35 Years and 34 Albums Later, Jim Lauderdale Is Still Learning

Hope is out now on YepRoc

Music Features Jim Lauderdale
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35 Years and 34 Albums Later, Jim Lauderdale Is Still Learning

There are laconic, colorful tale-spinners who just happen to have been born with the gift of gab, who can almost effortlessly entertain an audience of any size. And then there’s alt-country tunesmith Jim Lauderdale, a genial Garrison Keillor-meets-Grandpa Simpson raconteur with a surreal stream-of-consciousness style all his own. And his stories, after 35 oddly unsung years in the music business, will start deceptively simple, then zig-zag wherever they may, and yet hold your riveted interest the entire time. So when he phones to discuss Hope, his aptly optimistic new outing for YepRoc, you have to be prepared for the conversation to go just about anywhere.

Like Australia, for starters, which is home to his manager Jeremy, and his other key client, Sydney-based folk-rocker Imogen Clark, who was all set to open Lauderdale’s spring tour of America last year when the coronavirus suddenly canceled it. “So the last time I saw Imogen and Jeremy was in February of 2020, when I went to Australia and did some shows with Nick Lowe,” he recalls. “And then when I got back the next week, that’s when things started closing down.” Coincidentally, an old black-and-white 1920s film is flickering on TCM as we’re talking, and we wind up discussing how one of its obscure stars, Marie Provost, was immortalized in cynical song by Lowe, wherein he lamented how her dead body had remained undiscovered for days in Hollywood, only to be gradually consumed by her starving pet dachshund. “She was a winner / But she became the doggy’s dinner / She never meant that much to me / Poor, poor Marie,” goes the “Marie Provost” chorus, and Lauderdale—who understands what makes a great number tick after an unbelievable 34 albums, roughly one per year—knows it by heart.

Few composers outside of Lowe’s 1970s Stiff Records stable could make high art out of such grisly inspiration, Lauderdale declares. “So I’ve always had a special affection for Nick and Elvis Costello and that whole Rockpile cast,” he says, proud that Costello actually covered one of his own cuts, “I Lost You.” “And as a matter of fact, [Rockpile guitarist] Billy Bremner and I got to do a lot of work together when my first Warner Brothers/Reprise record came out, and Billy was one of my guitar heroes, and we both happened be living in L.A. at the time.” Bremner would frequently join him onstage there, while on other occasions it would be Dwight Yoakam’s ex-axeman Pete Anderson. Then he goes on to list the various albums in his catalog that feature Bremner by rote: 1996’s Persimmons for Rounder Select, 2001’s The Other Sessions and its 2002 followup The Hummingbirds, both for Dualtone. Which logically circles right back to Hope, and its loping, twangy traditionalism like “Brave One,” “Joyful Noise,” “Breathe Real Slow,” “Here’s To Hoping,” and the Good-Samaritan-inspirational “The Opportunity To Help Somebody Through It.” It’s fun, light in chiming tone and basically the perfect pandemic pick-me-up. And at a well-seasoned 64, this longtime devotee of many Far Eastern disciplines, like tai chi and qigong, might be your perfect wisdom-dispensing sage, as well. So prepare yourself—here we go down the Jim Lauderdale rabbit hole.

Paste: It’s truly hard to believe that Hope is your 34th release.

Jim Lauderdale: Yeah, but actually I put out something on Bandcamp about a month ago, a solo acoustic thing I did in Bristol, Virginia, in this old building that’s now a hotel. But there’s this floor of the building that’s just empty, so I wanted to do it there and have a tie-in with Bristol, because I just have a real connection to that place. Because in Bristol, Virginia, you can literally walk across the street and you’re on the Tennessee side. But anyway, that had eight songs on it, so would eight songs be an album? If so, that would make 35. But we’ll just say, for argument’s sake, that it’ll be 34 for Hope.

Paste: We first talked for that Reprise debut, Planet of Love, three decades ago. And there was so much momentum behind you at the time. Were you stunned when it didn’t take off?

