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Jim Lauderdale: kudos, but not a country star (yet?)

By Brian Steinberg, October 1999

In his many musical incarnations, Jim Lauderdale has been a maverick, a journeyman, an ace session player and an oft-desired songwriter. He just hasn't been a star, at least not in the traditional sense.

With two new albums in stores and a host of his songs being picked up by other country artists, that situation may be moot.

The Nashville denizen, who mixes straightahead country with clever songwriting tricks and a voice just this side of Roy Orbison, has not one but two musical projects on the record store racks these days, and their range and diversity point out the pros and cons of being Jim Lauderdale: He does so much in so many different venues that it's hard for the business-as-usual record companies to figure out how to market the guy.

His career "hasn't happened like I had envisioned it originally," Lauderdale says in a recent interview conducted via cell phone. "The music business, in general, it changes constantly." Luckily, he says, "I've been getting all these songs recorded by other people."

Over his career, Lauderdale, 42 has had 10 different songs recorded by George Strait, and other musical works have been put to good use by Vince Gill, Kelly Willis, Patty Loveless ("Miss Me"), Mark Chesnutt ("Gonna Get a Life"), Rick Trevino and Gary Allan. Now, he has a hand in two different projects - one his own and one done with bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley.

Lauderdale has been writing songs for "Onward Through It All," his latest album, since New Year's Eve. Among his collaborators: Emily Robison of The Dixie Chicks, Kim Richey and none other than Robert Hunter, the Grateful Dead's legendary lyricist responsible for such classics as "Friend of the Devil" and "Uncle John's Band."

Working with Hunter was done at a distance, says Lauderdale, but "it was wonderful," especially because Lauderdale has a fondness for such classic Dead albums as "American Beauty" and "Workingman's Dead."

"I approached (Hunter) originally about the Ralph Stanley project, and he sent me a lyric, and a melody came out really easily. I recorded that, then asked him for another song. While I was there working on the Ralph record, he sent me, 'Trust (Guiding Star).' The song didn't seem to fit the Stanley project, he says, so he took it for his own album.

"Onward Through It All," a 16-song collection on RCA "is kind of traditionally based, yet it's a little more eclectic, and I just wanted to push the envelope a little bit more," Lauderdale says.

"Whisper," his last album, was "such a traditional record," he says. But he says his fans will still find his "signature" if they look for it on "Onward." "My melodies and lyrics have kind of a twist to them, something a little unexpected."

Meanwhile, fans can also sample "I Feel Like Singing Today, " a 15-song collaboration with bluegrass great Stanley. Nine are originals either written or co-written by Lauderdale, including the album's title track. Stanley and Lauderdale apparently work well together, as the bluegrass great appointed the singer an honorary "Clinch Mountain Boy" after Lauderdale filled in for an ailing Ralph Stanley II during a 1998 performance.

"We didn't have a bit of trouble working together," even though Lauderdale is known for his ability to spin modern country tunes that defy genre definitions, Stanley says during a recent phone interview. "I think Jim knows that I'm traditional."

Stanley adds, "I enjoyed all of it. He knows how to write a song, and they all were good songs. It didn't take us all that much to work it out."

For his part, Lauderdale worked on both projects pretty much simultaneously. Until the start of this year, he had been touring with Lucinda Williams, opening for her and singing harmony vocals during her set.

In January, he went to Virginia and recorded most of the Stanley album. Those sessions lasted into the spring, when he started doing songs for his solo project. Working on the Stanley album "kind of invigorated me and inspired me for the RCA album," he says. "Some of the songs on the RCA record I'd had for a while that I'd co-written, and some of them came together during the final moments."

The do-what-you-can-when-you-can-do-it work habit has come through a career made up of critical plaudits and random successes. Lauderdale was born and raised in North Carolina, the son of a minister father and a music teacher mother. He graduated from college with a drama degree and landed in Nashville in 1979, trying to get a bluegrass recording contract. An album with Roland White - with Marty Stuart featured on guitar - failed to win any interest.

Lauderdale headed for New York City, where he played club gigs and eventually landed parts in musicals including "Cotton Patch Gospel," "Diamond Studs" (which also sported a young Shawn Colvin), and "Pump Boys and Dinettes." That last play brought Lauderdale to Los Angeles, where he fell into a coterie of developing country and roots-rock artists: Dwight Yoakam, Darden Smith, Carlene Carter and Lucinda Williams. All used Lauderdale as a harmony singer on their albums.

Pete Anderson, now famous as Yoakam's guitarist and producer, also had a hand in that developing music scene, and produced Lauderdale's debut album in 1987. It even included a duet with George Jones. Nonetheless, the project was shelved. In 1991, Rodney Crowell produced "Planet of Love," which, it it wasn't the singer's first record, if was the first to see the light of the record store. Two songs from that album, "The King of Broken Hearts" and "Where the Sidewalk Ends," were recorded the following year by Strait.

Over the next five years, Lauderdale would release critical faves like "Persimmons" in 1996, but top-of-the-chart success eluded him. His last album, 1998's "Whisper,"was nominated as Country Album of the Year at the Nashville Music Awards.

Lauderdale is mindful of his past accomplishments and sees how the two new projects were hinted at in his earlier career. "It's a neat circle for me," he says.