Jim Lauderdale knows just where to find the sweet spot in Americana, that crossroads of style and substance that feels so familiar– but as if from a dream… Or another world. Lauderdale has been called the Godfather of Americana, a title he embraces, not with pride (though certainly there’s a measure of it) but for the freedom it allows. Honky tonk, bluegrass, soul, rock n’ roll, psychedelic pop, and anything else his muse compels, Jim Lauderdale is an artist of this realm and any other he cares to visit…
I want to talk about From Another World ’cause it’s fantastic. Your 32nd album… How do you even come to write a setlist for a live performance when you have 32 albums to draw from?
I just go by instinct when I do shows, and I never really write out a setlist. I gauge the audience and what I’m feeling from song to song and just kind of do it spontaneously. Sometimes I’ll dig way back. I try to play a lot of stuff from the current record. This came out in June and last year I had one that came out in August called Time Flies. And the year before when I first came down there and y’all were so good to me with London Southern. I go to them during the set to make sure I hit some of those songs since they’re the most recent. But then I do some stuff off of really old albums. Just depending on the mood, like maybe the Soul Searching record. I did that in Memphis… And it’s also different sounds. That’s more of a soul sound. I’ll do some bluegrass and stuff I did with Ralph Stanley and then I always do some stuff… I wrote about a hundred songs with Robert Hunter who wrote a lot with Jerry Garcia from the Grateful Dead. And I will always include some of those songs cause they mean a lot to me. So it just kind of depends on what the flow of things are. Whatever the room dictates for me to do.
You brought back a lot of folks from Time Flies, and of course, some usual suspects that work with you a great deal. You had Lillie Mae and Frank Rische, Chris Scruggs was back for From Another World, Jay Weaver– and that’s just a few names… You originally intended all of this material to be a part of Time Flies– is that correct?
Some of it. Actually, I believe the leftovers from Time Flies are the first song called “Some Horses Run Free” and then a song towards the end called “Slow Turn In The Road”. I really wanted to put those on Time Flies and there just wasn’t room– and I wanted to kick off Time Flies with “Some Horses Run Free” ’cause I just felt like it was a good opener. Time Flies didn’t really seem to need them, and so this record, they worked well with these other songs. But the other stuff, I kind of went… A continuation of that sound from Time Flies with those people you’re talking about– Chris Scruggs and Jay Weaver and Dave Racine– and just kind of wanted to progress. And I’m even workin’ on some more stuff in Nashville right now that I feel is even on this trajectory from Time Flies. I feel like there’s a sound that I’m comin’ into that I wanna build on.
You can feel that sound sort of evolve with the songs on From Another World— but also, you get very hardcore honky-tonk on some of those tracks.
(Laughs) Yeah. I do.
Which you have done to great extent in the past. But a song like “I’ll Forgive You If You Don’t” is a perfect example. Johnny Paycheck could’ve had a #1 with that one!
(Laughs) I wish he would have! That would’ve been great– and thank you. Nobody’s picked up on that, so thanks for thinking of that.
Well, they feel so good in that genre, but then you’ve also got like… “Listen”, to me, was totally evocative of the Flying Burrito Brothers, especially the pedal steel on there. But with that particular song, “Listen”, you know, it does have an autobiographical flavor to it. But there’s also a sense of protest about it. And I know that this album is not so much a protest as it is a… Is it an anti-protest?
Well, it’s just maybe a different kind of protest, hoping in some ways to bring people together. And not in a big, “pound you over the head with it”, but just a subtle call for more unity with people. If you go to any family gathering or certain work situations or whatever, you can be talking with someone, a friend or relative and hit it off so well, or somebody you just meet and just think, “I really like this person. We can really relate to each other.” And then when you start talkin’ about politics or whatever… It’s because we’re so divided and very passionate on both sides… Then that blows everything. And sometimes that has to happen, you know? But it tears us apart. If we could kinda chill out and just appreciate each other more and not let our ideology split us apart. It’s like that song “Listen”, I mean, it’s funny because my co-writer, Buddy Cannon, I could see some things in his office and stuff that I thought, “Well, I think he must lean towards this way and I lean towards this other way…” But it’s not going to solve anything for us to get in an argument about it, you know? And I think if we can discuss things… And believe me, I’m not suggesting that we go, “Oh look, don’t pay attention to it!” We’ve got to be informed, now more than ever, and know what’s going on out there in the world and how we can help do something to make it better. So I guess it’s just a call for more unity. I mean, not that it’s a call, but it’s thematically like that. Probably most artists when they put out a record, they want it to be something that can transport people a little bit and give them some enjoyment, ease tensions, et cetera. Does that make any sense?
Yeah, it does. Were you back at the Blackbird Academy for this new album?
I did most of the new one at what was called House of Blues– but it got sold right as we were finishing the record to Universal Music Group, which is a big recording, publishing outfit. But they were really nice folks, they let me finish the record there and everything. It’s a great place, but the new stuff I’ve been doing, the last ten songs, I went back to the Blackbird Academy, and I’m going there probably two more chunks. Four day sessions and I think that I’ll have wrapped up this new kind of thing I’m real excited about.
That intrigued me, the idea of going and recording at a working school to do your album. Was that like having, I guess what you might say, completely fresh ears on your material? Did it give you a new perspective on those songs?