Lauderdale: Oh yeah. And the thing, for better or worse—and still to this day, with every record and the music inside—I think, “Well, I don’t know what’s gonna happen with this, but maybe this is gonna be the one that really moves the needle on the phonograph. Or maybe this song will be my breakthrough song.” So I just kind of put my trust in that and let it go. I just think, “Something great might happen with this.” But at the end of the day, if it doesn’t? That music is still out there. So the hard part—or the challenge is—to just make the music, and make it as good as I possibly can. And the rest, to a fair amount, is kind of out of my control. I can put on as many shows as I can and try and make ’em consistently good, and keep writing alone and with other people, and keep trying to do my best at all that. But you really can’t predict what’s gonna happen. And it was disappointing, very disappointing at times, where I kind of felt that there were these really special songs on these albums, but then they didn’t catch on in a big way. So sometimes it was really depressing, but I would always just think, “Well, hey—I’ve just got to keep at it! And whatever happens is gonna happen, so just make the music as good as you can.” So that’s still my credo, because no matter what, when that music is there—when it’s out there—you’ve left your mark.

Paste: Steve Wynn from The Dream Syndicate said something last year, about how he was fully prepared for the fact that his core audience might somehow miss his 21st record, somehow. But instead of dwelling on it, he’d just go record a 22nd.

Lauderdale: Yeah. Exactly! And the way I look at it is, if there are that many people that haven’t heard the latest release—or are not going to for some reason—I might as well release something else with the possibility of that happening. So I guess my point is, I kind of stopped thinking of the results a long time ago. Because for me it’s all about the process, you know?

Paste: But at some point, you definitely found your Grammy-winning niche.

Lauderdale: Yes, definitely. But I’m still not content, really, with things. But that’s part of the motivation, or inspiration, to keep coming up with new material. But I’m not really sure if this is what made me content, but I think after doing a few major label things, when I started recording with Ralph Stanley [1999’s I Feel Like Singing Today, on Rebel], that was just a big turning point. And then also around that time, getting to start to write with Robert Hunter [legendary Grateful Dead lyricist, who passed away in San Rafael in September of 2019]—both of those were real game-changers. And I just really miss Robert Hunter. And I cherish the time I got to spend with him, and all the work we got to do together.

Paste: You have one of Hunter’s last co-writes, “Memory,” on Hope. Was it like an Elton John/Bernie Taupin kind of arrangement you had with him?

,Lauderdale: Yeah, it was very similar. When I was getting ready to do the first record with Ralph Stanley, I just on a whim thought, “It’s a long shot, but I’d really like to see if Robert Hunter would write with me for this Ralph Stanley record.” So a friend of mine who knows everything Grateful Dead was able to put us in touch, and I didn’t know how to email back then—in 1997, I think it was—so he faxed me some lyrics, and then I wrote a melody to ‘em for this song called “Joy, Joy, Joy,” and so I overnighted a cassette, and then he suggested a song that was in Box of Rain, his book of lyrics that hadn’t been put to lyrics, called “I Will Wait For You.” So when it was time to do the record with Ralph, those songs passed the audition process.

So we did that record, and then Robert came to Nashville for a few months, and when I wasn’t on the road, I’d go over to where he was staying and we would chat for a little while, and then a melody would come to me and I would put it down on a cassette, and leave him with the cassette. And I’d come back the next day, and he would have a lyric. And sometimes he would just have a lyric that he would give to me, as well. But we wrote about 33 songs during that little patch of time. And then a few years went by, and we hadn’t gotten together—he was out in San Rafael. So then I whittled down those 33 songs to 13, and did a record called Headed For the Hills [2004, on Dualtone]. And I had a lot of guests on there, and there were some people that he especially wanted that we agreed on, like Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Buddy Miller and Tim O’Brien and Bucky Baxter, with Byron House on bass. And then I got my old friends Donna The Buffalo—we had already started recording [his 2003 Wait ’Til Spring collaboration, also on Dualtone], so I got them on a song. So that record took a while to get together, but that happened and it came out. And then finally, I went to San Rafael just to get with Robert in person again. And I had been doing some new recording—another big rite of passage for me was, I had started recording with James Burton and Al Perkins, and Al was a steel player that had played me in L.A. and recorded with me on my unreleased Epic record that Pete Anderson did. But Al had moved to Nashville, too, and I was so steeped in those two Gram Parsons albums, and wanted to work with as many of the people on them as I could, so I had Al and James, and Glenn D. Hardin and Ronnie Tutt, and I got Gary Tallent to play bass. And we had a studio that I was doing a ton of stuff in, called MoonDog Studios.

