Jim Lauderdale Reflects on Legendary, 'Left-of-Center' Career

The country purist and Americana champion has led a life and career as colorful as his spangled suits

Jim Lauderdale, one of country music's most ubiquitous players, performs in Nashville earlier this spring. Credit: Ed Rode/WireImage

During the recent Americana Music Festival in Nashville, Jim Lauderdale was positively everywhere.

He hosted the Americana Music Association's annual awards show at the Ryman Auditorium, something he has done since the inaugural ceremony in 2002. Lauderdale held forth at his own showcase, performing songs from his most recent album, I'm a Song — the fourth the prolific singer/songwriter has released in the last 12 months. He also sat in on a set of classic country songs at Robert's Western World and a bluegrass jam session at the Station Inn.

There were other extracurriculars as well, including his hosting the weekly Music City Roots radio program, as he does frequently, and an appearance on the Grand Ole Opry.

Earlier in the week, the 57-year-old country preservationist attended a screening of Jim Lauderdale: The King of Broken Hearts, a just-released documentary tracing his life and career, shot by Australian filmmaker Jeremy Dylan. Oh, and somewhere in the middle of all that, he managed to squeeze in some sessions for a forthcoming bluegrass album.

In King of Broken Hearts, Lauderdale's friend and sometime co-writer Odie Blackmon advances the theory that "Jim feeds on chaos." Which pretty much has to be true, right?

"Well, I don't consciously, and it's not that I crave it or anything like that," Lauderdale tells Rolling Stone Country. "But unfortunately, that just seems to be what happens. I love making records and writing songs and getting onstage. There's this zone where I feel most alive and comfortable — when a good song is coming through me or I'm onstage and things just fall into place."

By remaining open to inspiration, disdainful of genre restrictions, and in almost perpetual motion, Lauderdale has been granted access to that precious zone on numerous occasions throughout a recording career that spans a quarter century. He's hailed as a founding father of the loose aggregation of rootsy styles and sensibilities gathered under the big tent of Americana. Others regard him as a country traditionalist, pointing, reasonably, to I'm a Song, an omnibus of classic country tropes from dusty Bakersfield honkytonk and jazzy swing to barroom weepers, sophisticated Countrypolitan sounds and beyond. His own records have seldom found their place on the charts, but Lauderdale's songs have often been a rich vein of material (and numerous hits) for the likes of George Strait, Patty Loveless, the Dixie Chicks, Elvis Costello, Mark Chesnutt, Gary Allan, Lee Ann Womack and others. Lauderdale has won a pair of Grammy Awards — not for country music, mind you, but rather bluegrass; one of them for an album recorded with one of his heroes, Dr. Ralph Stanley.

Taking the long view of a career with more than its share of phases and stages, Lauderdale admits that things are just fine, thanks. "But it's funny," he says. "Nothing in my career has ever worked out the way I'd planned it."

Jim Lauderdale was born and reared in North Carolina, his father an Associate Reformed Presbyterian minister and his mother a high school choir director and piano teacher. Transfixed by the Beatles appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, he was also drawn to the pop and rock sounds of the Monkees, Motown, Cream and the Allman Brothers, as well as the high lonesome strains of bluegrass and the country music made by George Jones, Johnny Cash, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Of particular interest were the Grateful Dead's country-leaning American Beauty and Workingman's Dead albums and the proto-alt-country of Gram ParsonsGP and Grievous Angel. "When I heard Gram for the first time, it was a revelation," he says. "Those two albums were touchstones."

After studying theater at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, where he also played in country and bluegrass bands, Lauderdale gave Nashville a try. "My two goals were to hang out with George Jones and with [bluegrass artist] Roland White," he says. "And I did get to hang out with Roland. We did a bluegrass record that never came out, and we've lost the masters, unfortunately."

Lauderdale met musicians such as Tony Garnier (later a longtime Dylan sideman), Shawn Colvin and Buddy Miller (who remains a close friend and collaborator, teaming with Lauderdale on 2012's Grammy-nominated album Buddy and Jim and the SiriusXM Outlaw Country weekly two-hour Buddy & Jim Show). 

One of Lauderdale's day jobs at the time was serving as a messenger for Rolling Stone. He'd work in the mailroom, pick up and drop off rental equipment used by photographer Annie Leibovitz, and deliver copies of the magazine to record labels.

"One day I was delivering the magazine and I was pushing this dolly of bundles of issues, and James Taylor was on the cover," he says. "I was going down the street and who turns the corner and walks by but James Taylor? So I pulled an issue out and I just went [deadpans] '…Here.' He had this really surprised look on his face. I just kept going."

Lauderdale auditioned for the play Cotton Patch Gospel, which featured music by pop-folkie Harry Chapin, and got the role. He also played Jesse James in Diamond Studs, with Shawn Colvin playing his wife. Later, he joined a touring cast of Pump Boys and Dinettes.

Eventually landing in L.A., Lauderdale found himself in the midst of another scene on the verge. He fell in with artists such as Dwight Yoakam, Rosie Flores, Lucinda Williams, Dale Watson and Dave Alvin. Lauderdale scored a deal with Epic Records with songs produced by Yoakam's guitarist and producer Pete Anderson, but the album was never released.

