Jim Lauderdale A Consummate Collaborator: Donna The Buffalo, Robert Hunter and Onward…
Jim Lauderdale is one of the most refreshing singer-songwriters around today. He's also extremely prolific and can write songs in all veins of music from progressive country to country rock and from mainstream country to bluegrass. In the past few years Lauderdale has written over 40 songs with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter and has had hundreds of songs covered by name artists in a variety of genres. To date he has recorded a dozen albums on his own that range from alt-country to bluegrass (including albums with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys.) His latest collaboration is Wait Til Spring with Donna the Buffalo and over the coming months he will be touring more regularly with them. What follows is an informal interview with the extremely affable and insightful Lauderdale. For more info check out his website at www.jimlauderdale.com.
M.S. I really like the new album Wait Til Spring that you did with Donna the Buffalo, why don’t we just start by talking about how that came about?
J.L. Well, I was touring with Lucinda Williams with her Car Wheels on a Gravel Road tour and we were playing at the Newport Folk Festival and they had already done their set by the time we got there, but I met them, and for some reason it seemed like I knew them before. We were just hanging out and joking around and having a great time and I said, "Gosh, I'm crazy about these people. I'm just having so much fun hanging out with them. Then we started running into each other at Merle Fest in North Carolina. I sat in with them and they invited me to come to their Grassroots festival in Trumansburg and they offered to back me up. You know, I'd come in and do some solo songs and we rehearsed some stuff together. Things just started going on from there. Any chance I could get or if I was nearby I would try and sit in with them or just go see them. I fell in love with the band. Most musicians and singers aren't really very good dancers and I'm still not but when I go to one of their shows I kind of let go and loosen up to the music. That was really kind of enlightening to me to do that, to move with the music. So, our friendships just started growing.
M.S. When did you start writing the material for the album and was it done with them in mind?
J.L. Yes, I got real inspired and I approached them with the idea of doing a record like that and they agreed. We actually started the album a few years ago up in Ithaca, New York. I'd gone up to do the annual Christmas show that they do and I booked some time during that and we laid down some tracks for a couple of songs. Then they came down to Nashville several months later and we laid down a few more tracks. Finally last December I went to Ithaca and took Tim Coates who co-produces most of the stuff I do in Nashville, he is a great engineer. We went up to Pyramid and tracked, I guess about seven tunes, then came back to Nashville and did a few overdubs and mixed. Jim and Tara were the last people to do some overdubs when they came down for a few days. Finally, after all this I finished it around March.
M.S. Was it an easy album to make?
J.L. Yes, it was. It was very spontaneous. The hardest thing for me was the lyrics which were the last thing for me to finish on several songs. As usual I get my melodies first. It was all around them, with them in mind and inspired by them, except for one song, "That's Not the Way it Works," which is on a record of mine that I put out in '95 called Every Second Counts. We had been doing that song live and it seemed to fit real good with everything else.
M.S. The only thing I thought might have happened on the album was that some of the songs may have been stretched out a little bit more.
J.L. Well, we do, do that live definitely.
M.S. So you’ll doing more live shows with Donna the Buffalo?
J.L. Yes, in October I'll be doing more shows with them.
M.S. So does that mean there’s a possibility you may do a live record with them.
J.L. Could be because I have already started songs for a hopeful next record but I would like to collaborate more with Jeb and Tara on some songs. We had started a couple of things but time didn't work. That was my initial plan, to do more co-writing. I think probably as I tour with them in the fall we will collaborate on some things and plan on another record.
M.S. You are quite an interesting songwriter. I have a number of your albums and you always keep listeners on their toes. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about them?
J.L. I'm one of those people that ever since I was in high school I wanted to make records. At first my goal was just to do bluegrass records and then branch out from there into country and rock. It took me years to get a deal. I finally did get a record deal in '88 and it was going to be on Epic Records and Dwight Yoakam's producer Pete Anderson did it. We did a whole record, but when we turned it in the label didn't really care for it. It was a little too country for them. It was very Bakersfield, Buck Owen's kind of thing, so they didn't release it. Then I did an album on Reprise Records with John Levanthall and Rodney Crowell producing. It was called Planet of Love. It got delayed for a long time and then the record company went from being super enthusiastic about it to very lukewarm. Nothing really happened with it except a lot of the songs got recorded by other people. It was then when country artists in Nashville started doing my songs, like George Strait, Patty Loveless, the Dixie Chicks and people like that. I was still putting out albums during this time but they were kind of under the radar. So, I kind started off on the major labels.
