inaugural Americana Music Awards in 2002. He’s also recorded approximately 30 albums, and had his songs recorded by everyone from Elvis Costello, Solomon Burke, Vince Gill and Blake Shelton to Patty Loveless, Shelby Lynne, Lucinda Williams and the Dixie Chicks.
He’s even been the subject of a feature-length documentary film, 2014’s “Jim Lauderdale: The King of Broken Hearts.”
But the singer, songwriter, radio host and sideman for the likes of Williams, Costello and Nick Lowe, among others, said he couldn’t help but be taken aback a few weeks ago when he received the news that he would be handed the Wagonmaster Award — a lifetime achievement honor — on Sept. 15 at the Americana Music Awards show in Nashville. The fact that he would be receiving the award was humbling enough, Lauderdale said. But when he learned that country music legend George Strait — who has recorded 15 of Lauderdale’s songs over the course of his career — would be the one presenting the award to him, he could hardly believe it.
“I cried like a baby when I heard that,” Lauderdale said during a phone interview in early August from his home in Nashville. “That’s really, really meaningful, and I’m just kind of overwhelmed about it. Because of him, I’ve been able to continue a career as a recording artist. Through the ups and downs of having major-label contracts and independent record deals, that’s allowed me to (continue recording albums). It allows me to channel my income into recording, because it’s an expensive addiction.”
Even though he’s carved out a lengthy career for himself while also collaborating with such well-known figures as Dr. Ralph Stanley, Buddy Miller, the Grateful Dead’s Robert Hunter and the North Mississippi All-Stars, Lauderdale — who performs Thursday, Aug. 18 in Durango, Colo. — has always fallen just short of stardom as a solo artist. He’s made up for that by building a sterling reputation as one of the country’s premier songsmiths, but that “songwriter’s songwriter” tag, attached to him a long time ago, has been as much a curse as a blessing in many ways, seemingly limiting his status as an artist in his own right.
That doesn’t mean you’ll find a lack of appreciation for Lauderdale among those well-known performers in country, rock and pop music who have availed themselves of his songs, harmony vocals and sage counsel for many years. Those relationships are important to Lauderdale, but even against that backdrop, he said his bond with Strait is something special.
“He’s such an icon,” Lauderdale said. “He’s such a superstar in the music world. ... And he’s a really nice guy.”
Launderdale said he has no idea why so many of his songs have resonated with Strait over the years, but he said it’s not because those tunes were put together with Strait in mind.
“It’s interesting that, after he started recording my songs, in the Nashville co-writing world, a publisher will often suggest writing with this person or that person,” Lauderdale said. “And what you try to do in that situation is write something for some artist you’re having success with. So I’ve said, ‘Let’s write something for George Strait.’ And nine times out of 10, he won’t end up cutting those songs. ... He’ll wind up recording songs that weren’t intended for him. A lot of times, it’s really surprised me what he’s recorded.”
Over the years, Lauderdale has kept a list of his favorite versions of songs he wrote that other artists have recorded. Not surprisingly, two of those belong to Strait — “The King of Broken Hearts” and “What Do You Say to That?” The list also includes “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me” by Loveless and “I Lost You” by Costello.
Lauderdale credits his success as a songwriter to the work ethic he picked up during his years bouncing around the country in his twenties. He left his home in South Carolina and moved to Nashville looking for a recording contract, but when that didn’t work out, he headed to New York City instead and joined up with a gang of like-minded artists that included Buddy and Julie Miller, and Shawn Colvin. Lauderdale quickly landed a gig playing in Floyd Domino’s band, but he helped make ends meet by working in the mail room at Rolling Stone magazine, following in the footsteps of fellow songwriter Steve Forbert.
He went on to land a role in the national touring company of the stage production “Pump Boys & Dinettes,” and that experience took him to Los Angeles, where Lauderdale again fell in with a group of talented young songwriters that included such artists as Williams, Dwight Yoakam and Pete Anderson.
“It gave me a drive,” Lauderdale said of those years moving from coast to coast before he finally got back to Nashville and landed his first major-label deal. “I had that drive, but I was very goal oriented as far as I wanted to write the best songs I possibly could. At the time, the outlet for that was getting a record deal, so that was the quest for me. But I was so far from that bottom rung on the ladder with the things I was doing to make a living. I still feel that way sometimes.”
What he learned during those days, Lauderdale said, was to accept responsibility for his own success or failure — and to keep the faith.
“At the end of the day, things rest on my shoulders,” he said. “And if I can get that across on stage, I’m fulfilled. Many times through the years, I’ve felt that show business is so unfair. There were times when I was feeling so dejected and down. But then something good would happen after a lot of effort and hard nights, and that eases things.”
