Jim Lauderdale is a proponent of what might be called “roots bluegrass.” No fancy jazz chords here, no Tex-Mex progressions or extended improvisations. Lauderdale makes his bluegrass the old fashioned way: by finger-picking like a lunatic while warbling about women, whiskey and women, not necessarily in that order. Carolina Moonrise is a collection of tunes that Lauderdale co-wrote with Robert Hunter, best known as the lyricist for much of the ouevre of The Grateful Dead. As might be expected, these tunes betray an offbeat sensibility, but they remain rooted in solid bluegrass tradition.
That duality is in evidence right off the bat, with rollicking album opener “Iodine.” The titular element is not a subtance applied to abrasions, but the woman loved by the narrator. Over a full-tilt banjo and fiddle, Lauderdale’s reedy tenor declares that “I’m the meanest man in Tenessee, my woman’s even meaner / If you try to two-time me, you’ll wish you’d never seen her.” Lauderdale’s heartfelt twang is reminiscent of Buddy Miller’s—this is a good thing—in its resonance and long-suffering sensibility.
Other songs make good use of this quality, too. Lauderdale guides us through an array of tempos—slow, fast, and breakneck—and moods. “Anybody’s Guess” is a down-tempo number that manages to avoid sappiness, largely due to Lauderdale’s angsty vocals, while the outstanding “Cole Bernier” gallops along at a frenetic pace as it conveys a tale of a poker game gone wrong. “Can I Have This Dance?” could pass for a Hank Williams song in its swinging melody and plain, heartfelt lyrics.
The album ends particularly strongly. “The Night the Moon Fell Down” is a gently sweet song that relies, as most of these tunes do, on Lauderdale’s voice to do the bulk of the emotional heavy lifting. There are banjo, mandolin and guitar licks aplenty here, but the instrumentation serves to support the vocals rather than the other way around. This is a refreshing change from many new bluegrass albums, in which musical virtuosity makes up for weak singing, but a truly barn-burning instrumental or two would not have gone amiss.
The record’s final two songs are its strongest. “Fiddler’s Heaven” chugs along with an irresistible melody and chorus and, of course, some darn tasty fiddle licks. With lyrics extolling the talents of fiddlers past, it would be a standout track on just about any lbum you can think of, but here it’s immediately matched by what follows.
Album closer “Wild and Free” serves as an appropriate sendoff to the album, a song that simultaneously celebrates the free-and-easy lifestyle while calling it into question. The tune is reliant on some dextrously fingerpicked guitar for most of its instrumental muscle, but Lauderdale’s vocals will probably garner most of the attention: “I used to love Dolores best, way much more than all the rest, till she went and tried to tie me down,” he explains, “Until she staked a claim on me, who’s always lived so wild and free, I’ve come to say goodbye—I’m leaving town.”
Lauderdale is able to spit such mouthfuls at a fast pace, and more importantly, to make them stick. The end of the album sees him running away from his various girlfriends, whether in fear or exhileration or both, and rounds nicely to the album’s starting point, the love song concerning the prickly girlfriend Iodine. Finishing the album, the listener feels as if s/he has undergone a voyage alongside Lauderdale, one that is by turns comic, tragic, romantic and a just a little bit dangerous. It’s a compelling journey, and a strong statement concerning what those hoary old bluegreass traditions are still able to do for us.