Jim Lauderdale:  Thriving On An American Mixture

Jim Lauderdale occupies a high seat in the pantheon of Bluegrass: Grammy awards, AMA trophies, Hall of Fame memorabilia, and a solid 19 acclaimed studio albums in 25 years. Even audiences who don't follow Bluegrass are familiar with his songwriting, if not his name.

Lauderdale has penned hits for George Strait, Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, the Dixie Chicks, and too many other artists to list. "It's hard to understand why Jim Lauderdale remains on the alternative fringe as a recording artist," writes critic Don McLeese, "but his indie status gives him the freedom to make the music that he wants."

Case in point is Lauderdale's just-released album "Reason and Rhyme," a collaboration with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. The CD has already drawn a rave from The Boston Globe, which says "Lauderdale's terrific musical stylings, the twangy expressiveness of his singing, and his backing ensemble's crack playing results in a classic Bluegrass sound that is yet just a turn off-center--an effect that Lauderdale seems to bring about no matter the genre."

The North Carolina native's life started out in a very different bailiwick: musical theatre. After studying in the Drama Department of the North Carolina School of the Arts, he moved to New York and landed roles in the touring productions of "Cotton Patch Gospel" and "Pump Boys and Dinettes." But throughout, he played guitar, networked with songwriters, and did open-mics and one-nighters whenever his schedule allowed.

He had the good fortune to hook up with Dwight Yoakam's producer, and his 1990s solo albums "Planet of Love," "Pretty Close to the Truth," and "Every Second Counts" won him a cult following and established him as a singer-songwriter to watch.

Lauderdale recalls growing up around a wide range of musical tastes: "My parents played all kinds of stuff. They played jazz vocal groups, Broadway shows. My dad liked country, and my mom was the choral teacher at school and the church choir director. Then my sister made me watch the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and that really changed me."

Nowadays, in between his touring and recording, Lauderdale manages to keep a hand in the non-musical aspects of performing as well. He's hosted the Americana Music Awards for the past seven years, and hosts a monthly concert called "Tennessee Shines" at the Bijou Theater in Knoxville, as well as two programs for WSM Radio in Nashville: "The Jim Lauderdale Show" and "Music City Roots: Live from the Loveless Cafe."

Not long ago, he starred in a regional theater production about the life of George Jones, and says he'll never forget the night he looked out and saw George sitting in the audience. "He left during the last song so as not to cause a fuss," Lauderdale says. "But that was quite an evening."

"I'm considered Americana," Lauderdale says, "but I do a mix of different styles: progressive and traditional country, Bluegrass, and blues. My last two albums were Bluegrass. Before that, I put out a record with a bunch of guys who had played with Gram Parsons and Elvis Presley.

"So I guess that means I'm due to do another straight-ahead country record before too long."

--Dale Short, carrolldaleshort.com

See Jim perform live from "Reason & Rhyme":