A Conversation with Jim Lauderdale
Puremusic: My understanding of your travels as an artist is from NC to NYC to L.A., and then Nashville. Is that accurate, and are there gaps along the way you want to fill in for us?
Jim Lauderdale: Uh, no. Okay, next question. [laughter] Well, I spent some time in Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, a little bit of time in Austin.
PM: I figured there must be some Austin in the story.
JL: I was gonna move there, and it never worked out. It was kind of bizarre, like it wasn't fated for me to work there, live there. And eventually that landed me in L.A.
PM: I remember when you first came to town from L.A., was that late 80s?
JL: Late 80s, early 90s...
PM: That was around when I first got here. I remember there was a ground swell of interest and a definite buzz about this cool writer from L.A. that everybody was talking about. How did it come to be, that level of interest in what you were doing?
JL: Well, probably because I had hooked up with Dwight's [Yoakam] producer in L.A., Pete Anderson, through my manager at the time, John Ciambotti. I'd signed a production deal with Pete, and we cut some tracks, and we'd come to Nashville on a few occasions to shop an artist deal. I met a guy named Larry Hanby, who worked at [then] CBS records, who eventually signed me. I had pretty much gotten turned down by everybody. Unfortunately, that record didn't come out, but I got to make it. Eventually it will, I'm sure.
PM: Did any of those tunes ever resurface somewhere else?
JL: George Strait cut "Stay Out of My Arms," and Joy Lynn White cut a duet with Dwight called "It's Better This Way."
PM: Did that get released?
JL: Yeah, it's on Joy's record. So I came to town occasionally back then, but I was afraid at the time to move here and then not get a deal, and just get crushed, you know. I kind of waited for awhile, after I'd had a few cuts. I started commuting here more and more, and it seemed like a lot of my friends were starting to move here.
There was a great scene in L.A.: Rosie Flores, Chris Gaffney, Katy Moffat, Dale Watson, Lucinda, Dave Alvin, a lot of people. And a lot of those people started moving here, or to Texas. And the Palomino Club in L.A. closed, which was a mainstay and an anchor for many of us. Some others closed, too, like The Lingerie Club. Raji's got destroyed in the earthquake. Then came the deal with Warner/Reprise, and I'd started doing showcases before that. But that eventually fell through, and I just started doing some gigs around town. Also I had and still have a publishing deal with Bluewater Publishing, I guess I signed on in '89, so that's been a really good thing for me.
PM: That's a good bunch over there.
JL: Yeah, it really is. That really boosted my visibility here in town.
PM: Bluewater always seemed to be signing really creative type writers. Didn't seem to be a cookie cutter outfit. Big Al was over there, right? [Anderson, formerly of NRBQ]
JL: Right, he's not there any more, but Kim Richey's still there.
PM: When you were growing up in North Carolina, what kind of music were you listening to, and what were you playing?
JL: My folks played a lot of different kinds of stuff. They played some Jazz vocal groups, Broadway shows, my dad liked Country, my mother was a chorus teacher in high school, and the choir director. My sister made me watch the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, that really changed me.
PM: It's amazing the effect that those appearances had on our generation of musicians.
JL: I took a lot of my cues from my sister after that. Motown was big on the radio at the time, and the Stax stuff. We liked Paul Revere and the Raiders, and then Rock, the psychedelic period. Cream, Hendrix, and all that. James Brown. Then I started getting into Bluegrass real heavy, and Country, in my early teens. I started playing drums in the school band, and then got into the banjo. We moved to South Carolina when I was 13, and they didn't have any music program in the school. So I started jamming around with some college kids, it was a university town, I started playing blues harp, and then banjo.
PM: Bluegrass style, or old time?
JL: Bluegrass, yeah. Around 17, I started playing acoustic rhythm guitar, and I haven't improved much since then.
PM: You're a good rhythm player, I've seen you do it.
JL: Actually I played dobro for a while, too.
PM: Do you play any banjo today?
JL: Hardly at all. When I was on tour with Lucinda a couple of years ago, I had it in my act for a while, like two songs.
PM: When you open for her, is it mostly solo?
JL: Yeah, this summer I went out with her for a month. I had a band on key dates where Eddie Perez was playing with me, and we did some dates just the two of us.
PM: I don't know Eddie's work.
JL: He lives in Austin now, but is from L.A. originally. He'll play the show I'm doing soon with George Jones with me, and Tom Lewis is coming in from Austin, too.
PM: The way I see it, your place in Country is rather unique. You're cosmopolitan, and almost scholarly on the art form. You've written and played way outside the box, and then can play and write down the middle and get cut on Country radio. How do your see your spot in the mix?
JL: It's kind of hard for me to be objective about it, really. I'm not sure if I can see that. In the thick of things, I'm not sure where I am. I try and do projects, do some records on my own, think about future records I want to do with songs I'm writing at the time. And sometimes I'm concentrating on writing for someone else's project that's coming up, like when Patty Loveless was going to do a record of mountain music, that kind of thing.
PM: So you keep an ear to the ground about who's cutting and what they're looking for.
JL: Yes, especially if they ask me. What's ironic is that I can get into that slot and write something I think is right up their alley, but that may not end up to be the one they cut. But they may find another one they like.
PM: So let's talk about Hard Country, I like that concept.
JL: You mean, how would I define that? Okay. I would say Hard Country is from the early 50s through the mid 70s, popular Country music.
PM: The Golden Years.
JL: The Golden Years, right. And the people today who are still doing it. Gary Stewart, Dwight Yoakam, John Anderson, Alan Jackson. People like Joy Lynn White. There are several Texas guys, Clay Blaker, Tommy Alverson, that are Hard Country. And Elizabeth Cook and BR549.
PM: And by that we mean pedal steel all the way, for instance.
JL: Sure, pedal steel, Telecaster, usually shuffles are thrown in there somewhere, and appropriate themes. Drinking, heartbreak, that kind of thing. Actually, Nashville has its share of it. This was the home of it, after all. Nashville gets bashed a lot. I think people mistake the town and all that goes on in it for the actual industry of Country music. There's plenty of Hard Country around. And when it comes to Bluegrass, I mean, Nashville is a hotbed for that style.
PM: Who could have predicted the incredible resurgence of Bluegrass. That one funny movie... It was funny, right? I laughed my ass off. The chick I was with from L.A. didn't think it was funny. I thought, "Well, I won't be taking her to the movies again anytime soon."
JL: One time I was in Chicago, and the woman I'd been going with for a long time and I had broken up, and I was all bummed out. This guy invited me to a party, tried to cheer me up. He got this woman friend of his to give me a ride back to where I was living, trying to fix me up with her kind of thing. So I'm all bummed out and she asks if I mind if she turns the radio on, that's fine. She's looking for a station and up comes this beautiful steel guitar, and it's a live broadcast and Merle Haggard starts singing, and I'm delivered, and she suddenly snaps the radio off and says, "Well, we can certainly live without any of that!" [laughter] I didn't say anything, but this iron curtain went down between us.
JL: Exactly. continue