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Published: 2011/08/24
by Sam Robertson

Jim Lauderdale
Reason and Rhyme

Sugar Hill Records

Over the past twenty years, Jim Lauderdale has established himself as one of the most accomplished musicians in the current Nashville country bluegrass scene, and his newest album Reason and Rhyme marks the continuation of a budding partnership with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. Lauderdale and Hunter is a match made in Americana heaven, and Reason and Rhyme is the third album they have created together. Despite the death of Hunter’s famous songwriting partner Jerry Garcia in 1995, Robert Hunter has continued to be quite prolific. In the years since Garcia’s death, Hunter has worked with not just Lauderdale but also Bob Dylan, New Riders of the Purple Sage, and Grateful Dead family bands Furthur and 7 Walkers. While Lauderdale and Hunter cannot rival what Hunter and Garcia shared, they do seem to work awfully well together and their chemistry continues to improve with each album.

Patchwork River, the last album released by the Lauderdale Hunter tandem, featured drums, electric and pedal steel guitars, and an Americana sound that evoked the Grateful Dead’s classic American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead albums. Lauderdale is no stranger to those albums, having performed the material while touring with the American Beauty Project, and the Grateful Dead’s influence undoubtedly shaped Patchwork River. But Lauderdale’s newest effort, Reason and Rhyme, is different. There are no drums or electric instruments on this album, but plenty of flourishes of banjo, mandolin and fiddle courtesy of some of the best pickers that Nashville has to offer. While that means that this album may not be as musically diverse as the soulful Americana of _Patchwork Rive_r, there is something about the combination of bluegrass and Robert Hunter’s lyrics that is fresh but feels unquestionably right at the same time.

Though the Grateful Dead’s association with bluegrass is sometimes underestimated, before the founding of the Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter played together in bluegrass groups such as the Wildwood Boys and Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. Lauderdale’s arrangements pay tribute to Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley, the bluegrass heroes that Garcia and Hunter grew up with. Hunter has a special talent for writing lyrics that suits the music and voice of the band, and this album is no different, as his tales of self-loathing characters and hard traveling works perfectly with Lauderdale’s bluegrass arrangements and country croon.

Just seconds into the first song on Reason Or Rhyme, as Lauderdale moans about “keeping a good man down” and how the “cruel wind and rain puts fever in my brain, it leaves my heart in pain,” the lines immediately sound like vintage Hunter lyrics. “Don’t Give A Hang” is the kind of down on his luck tale that Hunter has perfected over the years, and tells the story of an apathetic man disenfranchised with both the world and himself. The song is dark and depressing, but is balanced out by a touch of Hunter’s sly humor with lines like, “Don’t give a hang about telephones that follow you when you leave home.” “Jack Dempsey’s Crown” is more terrific storytelling from Hunter, a boxer’s triumphant tale of winning Jack Dempsey’s crown, but with a bitterly ironic twist- “Ever since I won Jack Dempsey’s crown, there’s nowhere to go but down.”

But the true lyrical masterpiece of the album is the title track:

“Lost somewhere way back in time,

Lost far beyond reason and rhyme,

Lost somewhere vanished in the air,

All those promises we all could share.”

Only Robert Hunter can describe the poignancy of lost and broken dreams with such eloquence and beauty, and the album is littered with lines like those that demonstrate the continued genius of Robert Hunter. Though musically, this album seems to pale in comparison to the rich Americana textures of Patchwork Quilt, the bluegrass arrangements pay tribute to the early musical heroes of Robert Hunter, and his songs certainly work well in this format. Though Lauderdale has traditionally been associated with country and Americana much more strongly than bluegrass, he assembled a terrific band of pickers for Reason and Rhyme that infuses these songs with energetic solos, especially on “Fields of the Lord” and “Doin’ It On My Own.” Yet the true power of this album is in the lyrics of Robert Hunter, as he has proven himself to be as magnificent a songwriter as ever. It’s a treasure to hear all these brilliant new songs pouring out of him, treated with care and a fresh approach courtesy of Lauderdale and his band.

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