Despite putting out some very good work once he returned to Nashville – 1991’s “Planet of Love” and 1994’s “Pretty Close to the Truth” both drew excellent reviews — commercial success eluded Lauderdale, a recurring theme throughout his career. At no time was the disconnect between the high quality of his work and the indifference it drew from country listeners more apparent than in 2002, when he collaborated with Stanley on the classic bluegrass disc “Lost in the Lonesome Pines.” It won the Grammy award for Best Bluegrass Album, and yet Lauderdale was dropped by his label shortly thereafter.
“I learned a lot from that,” he said. “It was such a good experience to make those records, but I never got the acceptance at mainstream country radio, and at that time, there wasn’t an Americana format. There was nowhere for my music to be heard. That was disappointing, but at the same time, other artists began recording my songs.
“I never planned on that happening,” he said. “Things were so disappointing at one angle, but that was such a great thing to happen. It kind of led to my being able to make bluegrass records and do that first tour with Ralph Stanley. That made it worth the wait. I’d waited 20 years to make a bluegrass record.”
His career as a sideman began to blossom around the same time. The 1998 release of Williams’ seminal “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” widely regarded as one of the greatest Americana albums of all time, saw Lauderdale riding shotgun, providing harmony vocals and guitar, and he was prominently featured on the ensuing tour, as well, serving as the main onstage foil for Williams. That’s a role Lauderdale has duplicated with other artists, including Costello, over the years, and one he still enjoys.
Given the dramatic changes that have taken place in the music business since the early 2000s, and especially the way the country music business seemingly has become more superficial than ever, Lauderdale said he doesn’t know if it’s possible for a young songwriter to make a mark by following the same path he did.
“I don’t recommend anyone modeling after me because I’ve made some monumental mistakes,” he said. “I will say this to young songwriters: in some ways, it’s becoming more difficult, and in some ways there are more opportunities now. It’s a double-edged sword. It rests on the quality of the songs. If that’s solid, if it has something in it that holds people’s attention, you’re on to something.
“I think more important than anything else is just having the goods,” he said. “You have to keep topping yourself. If you write one good song, you think, ‘OK, this is it.’ But my career showed me you have to come up with even more. The strength of your songs is more important than who you know, and it’s a continual process of writing and making them better and better.”
While Lauderdale’s star as a songwriter has never dimmed, he has continued to record his own songs and has established himself as the face of the Americana genre, both through those recordings, and his radio work with Miller on “The Buddy & Jim Show” on Sirius XM and his hosting gig on the nationally syndicated program “Music City Roots.”
Lauderdale’s most recent foray into the studio was an ambitious one, the 2015 two-disc effort “Soul Searching.” Lauderdale recorded the songs on the first disc in Memphis and the second in Nashville, and the sonic qualities of the two discs reflect the distinctive personalities of those two music-rich communities. The material for both volumes came out in a rush, Lauderdale said, something that is a rarity even for a writer as prolific as he is.
“That record, most of it was written in a two-month period,” he said. “That’s the most I’ve ever written by myself in such a short amount of time. There were two co-writes on there, and everything else I wrote alone.”
Lauderdale said that exceptionally fertile creative period may have been a product of the fact that he releases his records independently now, and everything is done on his schedule. He made a commitment to releasing “Soul Searching” in 2015 and had no choice but to keep his shoulder to the wheel.
“I put myself under the gun with those,” he said. “With my records, it’s my own deadline now, and I was just determined to get that done. It was almost experimental, in a way. As soon as I finished cutting those songs, it was out three weeks later. It was a real good experiment, and I’m real happy with that record.”
Lauderdale has no intention of slowing down. He’s already got another country disc in the can that he recorded in Texas in June and plans to release as soon as it is mixed, as well as a project that was recorded in England with members of Nick Lowe’s band. And, as always, he’s got several unfinished songs out there that need to have a melody or bridge reworked.
He acknowledged that he feels overextended sometimes, but said it’s his own fault. The constant lure of writing — and, later, recording — a new song is something he simply feels compelled to do, even when that creative process proceeds in fits and starts.
“It just has to happen,” Lauderdale said of the process by which he works and how he finds inspiration. “Eventually, it comes to fruition. You can go through a lot of agonizing moments waiting for that to happen, times when you think, ‘Maybe this is the last song I’ll ever write.' But, eventually, it makes itself heard.”
Durango-area native Tyller Gummersall opens the show. Gummersall's latest disc, "Long Ride Home," was produced by Lloyd Maines, father of Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines. The album has drawn airplay around the United States, as well as in France, Germany and New Zealand.
Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.
If you go
What: Jim Lauderdale concert
When: 7:45 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 18
Where: The Animas City Theatre, 128 E. College Drive in Durango, Colo.
Tickets: $15 at durangomassive.com and at Southwest Sound, 922 Main Ave. in Durango
For more information: Visit animascitytheatre.com