Courtesy of The Boot
By Chuck Armstrong
"When I first started writing songs, I would be able to get a title and maybe a few lines first."
Jim Lauderdale is reflecting on the beginnings of his life as a songwriter. "Melodies would come so much easier and faster to me," he admits, "and they really still do. Lyrically, I have to challenge myself, and Buddy Miller has always been the one to give me music and push me to write and finish songs. That keeps me on my toes."
Though Lauderdale has written songs that have been recorded by everyone from the Dixie Chicks and George Strait to Elvis Costello and Blake Shelton, the North Carolina-born, Nashville-grown, New Yorker Angeleno loves talking about his own records, too. It's not that he revels in his personal glory; there is a sincere recognition of how fortunate he's been to get to work and write with so many different artists over the last few decades, and record as many discs as he has.
"It's funny, these past few years, I feel like I'm writing more than ever, and I'm really glad I haven't lost that," Lauderdale says. "I go through phases of co-writing a good bit, and then to balance that out, I don't do any co-writes at all to make sure I still have those chops to write on my own."
Between 1991 and 2018, Lauderdale released 31 albums, and in 2019, he is celebrating the release of his 32nd LP, From Another World. With a hint of pride in his voice, the prolific writer takes a few moments to chat with The Boot about every single one of those records, sharing some of his favorite memories, from writing with the Grateful Dead's Robert Hunter — "I was a big fan as a teenager, and was always enamored with Robert's work" — to finally releasing his long-lost record with Roland White.
'Planet of Love' - 1991
"This album grew out of a songwriting collaboration with John Leventhal, who co-wrote eight of the 10 songs. He and Rodney Crowell produced the album. Even though I didn’t get any country radio hits of my own out of it, eight of the 10 songs were covered by other people, like George Strait, Andy Barnett, Lucinda Williams and others."
'Pretty Close to the Truth' - 1994
"I did this record in Los Angeles with my friend Dusty Wakeman producing. What do I say about it? Dusty proposed the idea of us doing a record together and using several of the guys I was playing with live at the time. He got a deal on Atlantic Records through the interest of an A&R guy named John Carollan."
'Every Second Counts' - 1995
"I wanted to do a follow-up record quickly, and this was recorded at Pioneertown in California, a few doors down from Pappy & Harriet's, a place I still play at. Pioneertown is an old western movie set. I had been going to the desert for several years to write, and Dusty Wakeman brought up the idea of the soundstage at Pioneertown. We brought a mobile recording unit to it; a lot of those songs were written in the desert."
'Persimmons' - 1996
"This was a record I had been working on during the recording of Pretty Close to the Truth and Every Second Counts. At that time, I felt like it was my rawest record. I knew I wasn’t going to get any country radio airplay from it. I had been doing a lot of demos at Moondog Studios, which was owned by Gary Tallant. He played bass on a lot of my stuff. Tim Coates was co-producing and engineering there, and I was doing a lot of writing and recording there, too. Persimmons grew out of hundreds of songs that I was doing in that studio during those years. I had four different pedal steel guitar plays on that record, too: Al Perkins, Bucky Baxter, Tommy Spurlock and Dan Dugmore. Pedal steel is one of my favorite instruments. I wanted to use a country band, but I wanted to use those instruments to push the envelope to not be a straight country record."
'Whisper' - 1998
"RCA kindly offered me a deal, and I felt like that might be my last shot at ever getting anything on country radio. As an artist, if that was ever going to happen, this felt like it might be it. It was a gamble. I really wanted to do a classic, country album. I asked them if I could do two albums, and they agreed to it. I co-produced that record with Blake Chancey, who’s a great producer and was having a lot of success at the time. It was great working with some musicians I hadn’t worked with up to that point. I had met Ralph Stanley while I was doing a TV show called Ricky Skaggs Live at the Ryman, and so I proposed to Ralph that I would write him a song and he and his band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, would record it to close my album. He agreed."
