"That was the first style of music that I wanted to be a recording artist in, was bluegrass. Ever since I was in high school," Lauderdale explains. "And it just never happened. I even recorded a duet album with Roland White, gosh back in about 1979, and then we couldn't get a deal for it. I was an unknown and not on the festival circuit. So nobody was willing to take a chance on it. So that was real disappointing to me."
"Then about, oh seven years later, I recorded a bunch of stuff with some of the guys that run the group The Country Gazette. But still, nobody would give me a deal because I wasn't on the regular circuit. That was really kind of crushing for me because I put that on the backburner for a long time until I'd begun making albums."
"Then I was going to do a country album, I'd gotten my deal with RCA, and I did a TV show with Ralph Stanley. Ricky Skaggs was the host. Patty Loveless was on the show. I proposed the idea to see if I could write a song for him (Stanley) and the Clinch Mountain Boys to end my album, my country album. I thought that would be a good closer. And he agreed! And then we just kind of hit it off, and I was on his 'Clinch Mountain Country' record. And I started sitting in with him more and more, and then I just kind of got up the courage to ask him to do a whole record. When he did, we got a Grammy nomination. And then he agreed to another one, and we won a Grammy for that. I'm just so grateful, and just still can't really believe that I ever got to work with him."
"Country Super Hits, Vol. 1" is dedicated to Buck Owens, another legendary Lauderdale friend, who is "singing with the sweethearts in heaven" now.
"One of my favorite songs that Buck did a long time ago is called 'Will There Be Sweethearts In Heaven,'" Lauderdale says, explaining the dedication. "He passed last summer. He's really gonna be missed. I first met him out in California when he was doing a record called 'Hot Dog.'"
"Later, he flew me with him to Austin, Texas several years ago. They had these Buck Owens birthday bashes - I guess it was about10 years ago. So I got to sing harmony with him, and that was a real career highlight. And then I went to his club, the Crystal Palace, several times for his birthday. He'd have a lot of folks come out and sing. Dwight (Yoakam) and Marty Stuart were there several times. He was a very gracious guy. Just larger than life. He definitely filled up the room when he came in."
The differences between Lauderdale's two new releases are not just musical. There is also a distinctly different look about them, too. Whereas "Country Super Hits, Vol. 1" has loud, colorful, animated cover art, "Bluegrass" features a forlorn looking Lauderdale.
This Lauderdale portrait was painted by esteemed musician and artist Jon Langford. It finds Lauderdale in the center, colored with brownish tones, surrounded by flowers and musical notes. This stylish packaging is quite a compliment when you consider that Langford has previously painted portraits of Hank Williams, Buck Owens, Jimmie Rodgers and Patsy Cline, to name a few.
"I had seen his work in magazines, and there's a gallery (of his) in Austin called Yard Dog," notes Lauderdale. "And during South By Southwest, there are usually parties behind the place and a lot of bands playing. I'd heard (Langford's band) The Waco Brothers. I really liked them a lot. I was just fascinated by his work. It was just brilliant. We have a mutual friend, a great musician named John Rice, who lives in Chicago and does some work with Jon. And so I sent messages through John Rice to Jon Langford, and spoke on the phone. And actually we did a show together in California a year ago last fall, and I mentioned it (the cover painting). And I'm really fortunate that he was able to do that. He's just really so gifted."
The best song on either of Lauderdale's new discs is something Lauderdale wrote with Satcher called "I Met Jesus In A Bar." It has the kind of title that might have made the old Saturday Night Live Church Lady react with mock horror. Jesus in a bar? Isn't that blasphemy? But after you listen to this sadly, honest tale, you quickly realize that its lyric is about a man who gets religion in a most unlikely place.
But he still gets religion, nonetheless. And not to get too overly theological about it all, but the Biblical Jesus also caused a lot of controversy with religious leaders of His day because he hung out with sinners and such.
"That was Leslie's idea," Lauderdale explains, "and it's an interesting story. During the summer of 2004, I was touring, and my dad became ill. It turned out to be cancer, and he passed away. And I kind of stopped everything, and it kind of really hit me hard. I kind of didn't care about anything anymore, and I just missed him. I had a writing session with Leslie about six weeks or so after my dad passed away. We wrote one song fairly quickly, and then she came back in the room and said, 'I've just got this great idea! This idea just came to me!' She had this kind of excitement about her. I said, 'What's the title?" She said, 'I Met Jesus In A Bar.' And I thought, okay, yeah. I thought that would be a great line. And she went, 'No, no. That's what it's about.' She said, 'Just go with me on this. Just trust me.' And so we started working on it, and it just all came together. It was just really moving for both of us. I couldn't listen to it or sing it without crying."
Ask any talented songwriter: musical magic like that just happens sometimes. But because Lauderdale is such an active artist, he may feel that special magic more often than most. Whether he scores country super hits or not.