Although the melodic twists of his songs stand out on country radio like diamonds in a pile of manure, Jim Lauderdale is undeniably a cog in the big bad Nashville machine. George Strait continues to top the charts with his tunes on every new album, and in the last few years stars like the Dixie Chicks, George Jones, and Kathy Mattea have joined the long, impressive list of artists who’ve recorded his work. But while his songwriting skills may produce gems for others, as a recording artist in his own right he mostly produces cutouts. It seems unlikely at this point that he’ll ever return to the staggering stylistic range of his one bona fide masterpiece, Pretty Close to the Truth, a sterling mix of country twang, blustery roots music, and deep soul released by Atlantic in 1994 (and now out of print), but his recent Onward Through It All (RCA) is his fourth collection since of peerless mainstream country shot through with indelible hooks–and still country’s ultraconservative radio programmers won’t touch him with a ten-foot pole. This time they’re missing out not just on Lauderdale’s great melodies but also the beautiful pedal steel of Robby Turner, who goes way beyond the usual Hawaiian-style washes; his precise contributions provide unexpectedly inventive and lean counterpoint. Despite Lauderdale’s success as a songwriter, he’s regarded as something of an alt-country artist–a status that seems to stem mostly from his commercial failure. But the affinity goes deeper than that: before he became the honky-tonk tunesmith of the 90s, he was a bluegrass fanatic, cutting a still-unreleased album with Roland White in the early 80s. Now he’s finally released his first bluegrass record, I Feel Like Singing Today (Rebel), a superb collaboration with patriarch Ralph Stanley, and for all the novel shapes his songwriting employs, tunes like Lauderdale’s gospel gem “Like Him” and the breakneck “Who Thought the Railroad Wouldn’t Last” adhere convincingly to the tradition. For this show Lauderdale performs with his own group, but the following night he’ll sit in with Stanley and his Clinch Mountain Boys (see separate Critic’s Choice). Saturday, 7:30 PM, Schubas, 3159 N. Southport; 773-525-2508. PETER MARGASAK
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Tormes.