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With the best delayed plans, Jim Lauderdale hums along with two new discs

By Jon Weisberger, May 2002

Jim Lauderdale didn't exactly intend to release two new albums at the same time, but he's not unhappy with the way things worked out. His second collaboration with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, "Lost In The Lonesome Pines," comes out hot on the heels of the bluegrass patriarch's surprise capture of the Country Male Vocal Performance Grammy for his "Oh Death" contribution to the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack.

And Lauderdale's decision to delay release of "The Hummingbirds" in favor of recording the hard country "The Other Sessions" (2001) allowed the latter to work its way into the Americana chart's Top Five for most of last summer.

"We started the second album with Ralph on Election Day of 2000," he says with a laugh, "and it kept getting delayed because Ralph and the guys took a long time on the Clinch Mountain Sweethearts record. We finished about 12 songs in a couple of months, and then I thought well, that's just not quite enough. As I was driving away from the studio from what I thought was our last session that January, I thought 'something about the lonesome pines.' So I finished that song, and we went back in. Then after that, I thought, you know something? Ralph's not singing enough lead on here, I need to do an a cappella song. I wrote a couple of gospel numbers, and we finished it up in December. So this thing theoretically could have been out last year, but I'm kind of glad they got delayed because I got to write 'Lost In The Lonesome Pines' and ''Listen To The Shepherd,' which closes the record."

The North Carolina native, who has compiled an impressive list of songwriting credits on albums by country stars like George Strait while issuing a half dozen of his own critically acclaimed albums over the past decade, had grown up listening to Stanley, but didn't meet the bluegrass veteran until the middle of the 1990s. When he did, he promptly invited him and his Clinch Mountain Boys to join him on an almost-completed album for RCA, 1997's "Whisper."

"The next spring, after we had recorded the song, I went to Merlefest," Lauderdale recalls. "I had just gotten back from Europe, and when I got backstage, I thought they were going to ask me to maybe sit and do a song. I was real tired and jet-lagged, and when I walked backstage they said 'oh, good, he's here. Listen, you've got to go on for Ralph II, he's sick.' It was just one of those kind of panic situations, but we had a real quick rehearsal, and I did a couple of sets with them. That gave me the confidence to say 'hey, how about if we just do a whole record together.' And Ralph just said ay'sure, ok.' That record ("I Feel Like Singing Today, 1999") did real well - it got nominated for a Grammy - and so then, after the Grammy nomination, I said 'can we do another?' And Ralph said 'sure.'"

"Some of the songs I had finished, and some of them I had started. But the ones I wrote alone, I'd say at least half of those I did not finish until the very last minute, when we were already in the studio. For those, I maybe had a melody and kind of a concept. A few of them I started and just did right there. There were a few things that I had ideas where I thought, I'll play this for Ralph, and I'd go in the next room and finish it, and there were a few melodic ideas that I played and he said 'no, I don't believe I care much for that.' So I'd say 'okay, how about this one?'"

"It was actually a pretty high pressure situation for me," Lauderdale chuckles, "because I thought, here I've got one of the greatest singers and talents that's ever lived and his incredible band, and I'm sitting here stalling them while I try to write something. But I think that maybe part of my songwriting method is just kind of being down there on the wire and just being scared to death. And something comes out. But they're such pros, you know, they were just there and kind of patiently waited on me when I'd say 'go to lunch,' or 'let's break for a minute' and go in the other room."

"Luckily I'd listened to so much of Ralph's stuff that I kind of understand the parameters of what he can or can't do. And the co-writers I had on those songs - Candace Randolph, Shawn Camp and Robert Hunter - they really understand bluegrass, too."

"Ralph is definitely at the top of his game right now, and deservedly at the top of the world with the accolades he's getting," he notes, adding with characteristic generosity that "I definitely want everybody to go out and get his new solo album, too, because it's really, really great."

If Lauderdale captures the genuine flavor of Stanley's mountain sound on "In The Lonesome Pines," he cast a much broader net with "The Hummingbirds" - and that, he says, explains the delay in its release.

"The Hummingbirds is one of those records I do every once in a while that kind of pushes the envelope of what country is. I'm at this point in my life where I can pick and choose. So, I kind of want on a regular basis to put out something that I think is real adventurous musically and stretches the boundaries and then go back and do something very traditional. And when I had finished 'Hummingbirds,' I got together with (songwriter, singer) Leslie Satcher, and the first thing we did was write a song called 'What's On My Mind,' which is pretty traditional. I'd just finished writing a bunch of stuff with Melba Montgomery, and I'd done the Opry, and I just thought instead of putting this kind of more eclectic thing out, I really feel like I kind of need to make a statement, to put out something I think is really traditional country. And so I decided to hold off on this one."

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