With 19 albums and hundreds of songs to his name, Jim Lauderdale
has become one of the leading voices in the country and Americana
genres. His collaborations include everyone from Ralph Stanley to Elvis
Costello. In fact, it’s probably easier to come up with a list of people
that haven’t worked with him than those that have.
Though his songs have ranged all over the
musical map, Lauderdale’s recent albums have tended to stick to a
certain genre, be it traditional country or bluegrass. Whatever he’s
done, though, he’s done it well. He’s won two Grammy awards
for his bluegrass albums, and many of
the songs on his country and Americana albums have gone on to be
recorded by other artists
“I do a cyclical thing with music that’s more traditionally based
with my own twist on it, to something that’s pushing the envelope a
little more stylistically, but still within a roots format,” he
The songs on his latest album, Patchwork River, are more
eclectic, ranging from the pure country of “Turn to Stone” to the
soulful “Louisville Roll.” As diverse as the songs are, the unifying
feature is that they all come from the collaboration
of Lauderdale and master lyricist Robert Hunter.
Hunter is probably best known for his work with Jerry Garcia and the
Grateful Dead, having co-written classics like “Truckin’,” “Friend of the Devil” and “Uncle John’s
Band.” Lauderdale, a long-time fan, first got the chance to write with
Hunter about a dozen years ago, while he was recording I Feel Like
Singing Today with Ralph Stanley. He wanted that album to be a
mixture of classic songs and originals, so he reached out to Hunter
through a mutual friend.
“I sent him a fax, and he sent me these lyrics back for a song called
“Joy Joy Joy,” Lauderdale recalls. He came up with a melody, put it on a
cassette and sent it to Hunter. In turn, Hunter liked the melody and
sent more lyrics, this time for “I Will Wait For You.” Both songs ended
up on the album, and a third, “Trust (Guiding Star),” found its way onto
a Lauderdale solo project.
Those three songs helped set the tone for a partnership that has
grown ever since between Hunter, the lyricist, and Lauderdale, with his
knack for melodies. Patchwork River is the second album to
feature songs written exclusively by the duo.
“When I write with Robert, if he’ll hand me a lyric, a melody will
come immediately, or else I’ll give him a melody on a cassette, and
he’ll put a lyric to it,” Lauderdale explains. Many of the songs from
the new album were written while Lauderdale was visiting Hunter in California.
“We would just sit and chat, and a melody would come up for me. I
would play it for him several times and record it, and I’d go off in
another room sometimes while he’d write to it.”
The resulting 13 songs on Patchwork River show both men
playing to their strengths. The songs are loaded with catchy melodies,
and lyrics that can be straightforward in some cases or out of left
field in others.
“Turn to Stone,” a fun, bouncy song about a man too petrified to
speak to the girl of his dreams, would fit perfectly on an Alan Jackson
album. The protagonist in “El Dorado,” on the other hand, is a
world-weary explorer whose best days are behind him.
“Alligator Alley” tells the story of a man trying to escape a massive
fire in the Everglades. It features the aforementioned out-of-left-field
lines, “She said ‘You look like Elvis Presley’/I said, ‘I know, it
tends to stress me.”
“When we write together, I don’t mess with his lyrics at all,”
Lauderdale says. “To me, he’s such a master at it, I don’t give him
titles or anything. It’s always so different. You never know what he
might cook up.”
He points to Hunter’s versatility when referring to his contributions on an upcoming Ralph
Stanley gospel record being produced by Stanley’s son.
“They needed some last-minute things, so I sent Robert an e-mail,”
Lauderdale says. “Over the course of 24 hours, he sent me three really
great lyrics that could have been on a Stanley Brothers record.
“So sometimes his lyrics are so creative
that it’s something that nobody else could have thought of, and then he
can also write to fit whatever style.”
Co-writer of Choice
Lauderdale admits that lyrics don’t come as easy to him as melodies
do, but it needs to be mentioned that he is a gifted lyricist in his own
right. His songs have been cut by many of country music’s finest,
including George Strait, Patty Loveless and Gary Allan.
While working with other writers around Nashville, the process can
change from day to day. In one instance during a writing session with
Frank Dycus, Lauderdale provided the melody and Dycus came up with the
title, “Gonna Get a Life.” Mark Chesnutt took the song to #1, making it
Lauderdale’s first chart-topper.
More recently, he wrote “Twang,” recorded by George Strait, with
Jimmy Ritchey and Kendall Marvel.
“I had never written [with them] before,” he relates. “I went over to
Jimmy’s house, and they had a good bit of it. I added my part to it,
and it didn’t take very long in that case.”
Lauderdale has written with several of his heroes, including Harlan
Howard and Del Reeves. He also had the chance to complete an unfinished
Gram Parsons song, “Blessing for Being,” on a compilation called The
Gram Parsons Notebook – The Last Whippoorwill. John Nuese, one of
Parsons’ bandmates in the International Submarine Band, had a journal
filled with lyrics, and producers Mike Ward and Eddie Cunningham
contacted Lauderdale about contributing a song.
“I took one look at [the lyric], and this melody–it was very chilling
for me–this melody just started coming out,” he recalls. “It needed
another verse, and I added the second verse and tweaked the lyrics a
little bit to complete it. That was a real thrill, because I am a huge
Along with Lauderdale’s remarkable success as a songwriter, he is
also an in-demand harmony singer; he recently appeared at a few shows
with Willie Nelson and will be touring Europe this July with Elvis
Costello and his band, The Sugarcanes. Additionally, he hosts a weekly
roots music show at Nashville’s Loveless Cafe and maintains a busy
touring schedule to promote his own albums. With all that work, he
admits that sometimes he feels out of the loop in contemporary country
“I feel like my natural
writing style is so rooted in traditional country,” he explains, “that
sometimes I feel like I’m not very current
with what’s been going on in the country scene. But I made a conscious
decision years and years ago not to try and write something that sounds
like some current hit.
“That’s why I’m grateful for George Strait, who’s cut 14 of my songs,
that he does what he does. And I think maybe, because of some of the
different influences that I had, someone like Gary Allan will record my
stuff, because some of it has more of a rock edge to it,” he adds.
Somewhere in between his live shows, his co-writing, and his work
with other artists, Lauderdale has still found the time to release an
average of one new album a year throughout most of his career. Sooner
rather than later, then, he’ll be back with a new album. It might be
country, or bluegrass, or something that covers the span of American roots music. Certainly, it
wouldn’t be surprising to see a third album of Hunter/Lauderdale songs
eventually come out.
“As long as he’s interested in writing with me, I want to keep doing
it,” he says, “because I think he’s a true genius. It’s a real honor to
get to work with him.”