He got another deal, this time with Warner Bros., and his actual debut, Planet of Love, produced by Rodney Crowell and John Leventhal, was released in 1994. "It was a long road for me," Lauderdale says. "I was 35 when my first record came out." It was a good one, but it fell into the netherworld of "a little too country, a little too pop." The record sank.

Lauderdale found solace — and career salvation — in the fact that eight of the 10 songs on Planet were eventually recorded by other artists, notably George Strait, who sang "Where the Sidewalk Ends" and "King of Broken Hearts" on the soundtrack for his movie Pure Country.

"That just totally changed my luck and fate as a songwriter," Lauderdale says. "That opened the door for producers to start asking for my stuff instead of thinking I was too kooky or left-of-center."

There would be other major-label deals to come, but none of his records really broke through. Lauderdale remained determined. "Even when things were kind of disappointing with my record deals, I felt like, 'Well, the only way I can get out of this situation or pull myself out of this hole, is to write my way out,'" he says.  

A track on one of Lauderdale's albums for RCA, 1997's Whisper, featured a guest appearance by Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. That led to two album-length collaborations with Stanley and a Grammy for 2002's Lost in the Lonesome Pines.

Working with the bluegrass legend "meant a lot because I had tried so hard to do bluegrass as a teenager," Lauderdale says. "To finally have my first bluegrass record be with him, it made it worth the wait and made all that disappointment go away."

At that time, Lauderdale also began writing with legendary Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. Their first collaborations were by fax and by phone because, as Lauderdale admits, "at the time I didn't know how to do the Internet."

Hunter, he says, is "a genius. I can't believe I've even met him, much less written even a song with him. He's as great now as ever as a songwriter."

Prolific, too. Lauderdale and Hunter have gone through stretches of writing 18 songs in eight days (resulting in the album Reason and Rhyme) and later, 10 songs in a day and a half (which became Carolina Moonrise.)

"He's just really fast," Lauderdale says of Hunter. "And see, melodies come to me fairly quickly, and so I'll give him pretty much the way a song is gonna be. I’ll play an intro and then hum a verse or chorus and go, 'Okay, solo here or there' and I'll give it to him. And within maybe a couple hours, but as short as a half hour, boom, he'll have something."

Lauderdale's own prolific nature has shown up with a vengeance in the last year, during which he released the bluegrass album Old Time Angels. Then came the solo acoustic Land of My Dreams (written with Hunter); the roaring blues-rock Black Roses (also written with Hunter and featuring the North Mississippi Allstars and studio legends David Hood and Spooner Oldham); and finally I'm a Song, part of which was recorded in historic (and possibly doomed) RCA Studio A.

The new album was co-written or features guest shots from Hunter, Elvis Costello, Bobby Bare, Patty Loveless, Buddy Miller, Lee Ann Womack, John Oates and others. It contains 20 songs, enough for a double album, but it's contained on one CD because "I didn’t want to waste the plastic," Lauderdale says with a laugh.

Significantly, it contains a re-recording of "The King of Broken Hearts."

"It's a real important song to me," Lauderdale says. "It was on Planet of Love, but that record went out of print. I sing it almost every show. And so I wanted to have it available."

He wrote the song as a tribute to Parsons and to Jones, starting it in L.A. after reading Sid Griffin's Gram Parsons: A Music Biography. "I read about this party that Gram had and he was playing George Jones records and he said, 'That's the king of broken hearts.' I just got these chills and the melody started coming out. A couple days later, I went out to Joshua Tree [the national park is sacred space for Parsons, and now, for Lauderdale] and it was a full moon and I finished it."

Lauderdale got to know the subject of his signature song a bit. He and George Jones did a duet in the Nineties that eventually surfaced on an album called Burn Your Playhouse Down. Lauderdale also portrayed Jones in a play about Jones' former wife Tammy Wynette.

Jones, it turns out, once made a fleeting pass at covering "The King of Broken Hearts." "He was doing a record with producer Emory Gordy Jr., and Emory called me and said they wanted to record it. And I just about fell over," Lauderdale says.

Unfortunately, Jones needed the meter of a particular line changed and Lauderdale couldn't find a way to make it work without the song collapsing. "But I did get to sing it to him at the Grand Ole Opry House. He was sitting on the front row," Lauderdale says. "It was real meaningful."

One thing that seems certain about Lauderdale's career is that he will keep things moving forward. He has another record in the can, one he recorded with legendary studio aces James Burton and Al Perkins. There's another one that he recorded in England a while back with Nick Lowe's band. And there's the new bluegrass album that's in progress.

As well as the documentary. Since Lauderdale has so many projects and commitments to deal with, The King of Broken Hearts forced him to stop and think for a minute about where he' been and what it all means.

"It's interesting and unusual to see a good chunk of your life on the screen," he says. "And it makes you reflect and think. I stay so busy so much that I don't really think about a lot of things about my life, or about life in general. I'm just so focused on the next record or getting to the next gig and getting through it all."