BIRMINGHAM WEEKLY: So how did the Americana Awards you emceed go this year?
JIM LAUDERDALE: It went great. The show was really terrific and Iím real proud of my friend Buddy Miller for making such a large sweep of awards, well deserved, and it was really great to have John Fogerty there. You know, weíve had some real heavy hitters there over the last several years, so weíre continuing in that tradition. It was terrific to have him and heís just a great voice. He performed the night before, and I just think people are really thrilled to have him there.
BW: He represents the spirit of Americana, to be sure.
BW: Can you tell us a little about what it was like to spend your summer vacation touring with Elvis Costello?
JL: Boy, that was a lifetime dream ó aw, shoot. Thereís a lady thatís stuck over here. Hold on. I need to push this lady out of the way.
[There is an interlude, during which Jim Lauderdale ditches the interview to assist a hapless motorist. Did we say he was Raised Right?]
JL: Sorry. You still there?
BW: Did you have a little fracas on the roadside?
JL: Yeah. This lady ran out of gas, so me and this other fellow pushed her into a gas station. Luckily, there was one real close. Iíve got my stage clothes on, Iím on my way to this Academy of Country Music awards thing, not broadcast, but theyíre honoring a few different people and Iím doing a Harlan Howard medley. Harlan was a dear friend and a good mentor and just a wonderful guy.
BW: Was he able to impart any of his unique songwriting style to you?
JL: Well, when we were writing together, he was primarily a lyricist, but he did have some melodic ideas he threw in as well. One of my favorite songs we wrote together ó we were sitting around talking and he was asking me about my love life. I was telling him about something and he said, ĎWell, youíll know when itís right.í And when he said that, I got this sort of a chill, and he was talking on about it and I said, ĎHarlan, hold on a minute, Ďcause this melodyís coming to me and it goes like this.í I started singing this thing, and then he started writing away on a legal pad and pretty soon we had a song, in fifteen minutes. He kind of wrote more lyrics than we needed and we just edited it down. We had a fun collaboration and just being around him was inspiring. Youíd absorb things just by osmosis.
BW: Who would you say has done the best cover of one of your compositions?
JL: Thatís hard to say. George Straitís done 15 of them now, and I just found out yesterday that my co-writers, Jimmy Ritchie and Kendall Marvel, and I now have the next George Strait single, the title song off his new album, Twang. Thatís great; I havenít had a George Strait cut in probably five years or so, so Iím real happy about that. I really love his covers. One of my most meaningful was Patty Loveless, she had a hit song and it was a duet with George Jones called ďYou Donít Seem to Miss Me.Ē That was real special for me.
BW: Itíll also be a nice little something in your Christmas stocking to have the George Strait cut.
JL: Yeah, thatís right. That kind of helps support my artistís career. It really does. Itís allowed me through the years to make as many records as I do and kinda go against the advice of others business-wise going, ĎDonít put out so many records.í
BW: The interesting thing about Nashville ó in the old days, you divided up, you were either a picker or a grinner. Youíve taken this middle course, this eclectic approach to Music City thatís allowed you to establish your presence in many types of music, and I wonder if thatís given you a unique perspective on country in particular.
JL: Well, Iím a traditionalist by nature, country-wise, so thatís where my listening enjoyment lies, and my style of country. I got my first record deal as a country artist, even though I wanted and intended it to be as a bluegrass artist, but it didnít work that way. Really, nothing that I had planned has worked out as I thought, but it still turned out okay. Iím happy with all the things that have turned out. I entered the country world back in the Eighties with real hard country stuff (and it didnít get released; it was produced by Pete Anderson, Dwight Yoakamís producer because I was singing on Dwight Yoakamís records at that time), and then my second record [Planet of Love], which was kind of pushing the envelope country-wise, produced by John Leventhal and Rodney Crowell, was a mixture of traditional stuff, but beyond. Neither one of those records did I have any hits on myself, but other people started recording songs off of those records. When I did not enter the mainstream as a radio artist, I just kinda started doing whatever I wanted to creatively and ended up getting record deals with other people. I did wind up having three major label deals as a country artist, but it never clicked for me, being a radio artist in that format. Consequently, eventually I was able to make bluegrass records, starting off with Ralph Stanley. I couldnít get that kind of deal in my early twenties, but it was worth the wait to have my first bluegrass record be with Ralph Stanley.
