June 21, 2011

When Jim Lauderdale was a North Carolina teenager back in the 1970s, he had a straightforward idea of what he wanted to be when he grew up: a tenor-singing, banjo-playing bluegrass musician.  As it turned out, the banjo playing fell by the wayside, and so did much of the tenor singing.  But the bluegrass musician part?  For the answer, consult any of the half-dozen stellar bluegrass albums Lauderdale's made over the past decade and a half, including 2003's Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album with Ralph Stanley - or, even better, just spin the Americana icon's debut for Sugar Hill Records, Reason And Rhyme.  It's the latest proof, if any were still needed, that two time Bluegrass Grammy winner Lauderdale's a master - and just as importantly, it's some mighty fine music.

  Jim Lauderdale - Reason and Rhyme (EPK) from Jeremy Dylan on Vimeo.

Indeed, one of the joys of the new release is its reliance on the magic made by the songwriting team of Lauderdale and legendary Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter.  Building on a track record that goes back to 1997's Grammy nominated Lauderdale-Ralph Stanley collaboration - "I sought him out," Jim says with a laugh - the pair got busy writing last autumn after Lauderdale finished a European tour guesting with Elvis Costello.  "I got this idea to write a bluegrass record with Robert," Lauderdale recalls.  "And so I would send him melodies, in an hour or two he would send back lyrics.  First off, we wrote a couple of gospel songs, because we knew Ralph was recording a gospel album - we were too late, but 'Fields Of The Lord' came from that, and that was the catalyst for the rest of the project.  In 10 days we wrote about 18 songs."

With the songs in hand, Lauderdale wanted to move quickly, so he turned to Randy Kohrs, the sought after studio Dobro player and singer who'd produced his Grammy-winning The Bluegrass Diaries in 2006.  "Randy's instincts were so good," he notes, "And it allowed me to make my record a lot quicker.  He got a dream team together, and we recorded the whole thing in a day.  The next day I went and fixed a few things, and over the next two days, Randy mixed it.  It was the fastest I've ever made a record, and it was a great experience.  I could never have done that on my own - it would have taken days, weeks, months."

But don't be fooled by the quick production of Reason And Rhyme.  Its easygoing spirit and spontaneous grooves are underpinned by a lifetime of bluegrass involvement.  Indeed, the very first album Lauderdale ever recorded was with bluegrass legend Roland White, during a brief stay in Nashville some 30 years ago.  "If I had had my way, that's the way my recording career would have started," he says with a chuckle, but the album was never released, and he moved on to what eventually became a successful career as a writer of country hits - and much more.

Yet though he's become known as a roots music Renaissance man, hosting a popular country music variety show, recording and performing with an array of artists from Costello to jamgrass favorites Donna The Buffalo, playing George Jones in a musical play, writing hit songs, recording country and Americana albums and much more, Lauderdale's never strayed from bluegrass for very long.

And that lifelong familiarity with the style is evident in each track of Reason And Rhyme, from the playful pleading of the opening "Cruel Wind And Rain" to "Janis Jones"' classic, straightahead drive at the album's end.  Of course, it didn't hurt to have that "dream team" along for the ride - after all, Kohrs, banjo man Scott Vestal (Sam Bush Band), mandolin player Mike Compton (Nashville Bluegrass Band), Kohrs studio favorites Jay Weaver (bass), Clay Hess (guitar) and Tim Crouch (fiddle) are among the finest and most creative musicians around.  Still, Lauderdale's drawling, laconic delivery dominates the proceedings, serving up those perfectly-married melodies and lyrics with inimitable style.

"Performing as a bluegrass artist is what I do as much as anything else," he affirms.  "It's what I wanted to do when I started my career, and it's something I've been doing steadily, especially in the years since I made that first record with Ralph.  Nothing in my career has ever worked out as planned, but after years and years of ups and downs, I feel real fortunate."