In recent years Nashville resident Jim Lauderdale has been busier than a pack mule. A gifted roots musician and songwriter with a bent for the more eclectic side of modern Americana, Lauderdale has opened for acts as diverse as Merle Haggard and George Clinton, sang back-up for contemporary country heavy-weight Lucinda Williams, and most recently joined Elvis Costello on stage at this year’s Merlefest for a blistering set of covers and solo material. But it’s the singer’s own studio work that has taken off like a home-made rocket on Independence Day ever since his collaboration with legendary bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley garnered a Grammy nomination for Lauderdale’s seventh release, 1999’s I Feel Like Singing, and allowed the North Carolina native a chance to fulfil his teenage dream of becoming a Bluegrass recording artist.
Therefore, when, in between a string of critically praised alternative country albums, Lauderdale got the opportunity to team up once again with Stanley in 2002, he jumped at the chance. And aided by the latter’s band the Clinch Mountain Boys, this time won a Grammy for Lost in the Lonesome Pines. Never one to rest on his laurels, Lauderdale released the noteworthy country record Hummingbird within months and then went on to duplicate this double-header in 2006 with the classic honkytonk of Country Super Hits Vol.1 and the Grammy-nominated Bluegrass. But now the prolific songsmith has raised the stakes ever higher for 2007 by signalling his intention to release a genre-hopping trilogy of albums for Yep Roc in the next nine months, starting with his abiding passion for bluegrass, a recording schedule that would have most artists reaching for the nearest bottle.
Produced by virtuoso dobro player Randy Kohrs, The Bluegrass Diaries follows on from where its predecessor left off, another solid album of high lonesome originals that sees Lauderdale once again sharing co-writing credits with Odie Blackmon and Shawn Camp among other country buddies. You’d really think that with such a prodigious output the occassional “grassed-up” rock classic or traditional number would be slipped in as filler but instead he brings a progressive country mind-set to the proceedings, which produces refreshing songs with a contemporary cross-over appeal. That they’re sung in his whisky-soaked, country tenor instead of trying to hit the high notes like Bill Monroe or slip in a Jimmie Rodgers-style yodel on occassion most likely goes towards keeping the eleven cuts here real.
The album’s central theme follows the well-worn mountain path that winds its way through the thornier side of love which Hank Williams forever made his own. Heartache, loss, loneliness, and occasionally hard-earned redemption are all stopping-off points along the way and opener “This Is the Last Time (I’m Ever Gonna Hurt)” (the title is a bit of a giveaway) has them in spades. A lively two-step buoyed along by accomplished solos from banjoist Richard Bailey and Aaron Till on fiddle smooth over the bitterest of country-blues lyrics. Lauderdale displays the sunnier-side of his disposition on the following number “All Roads Lead Back To You”, co-written with country legend Melba Montgomery, before flowing seamlessly into the yearning, bluegrass lament “I Wanted to Believe”. Meanwhile, Camp provides tight harmony backing on the slightly more upbeat quest for love that is “Looking for a Good Place to Land”, which finds Lauderdale intoning, “I’d fly a million miles / Just to see you smile / Just to place a lily in your hand”, before crashing back to earth with the melancholia of “Are You Having Second Thoughts”, providing the perfect stage for Ashley Brown’s sublime harmony vocals.
Elsewhere, things get downright lively as only bluegrass can. “One Blue Mule” is a finger-picking hoedown that would have put a smile on that old mule skinner Uncle Dave Macon’s face, while the closing tune “Ain’t No Way to Run” provides a blazing bluegrass finale which allows the musicians including Kohrs, Jesse Cobb (mandolin) and Cody Kilby (guitar) a chance to step into the circle for some serious solo work that sounds as if it’s fuelled by a hefty shot of white lightning. All proving that, never mind the majority of sophisticated bluegrass around today, hot picking and gritty sentimentality can still retain the rough-edged charm of its roots without succumbing to cliché.