BW: Start at the top.
JL: Yes, yes, and since then Iíve been putting them out on my own for bluegrass. I was kind of a late bloomer, record deal-wise, as far as getting a deal with something that I aspired to, so I think in some ways to catch up with some of my peers, I would put out several records a year when I could, or sometimes release two records of different styles on the same day. One great thing that happened during this time was, when I first started doing the records with Ralph, I hooked up with Robert Hunter, whoís one of my favorite songwriters. He co-wrote the new Dylan album, but along with Jerry Garcia, he wrote most of the Grateful Dead catalog. Itís been great working with him. We released an album of songs we collaborated on called Headed for the Hills, back in 2004, and now weíre finishing up another batch of collaborations thatíll hopefully come out in March, and thatís going to be called Patchwork River. Headed for the Hills was all acoustic and I had Buddy Miller, Tim OíBrien, Darrell Scott, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings and Emmylou on that. Now this one, about half of it is with guys I put out a record last year called Honey Songs, and thatís James Burton, Al Perkins, Ron Tutt, Glen D. Hardin ó these guys played on some of my favorite records, the Gram Parsons records, and they played with Elvis. It was a treat to get to tour with them, and finally at the end of the tour we wrote a couple together, and thatís been a lifelong dream. Then weekend before last, I sang on Willie Nelsonís next record that T-Bone Burnettís producing; Willieís been a huge hero to me. I have just been real fortunate that Iíve been able to work with so many of my heroes.
BW: But this is the payoff for your eclecticism, because where some might say youíre diluting your commercial impact, I see it as creating fan bases in different genres, which gives you extraordinary leeway in choosing people with whom youíd like to work. People will take your calls because youíve established your credibility.
JL: Well, Iím just gonna keep at it. Iíve got some other stuff in the cans. I think after the Robert Hunter record finally gets done, Iíll work on another country album, because I havenít put out one of those in a while. Thereís not much traditionally based stuff these days country-wise, so Iíd like to keep my hand in that.
BW: Do you think the changes in country music have changed Music City?
JL: I donít think itís really changed Nashville. Itís just natural that styles evolve and countryís not the same just the way that rockís not the same anymore. I think Nashville, as a city and as a business place, just keeps evolving, too.
BW: Youíll be bringing some fine bluegrass players for your show at the Alys Stephens Centerís Jemison Stage on the 14th, but I wonder ó if you could go back in time and assemble a bluegrass band from any era of the music, who would be in your dream band?
JL: Wow, thatís a good one. I would maybe immediately say J.D. Crowe and the New South, from the era with [Ricky] Skaggs and Jerry [Douglas[ and Tony [Rice]. Iíd say that for a unit off the top of my head. However, Iíd think another dream band scenario would be Don Stover on the banjo ó kind of an obscure guy who was produced by David Grisman; he had a great record on Rounder called Things In Life. Grisman, Iíd also say him... Stewart Duncan on the fiddle, Dennis Crouch on bass and Jerry Douglas [on dobro], Jeff Taylor on accordion and Mike Compton on mandolin [all of whom played with Jim behind Elvis Costello this summer as The Sugarcanes]. That was a killer band. But, no, to save your time, maybe just say that one of my dream bands would be Don Stover, David Grisman, Kenny Baker [fiddle], Roland White or Clarence White on guitar and Iíll say Dennis Crouch on bass. I can think of lots of configurations but thatíd be a good one.
Say, does Glenn Tolbert still live down there? One year, í83 or í84 it might have been, I came and stayed on the campus of Samford University for three weeks and did this play called Cotton Patch Gospel.
BW: My old schoolmate, Tommy Key co-wrote that.
JL: Yeah, he was in it and I was part of the bluegrass band in it, playing banjo and guitar, and a fellow in the show, Jeff Pinkham, knew Glenn Tolbert and we would jam some and we went out to hear Glenn play and we even played on ďThe Country Boy Eddie ShowĒ one morning.
BW: Which just means that you, my friend, are a bonafide country star.
Jim Lauderdale performs at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 14, in the Jemison Concert Hall at the Alys Stephens Center, as part of the ďOn Stage with the BandĒ series. Tickets start at $35. Good People Brewing Company will host a complimentary craft brew tasting before the show, starting at 6 p.m. Call (205) 975-287 or go to www.alysstephens.org for tickets.