First Published October 2017
LAUDERDALE’S LIFE – A SONGWRITING LEGEND
It’s not too often that you get the opportunity to speak to someone like Jim Lauderdale, where most of the names that come up in conversation have all secured their own places in the music history books, too. Harlan Howard, Buck Owens, Ralph Stanley, Buddy Miller, Robert Hunter, Patty Loveless, George Jones, Harry Chapin, John Oates, Lucinda Williams, Rodney Crowell, John Levanthal, Emory Gordy Jnr. And for good measure, a tale relating to John Lennon that almost steals a beat of your heart when you think about it for a moment.
Nope, it’s definitely not too often that you hit lucky enough to chat with someone like Jim. Hardly surprising, though, given the fact that there aren’t many like Jim out there. In fact, when we talk about Jim Lauderdale, we’re into talking about once-in-a-lifetime talents territory. And it was my good fortune, and great pleasure, to talk to the man himself recently.
Sadly, when we spoke it was only a few days after the shooting at Jason Aldean’s concert in Las Vegas, followed by the untimely death of a true rock and roll icon, Tom Petty. It would have been impossible not to begin by touching on both for a moment, so I asked Jim if he’d like to share what was going through his mind on either event?
“Yes, oh my gosh. It was mind-numbing, both of those different tragedies. What happened in Las Vegas was just unfathomable. I’m still, and I think everybody is really, we’re just reeling from it. And then Tom last night. I mean, he’d just wrapped up a very successful leg of his tour and seemed to be very healthy. His music really brought a lot of enjoyment to millions of people. He was a real master [entertainer] and he’s really gonna be missed.”
Jim’s new album, London Southern, is his 29th, an extraordinary output by anyone’s measure. It includes a song co-written with John Oates, called If I Can’t Resist. Now Jim has described Oates as being, “More hungry than most guys that are on their way up.” I put it to Jim that, given his vast back catalogue, that same could be said of him. And I asked him, what keeps him hungry to keep on writing and recording?
“It’s just the desire to get these songs out as they come to me, or if I’m collaborating with others. It’s just a need I have. Something I have to do is to write, and then to sing. So I stay in the studio frequently and I tour more and more these days. It seems like both the recording and the touring has continued to grow through the years, and I’m really glad about that. So writing songs and recording them, it’s just such an intense, challenging, but wonderful process. And like I said, I just have to do it.”
I’d read somewhere once that Jim never ‘refuses’ a song if he feels one coming on, even if it has nothing to do with whatever specific project he might be working on at that time. If the song comes to him, Jim takes it.
“Yes, that’s right. And I often wonder if my mind plays tricks on me, that when I’m working on a particular project, that’s when I get song ideas for a different style of music [laughs]. If I’m working on more of a soul type thing, then I might get an idea for a bluegrass song, or a traditional country type song, or vice-versa. But that’s o.k! I let my mind play those tricks! [laughs].”
Whenever I’m thinking of buying an album by an artist I don’t really know much about, one of the first things I do is check out the song titles and the songwriting credits. That’s how I first discovered an amazing Texan artist called Sunny Sweeney, she has three of Jim’s songs on her Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame record. In other words, if I see a Jim Lauderdale song on an album, that’s good enough for me: sold! And Jim is often referred to as a ‘songwriter’s songwriter.’ I wondered what it meant to him to be the subject of such a description?
“It’s very flattering. But I try not to…well, I feel like I’m still in the beginning stages of my career, so I don’t let that stuff go to my head because I’m always onto the next project. And it’s always challenging for me to get through those projects and come up to the level of other writers that are out there. So I’m always kinda doing the next thing and not thinking too much about my past work.”
As a writer Jim is nothing short of prolific. A few years back, he released a staggering FOUR records in just ONE year. How does something like that work on a business level?
“[Laughs] It doesn’t! It doesn’t work that way [laughs]. And even though I get told that by people trying to advise me, I just do it anyway. And actually, this record that’s out now, ‘London Southern’, those records came out after I’d recorded ‘London Southern’ and I was waiting for the right home for it. So these other things were kinda coming out, these other songs and project ideas, and I thought, well, ‘London Southern’ will hopefully be out in the spring-time so I’ve got to clear the decks and get these others out. And this went on for three or four years. So finally, I found a home for it which is in the U.K, on a label called Proper Records, that really liked the album a lot. I knew from their enthusiasm about it that it was in the right place at last so I’m really happy about finding that home for it.”
Another area in which Jim moves at an astounding pace is when he co-writes with Robert Hunter, lyricist of The Grateful Dead, with whom Jim has recorded and released a number of albums. Once, they wrote EIGHTEEN songs in just EIGHT days! And another time, a phenomenal TEN songs in a day and a half! In those instances where Jim and Robert write together, are they going in with ideas ready to bounce off each other, or does every song start from scratch?