'I Feel Like Singing Today' - 1999
"That first song I got to do with Ralph on Whisper, that kind of grew into I Feel Like Singing Today because he was so open to doing a whole album. This was a milestone for me because it was my first bluegrass release and I had been aspiring to do bluegrass records since I was a teenager. It was really meaningful for me to get to work with Ralph. Also, hugely important for me, was that I began writing with Robert Hunter, and our first two songs were written for I Feel Like Singing Today. I had reached out to him through a friend who set it up. Having Ralph agree to do a record and then having Robert willing to write with me was beyond anything I could have imagined. I wanted to do some older tunes and I wanted to write the rest of them, and so that’s what happened."
'Onward Through It All' - 1999
"Onward Through It All was done, like Persimmons, at Moondog Studios. This was the second album I did with RCA. I kept thinking that I was going to do a double-album for this. That’s what I was striving for. When I was making it, the record company kept offering and wanting me to do a duet record with other people like George Strait and Patty Loveless. I wish I would have, but I was so into the process of making Onward Through It All, I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to get away from it. I turned down a great opportunity, but I was kind of stubborn I guess! Oh, and a cool bucket list thing for me was that I got David Grisman to play mandolin on a song."
'The Other Sessions' - 2001
"These were songs that I had been recording at Moondog Studios; I was just gathering so many songs. The Other Sessionswas pretty focused on country. This was co-produced by Tim Coates. I was getting a semi-regular team of players and a specific sound during this time. That record contained more co-writes with Harlan Howard and Frank Dycus and Clay Baker. Baker was a Texas singer-songwriter who was very kind to me and we did a lot of shows together."
'Point of No Return: The Unreleased 1989 Album' - 2001
“This never came out officially. It was licensed to an indie company in England for like five years. It would have actually been my first country album, and it was going to be on Epic Records. I was living in Los Angeles at the time and Pete Anderson produced it. I had been waiting for a record deal for many years, and I was overjoyed that Pete would produce it. I was such a big fan of him. That was a big milestone of mine to get to work with him. It was a very Bakersfield influenced record.”
'The Hummingbirds' - 2002
"I wanted to do a dual release on the same day. The Hummingbirds was actually recorded before The Other Sessions and was ready to go, but for some reason, we decided save this record. It was a country record but fairly eclectic. That was monumental for me because I always wanted to record with Tony Rice, one of my favorite guitarists. He played on several songs. Sam Bush and Stuart Duncan also played on the record and I had never recorded with them."
'Lost in the Lonesome Pines' - 2002
"This came out on the same day as The Hummingbirds. Ralph was asking me, during shows, if we were going to do another record. We had gotten a Grammy nomination for the first one, and I was happy he asked. So we did a follow-up. We recorded this in Big Stone Gap in Virginia, which was close to where Ralph’s house was. I wanted to record in that area so he could stay in his own bed, because he was on the road so much. For me, writing wise, I also really wanted to soak up the atmosphere there where Ralph lived. Oh, and this record got us the Grammy!"
'Wait 'Til Spring' - 2003
"Donna the Buffalo was a band that I had met at the Newport Folk Festival when I was in Lucinda Williams’ band in the late-‘90s. I took an immediate liking to them, even before I heard their music. At MerleFest and at Suwannee SpringFest, I started sitting in with them and then writing songs for us to do together, with a hope of us doing a record. They invited me up to their festival called Finger Lakes Grassroots Festival in New York. The songs on this record developed over us playing them live for the most part. To this day, I still get to do several gigs a year with Donna the Buffalo, and I hope to do another album with them sometime."
'Headed For the Hills' - 2004
"Robert Hunter came to Nashville for about three months, and when I wasn’t on the road I’d go by and see him. We’d come up with about one, two, or three songs per sitting, and we wrote about 33 songs. Headed for the Hills included 13 of those songs. It’s basically an acoustic album with some pedal steel by Bucky Baxter, and then Donna the Buffalo are on the last track. I had Emmylou Harris sing harmony and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings and Allison Moorer and Buddy Miller and Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott ... they all played and sang on it, and Tim Coates co-produced that with me. It was thrilling to do a whole album of stuff I wrote with Robert."