So when I went out and started writing with Robert, I was getting my feet wet recording with those guys back in Nashville, and Robert and I wrote a few things. But then when I went back, and we started recording. So that took a while to come together, but I eventually put out the album I cut with James and all those guys and called it Honey Songs [for YepRoc in 2008], and that was without the Robert Hunter stuff, but after that I put out a collection of these other Robert Hunter songs called Patchwork River [2010, Thirty Tigers]. And right after that, another big rite of passage for me was, Elvis Costello asked me to sing harmonies with him on a record he did called A Secret Profane Sugarcane, and we toured with that record for almost two years, and then he did another record called National Ransom, and I got to write a couple with Elvis during that time, and he recorded the two songs.

So I was getting to work more with these heroes, and when I got back from a European tour with Elvis Costello, I kind of got on a roll, and I sent Robert Hunter a bunch of bluegrass ideas. I had learned how to email by this point. And so in about six days we wrote 15 or so songs, between me sending him stuff, and him sending me the lyrics back. And so I went in and did this all-bluegrass record called Reason and Rhyme [2011, on Sugar Hill], and Robert’s wife Maureen invited me to his 70th birthday, so I went out there—they were having a party, and it was kind of a surprise. And that night, he was saying how much he liked that record, and that we needed to write a follow-up. And I said, “Great!” So I changed my trip and stayed out there a couple more days, and we wrote most of the next bluegrass record I did with him, Carolina Moonrise [2012, Compass], wrote the gist of that in only two days.

Another group on my bucket list was The North Mississippi All-Stars, so I had some time booked with them and wasn’t sure how it was gonna turn out, but I didn’t have the songs together when I went in, and that happens to me a lot when I record. So I only had three co-writes with Robert going in, but we kept writing long distance like that, until I ended up putting two [Hunter collaborations] on the same day, the all-acoustic Blue Moon Junction and an electric Black Rose [on Sky Crunch in 2013], and I didn’t even have a label for them initially. And not to contradict what I said before, but I thought, “If the music’s good, it’ll find a way of getting out there.” And I do really think the music’s good on those two records, but it was definitely naive of me just to think that I’d throw ’em out there and somehow they’d get discovered and catch on. But within a period of a year, I put out four records. Right before those records, I put out a bluegrass album called Old Time Angels [also on Sky Crunch].

And then after those two records came out, I put out a double country record called I’m a Song [Sky Crunch, also], and James Burton and Al Perkins are on half of that, and there are a couple of Robert Hunter co-writes on that album, as well. But I had not been pressuring Robert to write, so for the last several years we didn’t get together and write. I would go visit with him and his family when I’d go out there [San Rafael], but I just went through a phase of thinking that it was just such an honor to be a friend with him that I didn’t want there to be another agenda to be going on. But after I tweaked this song “Memories,” I sent it to Robert and Maureen, and she said that they’d cried when they heard it.

Paste: You have a new song with the telling title “Mushrooms are Growing After the Rain.” Are you a serious mycologist?

Lauderdale: I’m an amateur. And I don’t forage like I used to. When I was in high school, I did have a Euell Gibbons thing going on. So I don’t pick wild mushrooms, but I really got into—and recently upped my doses of—all of these medicinal mushrooms, like Rasheed and lion’s mane, which I reference in that song. I think they really helped my immune system, all those mushrooms—there’s something to them. They really have some amazing qualities.

Paste: You seem to have become this totally serene, zen-like guy now. I thought I saw you in North Beach last week, doing tai chi with the local elders!

