Since Americana became an official radio format in 1995, myriad male artists have been proclaimed the godfather of the roots-based genre. But few deserve the title more than Jim Lauderdale, who, having released more than 30 albums over the past three decades, has worked in all of the elements that help define Americana: country, folk, bluegrass, blues, gospel, and rock.
With his new LP From Another World, the stylistically similar follow-up to 2018’s Time Flies, Lauderdale continues to showcase his exceptional prowess with lyric and melody, which accounts for the vast number of songs he’s had cut by artists like George Strait, Vince Gill, Elvis Costello, and Dixie Chicks. Lauderdale is a wry observer of human nature and romantic entanglements, and, as a long-time practitioner of tai chi, has become in tune with everything going on around him.
The songwriter shared his thoughts on the seemingly lost art of listening over a recent lunch at Nashville’s Fenwicks 300 diner, where he sipped one of their signature drinks, the “Impeached.” He also recalled the writing sessions for From Another World, and reflected on an unsettling memory outside John Lennon’s New York apartment when Lauderdale worked as a messenger and mailroom assistant in the New York offices of Rolling Stone in the early Eighties.
Your records have always been pretty eclectic without ever straying too far from country music. Do you generally have an idea about the overall vibe an album will have before you record?
Basically, for this one, yes. Because I felt like it was a continuation of the sound I was getting with Time Flies. I wanted to make this more straight-ahead country. I sent my manager, Jeremy Dylan, a bunch more songs of what I had, thinking I’m just gonna make Time Flies a double album. But my record company, wisely, and with experience, said let’s not do a double record. It’s just best to separate them.
Do you write a lot of songs while you’re in the studio?
These, for a change, were already co-written and written, [but], yes, I was in the studio recently and did six more songs. That challenges me to keep the ball rolling. Back when I was with my first publisher, Bluewater Music, when other people started recording my songs, I was just in the studio so much because there was a demand for people like George Strait and Patty Loveless and Gary Allan and folks like that. I would just book time and then sometimes that would turn into records, sometimes it wouldn’t. Or, I would just have a concept, like I want to write an album for James Burton and Al Perkins. Or a bunch of Robert Hunter songs that are coming together. I really love being in the studio so much.
The title of the album comes from the song “Like People From Another World,” which almost sounds like you’re talking about alien beings, but it isn’t that at all. How would you describe it?
For me, it’s a gratitude song to people that you have come to your shows, they like your music, or just people that are kind, good people. It’s like, “You’re like somebody from another world!” They stand out because of their character. I wrote it with Mando Saenz. We did that and “One Away.” And then “Ever Living Loving Day” just kinda spilled out, too. I love writing with Mando. I was very fortunate to have those co-writers. I wanted to kind of fluctuate between writing most of an album myself or co-writing, and this just all fit.
“Listen,” which you wrote with the great Buddy Cannon, is such a powerful song. It seems like these days when you hear someone start a sentence with “Listen” or “Look,” that’s the last thing you really want to do.
That’s funny. That’s been pointed out to me before. That’s the new kind of thing, like, “Look… blah blah blah.” We are on overload with information and news. Everybody does have to be informed, really. That’s our duty, to know what’s going on. And that’s another part of listening. Listen to several sources and then come up with your own conclusions, see what the other person is thinking or saying as well. Because we are in this together. Buddy [Cannon], I believe, was the one that started off with, “You think you know everything.” And we changed it from “you don’t know anything” to “you don’t know lots of things.” It’s like, “Am I talking about myself here? Am I saying this to myself or saying it to somebody else and going, “Look. You don’t listen, but I understand because I don’t either.” So, it could kind of be interpreted both ways. It’s the times we’re living. Other people we might hear from a lot kind of think they know everything. We’ve got to listen to each other.
Before you settled in Nashville, you tried it here but ultimately moved to New York. How’d that happen?
Yes. When I left North Carolina after college, I came here for five months, but as time was going by, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to make it. Luckily, I did do this album with Roland White, who I’d been hanging out with, but I couldn’t get a deal for it, and I thought that was also going to be my big break. [Tapes of those recording sessions were discovered in White’s home and the album was finally released last year]. I had made a decision to move to New York City, and luckily, when I moved up there, there was this big country scene. Buddy Miller and Larry Campbell, Shawn Colvin, Julie Miller, John Leventhal, were part of that scene. But one of the motivating factors for me moving to New York was that I read in Rolling Stone about Steve Forbert. I got his first album, Alive on Arrival, and just loved it. The article was talking about how he had moved to New York from Mississippi and was a messenger. So I thought, well, I’m gonna do that. I needed a day job. So I just went by the office of Rolling Stone, and I thought, hey, this would be a cool place to work. I was hired and I worked in the mailroom and was a messenger for them.
Aside from your on-the-street encounter with James Taylor, you also worked with photographer Annie Leibovitz. What other memories do you have of that time?
Sadly, I was picking up and delivering equipment for her photo shoot at the Dakota the day John Lennon was shot. So, I saw the guy, who I won’t name, standing waiting for an autograph, as I stood out there for a little while. I was thinking, boy, I’d like to see John and Yoko coming out. The young fellow in their office, when I’d done this transaction with the equipment, I said, how long are they gonna come out? He said, it could be 15 minutes, it could be an hour. I had a gig that night, so I stood out there for a little while. I thought, I just live three blocks on the same street down the way, I’m sure I’m going to run into him. So, I left. And that night at the gig, I found out what happened.