Yep Roc Records
'Bluegrass' - 2006
"This was another same-day release. I talked Yep Roc into releasing two records on the same day. Bluegrass was kind of my first solo release as a bluegrass artist. I recorded it at Bil Vorndick's place. Randy Kohrs, who had been playing dobro for me and being my bandleader, he co-produced it as well. This studio used to be a club where some of the country greats like Johnny Cash would play, and Bil made a studio out of it and built a house on top of it. It was great to record there, with a bunch of guys who had been playing live bluegrass with me over the years."
Yep Roc Records
'Country Super Hits Vol. 1' - 2006
"On the same day as Bluegrass, I released this one. Country Super Hits Vol. 1 was written with Odie Blackmon. We were on such a roll that we decided to do a record of our stuff. We wrote everything together, except a song I did with Shawn Camp and a song I wrote with Leslie Satcher, and Odie co-produced it. That’s a pretty straight ahead country record. The title is a tongue-in-cheek thing; I was hoping I could get some country artists to record some of the songs, but that did not happen until this year actually. George Strait recorded and released a song called "Two More Wishes.""
Yep Roc Records
'The Bluegrass Diaries' - 2007
"This was a record I did at Randy Kohrs’ home studio. Randy had been playing with me at bluegrass gigs. Bil Vorndick was busy at the time, so we couldn’t use his studio. Randy produced it and so I decided to totally give the reigns to him as a producer. He did a great job and we ended up getting a Grammy on this one."
Yep Roc Records
'Honey Songs' - 2008
"I wanted to do a record with as many of the musicians who played on Graham Parson’s records as I could, and so I got Al Perkins and James Burton and Glen D. Hardin and Ronnie Tutt. I wrote that record with those guys as my muse; the songs were written specifically with them in mind. I could kind of hear what they were going to play as I was writing it. I closed out the record with a co-write with Leslie Satcher, and I got Emmylou on that album, too."
Sky Crunch Records
'Could We Get Any Closer?' - 2009
"This is a bluegrass record I did with Randy Kohrs. I was kind of getting a ‘sound’ working with Randy, and so a lot of the songs I wrote, I was kind of writing them specifically with that sound in mind. It got a Grammy nomination."
‘Patchwork River’ - 2010
“I went out to visit Robert Hunter in California, and we sat down to write in-person again. That record grew out of that visit. I made a couple of trips out there and remember on New Year’s Eve, we were working on a song that ended up on that record called “Tall Eyes.” It was about 12:30 and Robert’s wife and daughter came in and said Happy New Year. That was one of my favorite New Year’s Eves of all time, to be able to write with Robert Hunter.“
'Reason and Rhyme' - 2011
"I had been touring with Elvis Costello in a band called the Sugar Canes, it was an acoustic band. We did a record called Secret, Profane & Sugarcane and toured for awhile with that. Then we did another record called National Ransom, that was a great experience to get to sing with Elvis Costello. I’m such a huge fan. So, I had just gotten back from a European tour with Elvis, and I felt really driven to do a bluegrass record and to write it with Robert Hunter. I started sending him melodies through email and about an hour later he’d send a lyric back. We wrote several of the songs, over an album’s worth of stuff, that way. I went in with Randy Kohrs and we were really pleased with how that all came together."
'Carolina Moonrise' - 2012
"I went out to Robert's 70th birthday party and he said we have to write a follow-up to that record. I told him I was leaving, but I decided to stay a couple of extra days. For about a day and a half, we wrote pretty intensely. We went back in, and I was just so elated he wanted to do a follow-up and that he was so happy with the first one. We did that with Randy Kohrs, too."