“Starting from scratch, usually. In the early days when Robert Hunter and I started writing, I was doing my first album with one of my bluegrass heroes named Ralph Stanley. So I contacted Robert just on a whim, thinking, you know, he’s probably not going to return my message but I’ll at least try. But I think he and Jerry Garcia were such fans of The Stanley Brothers that he agreed! So we went from there. And either he would give me a completed lyric and I would write the music to it, or I would give him a melody. And when we’re in each other’s presence he would either hand me a lyric or a melody would just come out, which I would record quickly and send to his computer. Then he’d work in one room, while I’d work in different room coming up with another melody. Usually one or the other of us gives our contribution to the other to get things started. But during those circumstances we’re both usually pretty fast with each other. And it’s something I still have to pinch myself about, to realise that I’ve written with Robert. I think we must have written about one hundred songs together.”
J.T Osbourne, of The Brothers Osbourne, observed recently that he feels like Nashville songwriters these days might be thinking too much about what they think people want to hear, and not enough about what they, as songwriters, actually want to say. What was Jim’s take on this?
“He might be onto something there. I think that there are so many talented songwriters in Nashville. And I think that it’s hard to know what’s going on in their creative process. But in a lot of circumstances when you’re co-writing the goal is to get someone to record that song. So I think that’s sometimes how trends happen in the music market, when one thing is successful then it’s followed by a lot of things that sound like it, whether it’s melodically or thematically. So, it could be a conscious or a sub-conscious thing with writers sometimes. But there are just so many talented songwriters that end up in Nashville and write with each other, and with commercial music in general, even the most mundane type songs will be written by great writers who are still more than capable of writing profound and deep songs. But these other ones ended up kind of making it through the cracks and somehow being commercially successful. But those writers, there’s more than meets the eye as far as their abilities go. Does that make any sense?”
One of my favourite songs of Jim’s – and one of my fav country songs, come to think of it – is The King Of Broken Hearts. I love the story of how Jim wrote it after hearing Gram Parsons describe George Jones as being just that; the king of broken hearts. But what’s always intrigued me is the story of how George himself came so close to recording the song….
“That’s right, that’s right. I was working on an album that was being co-produced by Rodney Crowell and John Levanthal and I got a call at the studio from Emory Gordy Jnr., who’s married to Patty Loveless, and is a very talented producer and bass player, and he told me that George wanted to record the song. So I was totally overjoyed. Then Emory said, ‘But there’s a problem. George is having a hard time singing this part of the song, could you change the timing of it?’ So I thought for a minute, and I think I said well, yeah, sure, sure. But then I think I thought for another minute more and I said, ya know, it just won’t work. Unfortunately. That’s like such a huge part of the melody of the song. So I had to say gosh, ya know if there’s any way he can do it that’s great, but I can’t change it. And it wasn’t a matter of principle or stubborness or anything, it was just that it would it would totally change the song. So it wouldn’t be what it was if I did that. But I did get to perform that song in front of him at one of his birthday celebrations at the Grand Ole Opry house so that was really special. And there was a play that was in Nashville at the Ryman Auditorium, about Tammy Wynette, and I actually portrayed George Jones in that. And that was a real thrill for me. And he came to the show, too. I’m a George Jones…freak, I guess [laughs]. I just love his music so much, and his voice.”
Harlan Howard, even today, some fifteen years after his passing, is still regarded by many as the master of country music songwriters. And naturally, there’s another great story here about Jim, and when he and Harlan wrote together. I’m sure there’s probably far more than one, indeed, but one I particularly love concerns the song You’ll Know When It’s Right. Essentially, Jim was telling Howard his story of one particular heartache and Howard reassuringly replied, “You’ll know when it’s right”, and went on to craft the song from the rest of the details of Jim’s pain! That, folks, is songwriting genius! But what was it, in Jim’s view, that made Harlan Howard so special as a writer?
“Well, he was very in touch with mankind. He had worked in a factory in Detroit before he ended up moving to California for a while, He was roommates in California with Bobby Bare and kind of got into getting cuts with Buck Owens and things, so eventually moved to Nashville. But I think that when he worked at an auto-factory in Detroit at like a eight-to-five job, that he had a strong work ethic. And he wanted to get away from that kind of life and just be a songwriter. But one thing he would tell me when we wrote, was that he really wanted to go abroad, to places like the U.K, and Ireland, and just sit at a bar and talk to a guy who drives a truck. He said, ‘I just want to sit there and talk to the everyday working man.’ I just feel that he had such an understanding, and an empathy, with the everyday person, somebody that didn’t have great wealth or a title or whatever. He was more comfortable in that kind of situation. I think his understanding of the human psyche really, is what came through in his songs. He had a very conversational way of writing as well. He was really a great guy, who was very passionate about life and about music. It was a great experience to write with him and to be his friend.”
