Sign up for newsletter
 

Double agent infiltrates country

By Joel Bernstein, March 1998

As the war between mainstream and alternative country rages on, Jim Lauderdale ranks as perhaps its greatest double agent. Not only has he successfully infiltrated both sides, but he has done so while remaining anonymous to the general public.

Lauderdale has achieved his success as a songwriter. He has had seven songs on George Strait albums (with an eighth on the way). He has also had hits by Patty Loveless, Mark Chesnutt and Vince Gill.

On the alternative side, he had three songs on Joy Lynn White's "The Lucky Few," the first two cuts on Mandy Barnett's debut and a bunch of cuts by his former mate Buddy Miller. Among many others.

As a recording artist, he's been just another casualty. His five previous albumshaven't sold at all. One wasn't even released. His latest, and RCA debut, is "Whisper," which makes a conscious effort to be radio-friendly.

Being a successful songwriter has its price. There's a constant temptation to give your most commercial songs to established hitmakers rather than cutting them yourself. "I have to pay the bills," says Lauderdale.

"Don't Seem To Miss Me" was going to be on this album, but Patty wanted it.

Sometimes you have to take a chance. Maybe it won't be a single for them, and I can still cut it. I don't want to record my songs once they've been hits. Fate has a funny way of working things out. Having other people do my stuff will help me in the long run."

Lauderdale's big break came when George Strait recorded "King of Broken Hearts" and "Where The Sidewalk Ends."

"Tony Brown was doing the "Pure Country" soundtrack with Strait. He played him the songs in the morning, and they cut them in the afternoon. That established me in Nashville. I was viewed as left-of-center as a writer. After that, a lot of producers would come to me."

Strait used at least one Lauderdale song on his next few albums, but "his last album didn't have anything on it. I was bummed out. I was going to save this song ("We Really Shouldn't Be Doing This") for my album, but he wasn't picking up on any (of my other songs). The day he was going in to record, I finally played it for him. I'll just have to write another."

Lauderdale's recording career had originally gotten off to a false start. He was working in Los Angeles when he got a cut on the compilation album "A Town South Of Bakersfield." (That song, "What Am I Waiting For," was also eventually recorded by Strait). That got him signed to Epic, for whom he recorded an album produced by Pete Anderson. It never came out.

"It happens more than people are aware of. The guy that signed me got transferred. The new A&R guy didn't like it." Lauderdale says that "What Am I Waiting For" was "representative of what (the album) sounded like. It had a very Bakersfield sound. That one was too country for country."

Being dropped by Epic also prevented his duet with George Jones from being released. That was going to be on a George Jones album of duets. No Frank Sinatra style duets here.

"We sang live with the band, a song called "The Tavern Choir."" Of this cut, and of the album as a whole, Lauderdale says "I hope it comes out someday."

Lauderdale was musically precocious. As a teen, he hosted a college radio show, in which he demonstrated that his musical tastes were already amazingly eclectic. He'd play jazz, bluegrass and country. He'd play Motown and Otis Redding and Santana and Frank Zappa. It was all mixed together in a manner almost impossible to find today (though much less unusual at the time).

Ask Lauderdale, 40, about his influences, and he can barely keep up with them himself. "Growing up, I listened to a little bit of everything." When it's mentioned that his vocal style seems to have some jazz influence, he says "I don't really know what my style is. I don't read music. It all comes to me by ear."

But the North Carolinian adds, "My folks would listen to Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. I loved Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. I'd do some scat singing and listen to Thelonious Monk." And he points out that in bluegrass, "a lot of the pickers do a lot of jazzy stuff."

His love of bluegrass is manifested by the inclusion on "Whisper" of a trackfeaturing Ralph Stanley and The Clinch Mountain Boys. "Bluegrass is a bedrock roots foundation of country. If anything ever happens with this record, people will be exposed to Ralph."

He was a huge fan of Rockpile, the band fronted by Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds. "I got to travel with Nick Lowe'" (they also co-wrote some songs). "Dave Edmunds cut "Halfway Down" first. Billy Bremner (Rockpile's guitarist) was living in Nashville and worked with me."

Then there's Buddy Miller, "one of my heroes." "I met him in New York. He had a band that included Shawn Colvin. He let me sit in with him a lot." The two worked together for many years before most people heard either of them. Some people who notice similarities in their styles wonder who influenced whom.

"We're influenced by a lot of the same people," says Lauderdale. "We sang so much together we have one of those brother-like harmony things going. I'm so glad he's getting his due. He's real laid-back, but he's a quadruple threat." (a reference to Miller's talents as singer, songwriter, guitar player and producer).

Lauderdale has also had a chance to co-write with many heroes. Two songs on "Whisper" were done with the Hall-Of-Famer Harlan Howard. "I've been a big fan of his for years." Frank Dycus, who has cowritten George Strait hits for years (including the very first one, "Unwound") now works with Lauderdale. "He calls me up with lyrics, and the melody falls out on the page as I'm writing them down."

He also gets to work with some of the Young Turks, like Robbie Fulks and Jack Ingram. "I like Fulks a lot. We sat down in Nashville a couple of months ago and started a song together. I also sat down with Jack Ingram. We just had one night in town together." The busy touring schedules make it difficult to actually finish a song, however, although Lauderdale remains optimistic that these will get done eventually.

The irony of being a songwriter who loves music is that he can't listen as much anymore. "I try to keep my head pretty clear for the melodies. I find that if I hear songs and I can't get them out of my head, it clogs my creative arteries. I like to go to a quiet place and write songs. A lot of music in the background is like having two conversations at once."

After his first, Lauderdale's albums had been progressively less country. "Whisper" reverses that trend. He spoke to us from Louisiana, where he had gone on a radio station promotional tour. Instead of playing in clubs, these tours involve more unusual gigs. "last night in Alexandria, the station invited people to come to their lobby for a live show."

"I haven't been given the opportunity before to go on this kind of tour. I feel real fortunate to be with this label because they're really promoting the record."