Jim Lauderdale



By Peter Margasak

Jim Lauderdale’s conundrum is a timeless one. Though he’s no stranger to the country music charts, the fans know him only by proxy–his songs have been recorded by George Strait, Patty Loveless, Doug Supernaw, Vince Gill, Mark Chesnutt, Mandy Barnett, and Kelly Willis, among others. The closest Lauderdale has come to making himself famous was in 1989, when “Stay Out of My Arms,” a single from his aborted first album for Epic (and later a big hit for Strait), reached 86th.

This spring Lauderdale signed with RCA–his fifth label in seven years. But the blame for his failure to sell records can’t be laid easily at the feet of any of the companies that have taken a chance on him. Lauderdale’s not just too rock for country and too country for rock; he’s also too soul for country, and too pop for soul. In short, he’s too eclectic for the radio, and in country radio makes the hits.

Back in the 60s an artist like Lauderdale wouldn’t have been anathema to country radio. There was room enough for the high gloss of Connie Smith, the modernist honky-tonk of Loretta Lynn, the cranky hillbilly strains of Merle Haggard, and the Bakersfield stomp of Buck Owens. Now idiosyncratic artists like Lauderdale, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Iris DeMent and even traditionalist newcomers like Dale Watson are held to the fringes. Eclectic country acts like the Mavericks and Dwight Yoakam rarely succeed at the same level as hokum peddlers like Shania Twain, Garth Brooks, and Neal McCoy. Country radio is the least adventurous of all radio formats, a true analogue to Christian Coalition values, and that makes a Jim Lauderdale a stinking liberal.

Lauderdale’s eclecticism is rooted in one of those mythical music-biz childhoods. His father was a minister and his mother a choir director, and they laid the mainstream pop sparkle of Sinatra, show tunes, and Peter, Paul & Mary on him at an early age. This bonanza of melody commingled with the late-60s rock sounds preferred by an older sister, the blues collection of a cousin, and the ubiquitous, soulful southern “beach music” tradition. But it was bluegrass, which he discovered as a teenager DJing at a local college radio station, that really sucked him in, and after college, in 1980, he headed for Nashville. He managed to meet and record an album with modern bluegrass giant Roland White, but it remains unreleased.

Discouraged, Lauderdale packed his bags for New York, where he gigged around unsuccessfully and sang in a couple of musicals, Cotton Patch Gospel and Pump Boys & Dinettes. With the road company of the latter, Lauderdale moved to Chicago for a while, but before long he relocated to Los Angeles. There he discovered a community of country-based songwriters and performers who, like him, failed to fit the Nashville mold: Rosie Flores, Lucinda Williams, Chris Gaffney. Their music, like his, freely combined blue-eyed soul and Beatles-esque pop with the classic honky-tonk wallop of Buck Owens and George Jones. These were the forebears of the music that has since become known as “alternative country” or “Americana.”

Lauderdale appeared on one of producer Pete Anderson’s mid-80s A Town South of Bakersfield compilations (the first of which launched Yoakam’s career), and before long returned to Nashville with a record contract. In 1987 Anderson produced his ominously titled Point of No Return; Epic released a couple of singles, including “Stay Out of My Arms,” but canned the album and dropped Lauderdale.

A few years later Lauderdale transformed a strong songwriting relationship with John Leventhal, who has produced records for Shawn Colvin and his wife Rosanne Cash, into a second record deal and a first album, Planet of Love (Reprise, 1991). It was a striking collection, rooted in classic 50s and early-60s country basics, distinguished by Lauderdale’s consistently surprising melodicism, and buffed to a sheen by the contemporary Nashville production of Leventhal and Rodney Crowell. Critics loved it, but radio programmers–and hence the public–ignored it. Happily, Lauderdale’s songwriting skills caught the attention of MCA Nashville boss Tony Brown, who had George Strait record a couple of songs from the album for the Pure Country sound track and thus kicked off Lauderdale’s career as a Nashville tunesmith.

Lauderdale’s next pair of albums, both for Atlantic, were produced by southern California country-rock studio ace Dusty Wakeman, whose less polished style enabled Lauderdale to escape most of the strictures of the Nashville system. Pretty Close to the Truth (1994) is undeniably his best record, a masterpiece that links, rather than shifts, styles, moving seamlessly from the two-beat stomp of “I’m on Your Side” to the gorgeous Stax-sounding “Why Do I Love You?” to the dusky pop of “Divide and Conquer.” Lauderdale inhabits each song so naturally as to instantly squelch any accusations of dilettantism. But Atlantic couldn’t figure out how to promote the record, and as it waffled between Nashville and Hitsville, the album headed for Palookaville.

For 1995’s Every Second Counts, Atlantic went straight to the adult pop marketplace, but the album lacked the light touch of its predecessor. Tunes like “That’s Not the Way It Works” and “Charmed” are irresistible pop gems, but on “Always on the Outside,” his eclecticism seems overamplified: unnecessary horns act like a yellow highlighter, screaming “This is a soul song.” When the record didn’t sell, Atlantic lost patience; a planned Chicago date with a terrific band featuring Lucinda Williams’s guitarist Gurf Morlix was canceled when the label pulled its tour support.

During a solo tour opening for Nick Lowe, Lauderdale met Glenn Dicker and Jake Guralnick of Upstart Records, the label Lowe presently records for, and after Atlantic set him free, they scooped him up. The fruit of the deal, Persimmons, offers 15 songs, most of them demos recorded over the last few years. The ease with which he mixed and reinvented his influences has returned, particularly on the jazzy Van Morrison-esque “That’s Not Right Babe,” the bluesy “Optimistic Messenger,” the Gram Parsons-style lilt of “Some Things Are Too Good to Last” (with none other than Emmylou Harris), and the gritty Rockpile-ish retro-rock of “Had a Little Time.” True, “Jupiter’s Rising,” a ditty about abduction by aliens, is inexplicably goofy, but it’s easily countered by the gorgeous “Am I Only Dreaming This,” which exploits otherworldly metaphors for the woozy, transformative rush of fresh romance: “Streams of consciousness with pools of kissing fishes / Speaking words in French for love.”

Lauderdale produced Persimmons himself, and for the resulting rawness he’s traded the sympathetic framework of Planet and Pretty Close. His glorious tunefulness isn’t buried, but it’s not accented to maximal effect either. Ultimately, though, it’s Upstart’s distance from Nashville, both geographically and stylistically, that guarantees the record’s death on country radio right out of the gate–and ultimately, that’s what’s driven Lauderdale, whose RCA debut is due next spring, back into the fold. While fellow alt-country types content themselves with success in the margins–Lucinda Williams on non-Nashville major American and Dale Watson on the wily indie Hightone–Lauderdale is still hell-bent on making Nashville see things his way.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jim Lauderdale photo and album cover.