It's little wonder that any attempt to corner Jim Lauderdale for a phone interview can become something of a challenge. After all, given the man's prolific prowess and propensity for extreme multi-tasking, any chance of catching him when he's not in the studio would seem to require both expert timing and extreme happenstance. While the late James Brown's work ethic once earned him a reputation as the hardest working man in show business, Lauderdale's habit of putting out multiple albums at the same time, keeping busy with a radio show ("The Buddy & Jim Show"), live podcasts (via musiccityroots.com), constant songwriting and ongoing collaborations suggest he's a shoe-in as the Godfather of Soul's logical successor.
In order to illustrate that assertion, one need only look at his crowded trajectory, one which first took shape in the late '80s, once his attempts to establish himself as both a singer and a songwriter led to a series of recording contracts with a succession of major labels -- Columbia, Warner Bros. Atlantic, and RCA among them. Unfortunately, many of these initial associations led to frustration, owed in certain circumstances to albums that were recorded but never released and albums that were released but failed to make any dent on the charts. Ironically, the songs he wrote for other artists at the time -- Elvis Costello, Blake Shelton, the Dixie Chicks, Vince Gill and Patty Loveless, among them -- did do well enough to prove his potential as a writer of renown.
Happily then, the 56-year-old North Carolina native and current denizen of Nashville found his footing after a run of albums recorded under the banners of various independent labels -- Yep Roc, Sugar Hill, Dualtone and Thirty Tigers -- each of whom gave him the freedom to explore his multitude of interests, be it bluegrass, country or the overriding reach of Americana.
Indeed, Lauderdale's level of activity has actually increased in recent years. In the last two alone, he's recorded no less than half a dozen albums, three of which -- Black Roses, Blue Moon Junction and Old Time Angels -- were released simultaneously at the end of 2013.
Consequently, it was something of a surprise to find him working on yet another new album when the time came for our discussion. Nevertheless, when he does find time to chat, Lauderdale proves to be a thoughtful subject, thanks to his well considered responses and a quiet humility that's all the more affecting. Still, it can be somewhat dizzying trying to keep up.
So here you are, fresh off a trio of new albums and you've already returned to the studio.
I'm always under my own self imposed deadline. I've got twenty songs for my new country album and it's pretty good. I'm really pleased with it. I haven't done a country record -- I don't think -- in awhile. It's kind of traditionally based, heavy telly and steel kind of stuff. Some of that kind of stuff was last on a record called Country Super Hits from about six years ago and a record from about five years ago called Honey Songs. And some of Patchwork River, which I wrote with Robert Hunter, is also kind of country-ish. So yeah, I just like it. Creating a record is kind of a nerve-wracking process in a way. Yet it's really gratifying at the same time. Late last night I finished the lyric for a song I had the melody for. I had the title for it too, but I didn't have the lyric. So I finished it real late, and as a result, I was in a great mood today because of that [laughs].
Are these new songs self-composed?
Yes, they're either all written by me or with co-writers. I've got one Robert Hunter co-write, one John Oates co-write. Three with O.D. Blackman, the guy I wrote most of Country Super Hits with. One with Elvis Costello. I think that's it, so that's six or seven co-writes and the rest I wrote alone.
That album you mentioned was entitled Country Super Hits, Volume One. So will this be the long-awaited Volume Two?
No, this one I have another title for. It's called I'm a Song. Country Super Hits Volume Two, I don't know why I haven't finished that yet. It's mostly done. And it's been done for years. I just got busy with these other records. I also have a followup to that record Honey Songs, which I did with James Burton and Al Perkins. James and Al are on nine of the songs off this new record. I love working with both those guys together. They were so good when they were playing on the Gram Parsons records.
Your ability to work on so many albums simultaneously and turn them out so quickly is nothing less than extraordinary.
Well, the way I look at it is that it's not hurting anything for me. If I was a mainstream country artist, and I had a hit on the charts right now, then it would matter. But this way, there's kind of something for everyone, whether they're bluegrass fans or folks who are Robert Hunter and Grateful Dead fans, or folks who enjoy the straight ahead country stuff. I have another record I did over in England -- and I don't want to get too far ahead of myself -- but it's a record I did with Nick Lowe's band.
You're a one man phenomenon!
Well, I don't know about that. I just feel like at this stage of my life and career, it's something I want to do, putting all these records out at once. I probably will never do that again. But I can still see putting out a couple of records a year for the next couple of years. I'm still going to try to do an annual bluegrass record, because that is the first stuff that I was going to pursue. Bluegrass was it. Due to a different chain of events, or fate, or whatever, it didn't happen for me when I first wanted to put out bluegrass records. I kind of had this natural evolution of wanting to put out bluegrass, then moving into country, and then going into whatever from there and then going back and forth, putting out kind of rootsy rock, with some soul kind of stuff in there too. But nothing in my career ever went as planned, and so I didn't put out my first bluegrass record -- I Feel Like Singing Today, which was with Ralph Stanley -- until '97 or '98 or so. And that was 25 years or so after I thought I was going to be putting out bluegrass records. I still feel like the root of what I do is bluegrass. I was a late bloomer when it came to putting things out, but as far as bluegrass is concerned, I just love it so much.
Yet, you are so diverse that people do identify you with bluegrass, even though you're also recognised as a country artist, an Americana artist, and everything in between. It's impressive how you go back and forth between all these different styles.