New West Records
'Buddy and Jim' - 2012
“Buddy and I met each other in 1980 when we both had country bands in New York City. He left New York and kind of got out of music for awhile. When I was making the Point of No Return album, which Pete Anderson played guitar on, I heard from Buddy that he was getting ready to move to Los Angeles. He asked me if I knew anybody who needed a guitar player for gigs. I kind of, reluctantly and sheepishly, had Buddy play guitar with me, even though he was very overqualified for that job. I was glad to have him all I could for seven years, though, before he took off the way he did. He took off. About seven years ago, Buddy approached me about doing a radio show together on SiriusXM, and so after we had been doing that for a couple of months ... we had long talked about doing a duet record, we just could never coordinate our schedules. So I jumped at the chance after we started that show. We went into his studio, where we taped the radio show, and we did it.”
Sky Crunch Records
‘Old Time Angels’ - 2013
“I wanted to record at Randy Kohrs' place, and going back to this old-school way of recording with only a couple of mics for the whole band. I had never recorded like that. It was a great experience. Those songs were all brand new; the title track was one I wrote with Dan Smith after we both decided we didn't like murder ballads and so he said we should write a revenge song. That was a lot of fun to make that record. We had to do a lot of takes on each song to get them right, but it was a joy.”
Sky Crunch Records
'Black Roses' - 2013
"I had gone out to see Robert Hunter a few more times and we wrote intensely for two or three day spurts. Most of these songs came out of those times together. I had some studio time booked with Luther and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars. I wasn't sure what the material was going to be, I wrote as we went along. But the night before we got into the studio, I wrote a couple songs with Luther and Cody, two Robert Hunter songs I had been working on. And then Robert sent me a few more songs while we were recording, too. We recorded this at Zebra Ranch, Jim Dickinson's studio."
Sky Crunch Records
'Blue Moon Junction' - 2013
A lot of these songs came out of those sessions with Robert Hunter, too. I actually released this on the same day in November with Black Roses, it was another one of those dual releases.
Sky Crunch Records
‘I’m a Song’ - 2014
“There was a young man doing a documentary on me, Jeremy Dylan, who has now become my manager. I wanted to have some kind of studio footage, because I didn't really have any, and so I thought it'd be great to get James Burton and Al Perkins and Dennis Crouch and Chad Cromwell and John Jarvis to come in. We went into RCA Studio A, which I love recording in. We got together and Leslie Richter engineered the album; that was the first time I got to work with her. We laid down about nine songs and Jeremy got some footage of all of that. One of those songs was the first co-write I did with John Oates. And then I also had two more Robert Hunter co-writes on that album. We recorded those and then it was coming around time to wrap everything up with the record, so I went over to House of Blues Recording Studios and cut another song. "I'm a Song" came to me during that period, and it felt like it summed up my whole ‘thing’ in away. Patty Loveless sang on a song and so did Lee Ann Womack, and I included a song I wrote with Elvis Costello when I had been touring with him a few years earlier. Those are a lot of happy memories and milestones.”
Sky Crunch Records
'Soul Searching' - 2015
"During the Black Roses recording, I had a few things that I wrote by myself that were soul songs. I ran into Luther Dickinson at a park one morning, he had just moved to Nashville, and I had some studio time booked at Studio A. As I am wont to do, I wasn't fully prepared for that studio time, and so that's when I asked Luther if he could play ... and if his brother, Cody, could play. I had a few things written that I wasn't really sure where they were going to go, so we laid down a bunch of stuff. And so after Black Roses, Luther said we needed to finish that soul stuff. I wrote most of the stuff in the control room of Royal Studios in Memphis. Alvin Youngblood Hart played guitar, which was just a real treat. I have a big place in my heart for soul music, ever since I was a kid. I wrote a lot of these songs around the players on the album and around Royal Studios and around the Memphis sound of the '60s and '70s. I had two discs and, as I'm also wont to do, I just feel like I need to keep putting stuff out, so I put out a double record. Nobody could talk me out of it, so that's what I did."