Lauderdale: As a matter of fact, with George Xu, when I lived in L.A., I commuted a lot up to San Francisco to study with George, and George would have tai chi camps in La Honda, so I’d go up there every summer, and then he started running tai chi camps in China and I went over there. I just enjoyed studying with him so much, and I met several teachers that he would bring over from China, and I continued studying with them and some of the former students of George. Actually, just before we started talking today, I did a Zoom class with a teacher named Rose Oliver, who I had gone with to George’s tai chi camps. And then she moved to China several years and became really adept at several forms. So I’m studying a yang form with her that I haven’t before, and it is long. I’ve been studying it on Zoom for over a year now, a couple of times a week, and I still haven’t finished this form. So I don’t know if I’ll get it. And I’ve also taking a lot of Zoom classes with a teacher who used to live in San Francisco, and her name is Li Ping Zhu, and she and her husband Philip, who have moved up to Eureka, have a school called the Qi Dragon School, so I’ve taken a lot of qigong classes online, and that’s really been great during the pandemic. And I’ve been studying another form called Xin Yi, as well. But most of my teachers for the last several years have lived in China, so I can’t get over there during this. But these Zoom classes have just been great.

Paste: We shall see if you can snatch the pebble from my hand, Grasshopper!

Lauderdale: Ha! You know, I used to love that show [Kung Fu, with David Carradine] when I was in high school, and it really did inspire me to try to someday study the internal martial arts. And there are a ton of great warmup exercises from all these different schools, but I like to combine the best that really speak to me from each of these schools, and kind of combine them into my warmup routine. So I’ve kind of narrowed things down to about four styles of tai chi-type movements and a few different styles of qigong. So it keeps me active every day, just trying to get my practice in. And I can feel what it does for me—I just physically have a better sense of wellbeing, and it’s great brain training for me, too, to constantly learn new movements. It’s really calmed me down, and helps in the day to day anxieties and pressures of life. It’s not a cure-all by any means of everything physical and mental, but it really resonates with me. And it’s kind of a lifelong process of learning—even if you stay with one style your whole life, there’s always these nuances in movement that you’re discovering. It’s a never-ending process, and I’m really just fascinated with it.

Paste: Your song “Brave One” almost sounds like life advice for kids.

Lauderdale: Well, with that one I definitely had in mind frontline workers, and also just anybody that’s in some kind of service, whether it be military or what—just people that are risking their lives and sticking their necks out. But my heart really went out to all these frontline workers.

Paste: Who did the amazing cover painting on Hope?

Lauderdale: Maureen Hunter! Robert’s wife. I love it. And when I was at their house one time, and I was working on that record Black Roses, I saw a print in their living room, and I asked if I could use it for the cover of the album. But Robert said he had already used it as an illustration in his translation of the Duino Elegies by Rilke, which he had translated from the German—and I thought, “Wow! I had no idea he’d done that! So okay … ” But after Robert passed, when I was talking to Maureen, I said, “Have you been painting?” And she said yes, she had been doing a lot. I said I’d love to see some paintings, so she sent me her new stuff, and I didn’t want to commit to cover art yet. But when I saw her art, all of it was great, and that just really seemed different. It’s a magical painting, and luckily she agreed to let me use it.

Paste: You’ve already acquired so much knowledge. But what did the pandemic teach you?

Lauderdale: Well, when the pandemic started, it seemed like for the longest time, I just really was in a heavy funk, feeling very depressed. So it took me a while to kind of musically get going again, so right now I think there’s still a long way to go, but I’m optimistic.

Paste: Which means you have three more records coming out before Christmas?

Lauderdale: Not three. But let’s just say … I’m learning. It took me a long time—and I do have some other things in the works—but I’ve been learning the hard way not to get sidetracked from talking about my current record by going, “Oh yeah—but this next record I’m working on!” I had a real bad habit of doing that for the longest time, just because I’m usually working on several things simultaneously. But luckily, I do have some new things almost ready to go. But only when the time is right—once this record has been out there for a little while …