It was inspiring and is inspiring to see. This place, Blackbird Studios, is just one of the world’s best studios and they have like, gosh, I’m not exactly sure how many… They’ve got a real big room and then they’ve got two medium-size rooms and then a lot of smaller rooms for overdubs. When I was there the other day, I was sharing Studio H– it’s gone from A to H– to do some overdubs. I started out doing it there because it was described to me what was going on. I thought, “Well it’s very reasonable price-wise to record there,” and then the more I record there, the more I enjoy being around the students who are coming in there and studying from all over the country and internationally. But to be around people who are really eager and enthusiastic to learn their craft, and they’re getting really good training and they’re just open… And I have started enjoying more and more, taking a little bit of time and explaining certain things. Like when I’m doing a vocal take and go, “You know, sometimes an artist when they get in here… You’re going to deal with people who are going to be uptight, mean– because they are really nervous because everything is riding, in their minds, on this session.” They feel like this is “my make or break” thing. And a lot of times that is even when you’re doing a demo or it’s your very first time in the studio, you’re a total amateur and you just want to record. Or else you’re a major recording artist and you’re doing this new record and it’s like, “Hey, my career needs this jolt,” or “I’ve got to do a follow up from my last thing and I’m feeling the pressure!” So to kind of explain some of the psychology sometimes of what the singer might be going through and for different ways for them to… Or first of all, for them not to take that personally, but also just different little things that might make that singer feel at ease and comfortable. Just simple little things. You kind of take on a little bit of a teaching role as well.
That sounds like a lecture series that you could do there at Blackbird. Just go in and do like a 30-minute lecture series for the students…
Like a seminar. Yeah!
There was one specific project that I wanted to ask you about– and it’s because I’m such a fan of the man… But you had once mentioned in an interview where you had the concept of doing a record specifically for James Burton and I wanted to know what that would have entailed and what happened to it?
I did! Well actually I did do it, but as with some of my records, it flew under the radar and it flew so low under the radar… But I did, gosh, I think it was about 10 years ago?
I completely missed that.
Oh, yeah. So I’ll have to get you a copy because if you dig James Burton, you would hopefully really like this. It’s called Honey Songs. I think they’ve got some on my website. And by the way, I had a lot of tracks leftover, about thirteen tracks that I didn’t finish vocally. I’m gonna go back in and do those, and then it’s either going to be on a Record Store Day or Black Friday sale day… They’re going to reissue Honey Songs and then make it like a double release with these extra tracks. Describing it, I was such a big Gram Parsons nut, and I loved James Burton’s playing so much, but also Al Perkins, his pedal steel playing with James. I get these muses from the musicians I’m working with, like for instance, Time Flies and From Another World. Chris Scruggs in a lot of ways became a muse for me of like, “I can hear him playin’ this.” And so I’m writing [Honey Songs] and with James Burton and Al, I wrote all of these songs thinking of their playing as I was writing them. Sometimes, and at first, I was a little intimidated, but it was like, “Hey James, can you plan this with Al? Can you twin a thing of like [imitates Burton’s chicken pickin’ style].” That lick, right? I’d hear different pedal steel licks and guitar licks and you know, they were totally fine with it! I’ve worked with some musicians since then, like when you go, “Hey, can you play this?” You sing it and sometimes they kinda don’t like that! Like look, I’m the player! But even horn players, like when I did Soul Searching… I’ve got another soul record I’m working on at Royal Studios in Memphis and when I tell the horn players, it’s like, “Hey, do this [imitates trumpet burst]!” And I said, “Man, I hope you guys don’t mind if I’m singin’ you these parts…”They’re like, “No, no, that’s actually helpful to know where you want to go with it.” I think that James and Al felt that way. But what happened was, at that time, I didn’t have a manager and I was thinking, kind of naively, it’s like, “Listen, I do this record with James Burton and Al Perkins, I’ll be touring all over the place with these guys as my band!” But I didn’t have the wherewithal to quarterback that with the agent, with the record company, with promoters to get people excited about it. And also, unfortunately, I got polyps on my vocal cords and I was out of commission for four months, like right as the record came out! I couldn’t talk for about three months. I was on vocal rest. And so that thing just went by the wayside. A lot of times when I finish a record, even before it’s out, I’ll be on to the next thing. I guess I have a real short attention span (laughs). In some ways, I think that’s okay because it keeps me motivated all the time to do another record. Even though sometimes the folks I work with business-wise are like, “Man, it’s too much!” But to me, it’s what I want to do and this is what makes me happy and excites me– to go in the studio as much as possible and then tour as much as possible and just keep creating.
You’re recording in Memphis, you’re back at the Blackbird Academy putting stuff together– and I’ll wager you’ve probably got your next two albums mapped out.
I actually have recorded a bluegrass record that I hope to have out at least by March. I’d prefer it to come out in February. I did that up in North Carolina and had a theme of using North Carolina bluegrass bands and musicians and co-writers like the Steep Canyon Rangers and Town Mountain and Balsam Range, and then just some individual pickers and some lesser-known bands. That’s called When Carolina Comes Home Again. Ironically, I made it into a bluegrass song, but it’s a tune I wrote with John Oates of Hall & Oates. He kinda grew up in folk music and this song is a minor key thing. It could be like an old folk song but works great for bluegrass. It’s kinda like that song that Jimmy Martin and J.D. Crowe and the New South did. I mean, the song is not like it, but one of their big songs was “Free Born Man”, and that song actually was co-written by Mark Lindsay of Paul Revere and the Raiders, that group that was big back in the ’60s. Sometimes even these pop superstars can write a good bluegrass song!