M.S. You have a couple of albums on Atlantic and RCA.
J.L. Yes, that's right, two on both labels
M.S. What’s your background?
J.L. I grew up in North Carolina and South Carolina and bluegrass was the first thing I got into. I did play drums and harmonica a little but I really got bitten by the bluegrass bug and played bluegrass banjo and when I was a junior in high school I was living up between Chapel Hill and Durham and a roommate who was teacher had Workingman’s Dead, and American Beauty, so it was right around that time that I was involved in bluegrass and listening especially to those two records and the live Europe record. They really influenced me a lot. I was listening to a lot of Ralph Stanley, Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe and also a lot of blues stuff, Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson. I'd play in a duo with a fellow that worked in a music store, a great guitar player. We did a lot of stuff like that and I went off to school and things picked up from there.
I moved around a lot, I lived in LA and New York and then about seven years ago ended up in Nashville. Buddy Miller and I played a lot together. We toured then he got hired by Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris, but I still see him and Lucinda Williams moved to Nashville. When I was in LA I started singing harmony on Dwight Yoakam's records when I hooked up with Pete Anderson, and I started singing on Lucinda's records and did her three records before the last one. As I mentioned before I got tour with her as an opening act and as a harmony singer in the band. That was a great experience. I love being in the studio and writing and the whole process.
A few years ago I got involved with Robert Hunter. I was getting ready to do my first record with Ralph Stanley and I had heard that he was a big Stanley Brothers fan, so I tracked him down through a friend of mine. So Robert started faxing me lyrics and I did two songs on that Ralph Stanley record and then I was doing a country record for RCA and I put one on there. And then Hunter came to Nashville and spent about six weeks and we wrote about 34 songs together during that time. Right now I am working on two records, one is mainly an acoustic record of 11 or 12 of the songs that Robert and I wrote, and I've got some special guests. Emmylou Harris is singing some harmonies and Gillian Welch, and Buddy Miller is going to sing on one. I've got Tim O'Brien and Darryl Scott and Byron House playing a lot on it. Bucky Baxter is going to put some steel guitar on it. I'm also working on a solo bluegrass. I'd always wanted to do these bluegrass records and I got to do them starting with Ralph Stanley, that was kind of worth the wait. The solo one will include two songs that Robert and I wrote.
M.S. You are quite prolific.
J.L. Yes, that's my job being a songwriter. I just kind of compare it to everybody else they work hard at some job putting in the hours and I do the same.
M.S. Do you write songs specifically for people to cover or does it just happen that people pick up on them?
J.L. Well, I write for a publishing company in Nashville and I do get asked by producers in Nashville to write specifically for their artists. Ironically it usually turns out that they will record songs that I didn't really intend for them to record. Patty Loveless recorded a couple of songs a few years ago, one of them "Halfway Down," Donna the Buffalo does in their set, and the other is called "You Don't Seem to Miss Me" and they had heard Patty do the songs. It worked them up before we had hooked up. I had no idea that Donna the Buffalo would be doing my songs. Sometimes when I try to write for someone else then they don't end up recording.
M.S. There have been lots of covers of your songs, is there any one that really stands out for you?
J.L. Well, I really enjoy Loveless and George Jones "You Don't Seem to Miss Me." They did a great job on it. That really stands out. I am a big Gram Parsons fan and I wrote a song as a tribute to him called "King of Broken Hearts" and George Strait and a fellow named Mark Chesnutt have recorded it, but I'd love for George Jones to someday record that song.
M.S. So you were into the country rock bands like the Flying Burritos?
J.L. Oh yes.
M.S. It’s funny that everyone always raves about Gram Parsons but neglect the fact that Chris Hillman co-wrote most of the songs with him.
J.L. That's right. Chris and I have actually gotten to write one together. One of us will end up recording that one day. He is a great guy. It was a thrill and honor to be in his presence and write a song together.
M.S. Last question, you’ve recorded with the major labels, what is your perspective on working with independents?
J.L. It's been good for me. A friend of mine who worked for a major label that I was on told me "you don't need to be on a major label. You should just do an independent thing. Major labels are really only good if you are getting mainstream radio airplay. It wasn't happening for me, so it was more beneficial for me to be on an independent label. I've always had artistic control, but if you are on a major label and you get dropped your record will probably go out of print and you will have no way of getting the music out. For me the most important thing is to have my music heard by people and if that can't happen then it's not good for me.