Sky Crunch Records
'This Changes Everything' - 2016
"I went to Austin, Texas, to do some live dates with a band led by my friend Tom Lewis on drums and Tommy Detamore on steel. Tom and Tommy used to play with me in the early-2000s. When I got there we had a warm-up gig at the Continental Club. That day I found out the next day's gig would be canceled due to flooding, so we had a free day. Tom and Tommy had been talking to me for years about doing a record together in Texas, and so I thought, okay! The players were available because we were all scheduled to play together, so we went into Arlyn Studios for a day and a half and cut most of it. It was great to be able to record in Austin. Several of the songs were co-written by Texas songwriters, too, like Terry McBride, Frank Dycus, Hayes Carll, and Bruce Robison. Oh, and I enlisted Floyd Domino to play piano; I used to be in his band in New York City. He had the Floyd Domino Band and I was in that for awhile, so it meant a lot to me to have him play on this record."
'London Southern' - 2017
"This had been recorded a few years prior in England during a few different trips. I used Nick Lowe's band and his co-producers, and so it had a definite sound. The studio had a real style to it, too. I didn't know what that record was going to be. When I landed in the U.K., I only had one song, a co-write with Odie Blackmon. I had a lot of gigs scheduled, but I think we ended up recording six songs first, and then I came back and co-wrote a few with John Oates and came up with some more stuff and went back over there."
Yep Roc Records
'Time Flies' - 2018
"I had been doing a bunch of recording at Blackbird Studios in Nashville. My bass player, Jay Weaver, was contributing so much to the sessions, I asked him to co-produce. I used my road band on some stuff and then they weren't available for some of the days, so I got Chris Scruggs and Kenny Vaughn to come out on guitars, and we finished the record at House of Blues studios in Nashville. That's when I started working with Lillie Mae and her brother, Frank Rische. I was blown away by them and really satisfied with their sound and harmonies."
Yep Roc Records
'Jim Lauderdale and Roland White' - 2018
"About the time that London Southern was about to come out, Roland White was sitting in with me at Station Inn and as he was getting ready to leave the stage, he told me his wife found a tape at the bottom of a box with our names on it. When I lived in Nashville in 1979, I came for five months with the goal of hanging out with George Jones and Roland White. I didn't get to do that with George, but Roland was really gracious and so kind to me. I'd sit in with him a lot, and after about four months, I realized I wasn't going to be able to cut it in Nashville as an artist or writer, so I planned to move up to New York. Before I left, Roland said we should do a record together. So we recorded in Earl Scruggs' basement where his son had a studio. We laid down what would have been this record. We finished it and then I moved to New York and I sent cassettes out to major bluegrass labels, and they all responded that they liked the album, but because I was an unknown, they didn't pick it up. That really discouraged me, because I felt like it was my breakthrough moment. I thought it would kick open doors for me in the music world, but it didn't. I thought it was a good introduction of me, too. Several years later, when I got my first major deal, Roland and I realized we had both lost track of the master tapes, so I wasn't ever able to put it out. I was really sad about that, but then his wife found some mixes of it, so I asked Yep Rock if they were interested, and they were. This would have been my first album. So we put this one out on the same day as Time Flies. It was cool to release a new record and what would have been my first record, which turned out to be my 31st record."
Yep Roc Records
'From Another World' - 2019
"This is number 32 for me. This came out of my work that I had been doing with the guys on Time Flies, and continuing on with that sound with many of those same players. The title track is co-written with Mondo Saenz, who co-wrote "Time Flies," too. Odie Blackmon and a new artist, named Sara Douga, are co-writes on this record, too. I know this has been described as an antidote to the anger "out there," but I think this is really just one of those, hopefully, mellowing agents we need. Music can bring people together, and I hope this record does that."
After thinking through his career, Lauderdale admits there are still some items left on his bucket list.
"There are so many people I'd still like to work with," he confesses. "Van Morrison, Nick Cave, Loretta Lynn, Norah Jones and Keith Richards. I'd love to do some kind of collaboration with [Bob] Dylan. I'd like to do some more singing with Del McCoury. Eric Clapton, I've always wanted to record with him.
"Sadly, so many of the bluegrass and country greats that I've wanted to work with have passed away," Lauderdale adds. "But a lot of the artists around today, like Brandi Carlile, the Avett Brothers, Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, Margo Price ... those are some folks I haven't gotten to record with but would love to."