Growing up, my ear got trained to listen to a lot of different kinds of music, especially when the Beatles came out, and first came to the U.S. I saw them on Ed Sullivan, and that had a huge impact, as did the music in the early '60s through '70s. Radio was so diverse then. You'd hear rock, soul, R&B, pop. There would be specialty shows as well. So I was just open to so many different styles of music and I enjoyed singing along. So I guess it kind of trained my ear.
That was a period of time when radio – especially FM radio – could be more free-form without adhering to a strict format.
Right. Now they categorise all those different things as "Americana," and that includes bluegrass, country, rock, folk, soul – all that stuff. So if you say, yeah, I'm an Americana artist, that covers a lot of ground as well … at least as far as categories are concerned. Which I think is good and healthy, because there are more and more radio stations that will play all of those styles, and that's Americana radio.
You alluded to the fact that when you started out, you experienced several false starts. You were with a number of labels and some of the albums you recorded for them never saw the light of day. That must have been discouraging to say the least.
Right. That was disappointing, and at the time it was real depressing. But gosh, on a scale of hard knocks, it's nothing compared to people going through health and financial and personal hardships. It's relative to a certain extent, but it is not so serious compared to the real tragedies of life. During that time when things were slow, and there were false starts and things were up and down, good things were happening. I started getting songs recorded by other people, which is something I had not planned on. It was really great, and it helped ease the disappointment when my records with major labels weren't catching on commercially. I still got to make records though. As I mentioned earlier, it's kind of nerve-wracking being in a studio, but as things start coming together, you can see the light at the end of the tunnel and it really helps.
Are you still writing for other people?
I haven't been so much lately. This year, with this batch of records I've been getting ready, I just haven't had time. I like the challenge of trying to write for someone, but a lot of times it just doesn't pan out. Maybe someone will cut something off one of these last records I put out, and that will be fine. But my expectations are low, like they are about everything in the biz. It's that process of creating that is kind of a direct motivator for me.
There are artists who have hits with your songs on country radio, but does the fact that you yourself haven't had those hits with your own songs bother you at all?
No. Having hits with those other people was still satisfying for me at that point.
Speaking of others, you've known Buddy Miller for some 30 years…
Right. Some 34 years actually.
And you recorded together incidentally in that time since. But why did it take you so long to record an album as a duo, as you did with the Buddy & Jim album?
We both got more and more busy, until finally we started doing this radio show on Sirius XM called "The Buddy and Jim Show." So we would bring it up several times a year, like maybe we can record this or that. So he finally mentioned it to his record company, and they said, sure, but do it now. That was fine with me because I hate waiting around for people in the business to say you can do something. So we recorded it quickly, we co-wrote several things, and though we had a few meetings to talk about it and plan it out, we recorded it in three days. I think he mixed it in five days. He's a great, world class producer, so there wasn't a question about who should produce it. We do the radio show out of his home studio and that's where we did the record. It's a great place. But getting back to your question, it took awhile because we were both really busy, and for a time, I wondered if it would ever happen. So we're really glad that we got to do it and we'll do a follow-up hopefully in a year or so. I hope it won't take another 34 years. (chuckles).
You have your own label now. Sky Crunch?
Yeah, that's kind of a name I came up with when I was doing the first Ralph Stanley record. I was calling it Sky Crunch Productions, and there was a label I was licensing it to. But when you license a record to somebody, you still need your own name, so I thought of this Sky Crunch Records. It doesn't really have any significance, but it just sort of struck me.
How did you meet Robert Hunter?
I was doing that record with Ralph Stanley and I told a friend of mine, Rob Bleetstein, that I'd love to write with Robert Hunter. It was just kind of a pipe dream, and so he talked to Robert and Robert faxed me some lyrics. I didn't know how to email back then, so we kind of communicated by fax and by phone. I recorded a melody and overnighted a cassette and Ralph liked the song, and Robert liked the song and while I was in the studio, he sent another fax with a lyric. I was working on this country record and I thought it would work for that. It was called "Trust (Guiding Star)," and I put that on the last country album for RCA. Then Robert came to Nashville for a few months and we wrote 33 songs. I edited those songs down and we recorded 13 of those songs for our first collaborative record, Headed for the Hills in 2004. Then several years went by and I thought I really needed to write with Robert again, and so this time I went to California and we wrote what would become Patchwork River. At the same time, we wrote what would become my Honey Songs record. So anyway, that's the stuff I did with Robert. We kept kind of going after Honey Songs. When I got back from a European tour, I started sending Robert these bluegrass melodies and in about eight days we had written 13 songs, and I went in and recorded a record called Reason and Crime and put that out. He liked that record a lot, and so when I was out in California celebrating his 70th birthday, he said we got to write a follow-up to that record. So he asked me to stick around a couple of days and we wrote the record that became Carolina Moonrise. Then I went out there again, and those songs became Black Roses and a solo acoustic record that I put out at the same time called Blue Moon Junction. Robert and I have more songs that would be a good follow-up to Blue Moon Junction as a solo acoustic thing. Now that's gotten back to performing, I'm hoping he will still have time to do some more co-writing with me.
With your schedule, hopefully you'll have time to co-write with him!
Well, this is my vocation, and it's a different business. But so is any business or any line of work. Any of them are hard and kind of slow at times, but we just have to keep slugging along and slugging it out.