Patty Loveless once said that Jim, as a songwriter, knew how to, “Gut an emotion, head right to the truth, and keep going.” Is that an instinctual ability, or something that can be learned?
“Well, maybe both. I know that songwriting is something that, for me, parts of it are effortless and come easy. But then other things take a lot of effort on my part to finish. The melodies are always the easiest things for me. And sometimes titles are as well. But to really get into a song and make it work is the challenge for me.”
So how does Jim know when a song is as bare as it can be, how does he gauge when it’s ready?
“I just kinda know. I have that feeling. There’s an expression, ‘Stick a fork in it’ [laughs], so I think you just kind of instinctively know. It’s like, o.k, I’ve said it, I’ve gotten the point across, and it doesn’t need to be edited or tweaked, or added to. Mind you, with most songs I worry if something is over five minutes! Buck Owens used to say, ‘Well, you’re only two and a half minutes away from a hit!’ Meaning that at any given time, not me personally, but a person can write something and it lasts two and a half minutes and hey…it’s a hit song! And radio has changed a lot, and records have changed a lot. They don’t have to be as short these days. But that was kind of a formula for many years in pop music and country music, that songs were roughly that length or less.”
My last question was one I tend to end with whenever I can. One about advice for songwriters. Michael Weston King, the British singer/songwriter, said the best piece of advice he ever received came from the legendary Townes Van Zandt, and it was just two simple words: Keep going. Now Jim himself has said before that whenever he’s feeling bad or going through something a little on the tough side, he tells himself that he needs to write himself out of that situation. Which, when you think about it, isn’t too far off what Townes advised. But what is the best piece of advice Jim has ever been given?
“I was living in New York city years ago, and Buddy Miller had moved up there at the same time. And interestingly enough, there was an influx of country music writers and singers and musicians that converged on New York city, of all places! Buddy Miller calls it The Great Country Music Scare of 1980 for New York city! [laughs]. I had just gotten a job in a house-band at a large new country venue in Jersey, and they would have national acts come and play there and we’d be the opening act. So that was a big deal for me, and I though this was my big break. But I had auditioned for a play where I was playing the banjo and the guitar – the play had a small bluegrass band – and one actor ended up being called Cotton Patch Gospel. And Harry Chapin, the singer/songwriter, wrote the music. So I auditioned, but I didn’t get it. But the man who did couldn’t fulfill his duties in the show so they offered me the role, but I turned it down. Because I said I had this new thing where I had to do my own music. And Harry Chapin said to me, ‘Well, you’ve got to do your own songs, and don’t forget that.’ He was very gracious. He said you’ve got to do your own things, don’t just do other peoples.’ And that’s what I really wanted to do, but he really reinforced it. He said, ‘Keep that fire in your belly.’ In other words, that passion, that urgency about things. And I thought that was really good advice.”
“I was very fortunate years ago”, Jim continued, “I used to sing on Lucinda Williams’ albums back when her ‘Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’ album came out, and she had allowed me to open the show playing solo acoustic, then be in her band singing harmonies. So during that time I had already recorded an album and I was ready to put it out. But hearing her songs, and singing them night after night, I realised that the record I had just wasn’t up to par. Not that I wanted it to be like her record, which it couldn’t be, because nobody could do that. Now she didn’t say this to me about my record, even though she had heard it. But for me, from being around people like her, and Robert Hunter, and Harlan Howard, it’s almost like osmosis..it’s like your own kind of understanding of their process, and what they do, or the end result of their work. And in that case, with Lucinda, I just knew that I had to try harder and dig deeper. Because her songs were such masterpieces. I knew I had to go back to the drawing board, so I did, I scrapped that album. You’ve got to be honest with yourself.”
Before I let Jim back to the studio (he was recording on the day we spoke), there was one other thing I had to ask him about. I’d read before – but I was never sure if it was true or just a myth – that Jim had actually been outside The Dakota Hotel in New York on the day John Lennon was shot….?
“That’s right. I used to have to pick up and deliver camera equipment for Annie Leibovitz, so that was the tragic day that she did that last photo-shoot with John and Yoko. I had a gig the night before, a country gig, and I had one [coming up] that night, and I was really tired. I was waiting outside in the hope of catching a glimpse of John and Yoko, and I waited for a while but then I thought I only live a couple of blocks down the street, I’m gonna see him again, ya know.”
And did he really believe that he had actually seen Mark Chapman, standing there, waiting, as it would later transpire, to carry out his evil plan?
“I did, I did. I know I did because part of my thoughts were was I gonna stand around like this other guy waiting for an autograph, and he had an album in his hands at the time. And there was a woman standing with him at the time, but I think she was just another bystander.”