Jim Lauderdale has a reputation as a country music star’s favorite country musician. Artists as talented and diverse as Lucinda Williams, Ralph Stanley, George Jones, and Dwight Yoakam have all sung his praises. Lauderdale himself has fine taste in country musicians. Just look at who he has assembled to play on his latest effort.
Lauderdale’s backing band, the Dream Players, includes legends like guitarist James Burton on guitar, Al Perkins on steel guitar, Glen D. Hardin on piano, Run Tutt on drums, and Gary Tallent on bass. Burton began as Ricky Nelson’s lead player back in the ‘50s, and then became Elvis Presley’s main man on axe from 1969 until the King’s death. Perkins was a member of Gram Parsons’s original Flying Burrito Brothers and has played with everyone from the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan to Solomon Burke and Tori Amos. Hardin was part of Buddy Holly’s original Crickets and has hit the keys for Presley, Roy Orbison, and many more big name acts. Tutt has drummed for everyone from Elvis Presley to Elvis Costello. Tallent was a founding member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. It’s hard to imagine a more prestigious pedigree than the one shared by these performers.
And these fellows really know how to lay down some riffs. Their talent and experience allows them to build a groove. Just listen to Tallent’s bass ambling intro to “Borrow Some Summertime” and the way Burton and Perkins pick up the rhythm so that when Tutt hits the skins, everything is set perfectly in its place.
This allows Lauderdale to shine. He sings these songs so that every word, every syllable counts. He knows when to articulate clearly and when to ache, slide and moan. He lets the words pop like a school kid snapping bubble gum one minute, and then gets down and growls at the end of a line to show he’s serious the next.
Songwriting used to be Lauderdale’s biggest problem. He always knew how to sound good, but he didn’t always have anything worth saying. That’s not true anymore. He wrote nine out of the ten songs here (and co-wrote the tenth), and they are all top notch. The material ranges from the sweet (“Honey Suckle Honey Pie”), to the sad (“It’s Finally Sinkin’ In”), to the cinematic (“Daughters of the Majestic Sage”), to small character studies (“I Hope You’re Happy”), to the just weird (“Stingray”), to everything in between.
Lauderdale’s even composed one certifiable country classic, “Those Kind of Things Don’t Happen Every Day”. He sings this simple story of kindness and charity in a voice as plain and right as goodness itself, ably backed on vocals by Buddy Miller and Kelly Hogan. Meanwhile, the Dream Players sympathetically offer hope through the little touches in their instrumentation—a bent string coos in one place, a drum beat picks up the pace a little in another, and such—so that the message of a brighter future comes through clear and strong.
Lauderdale is also ambitious and prolific. This is the second installment in Lauderdale’s planned trilogy of releases during a nine-month period. He released the first one, The Bluegrass Diaries, in late 2007. The third one will feature Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. But Lauderdale has always had this drive. In 2006, he released two separate and distinct albums on the same day, one of which (Bluegrass) went on to receive a Grammy nomination. If Honey Songs is any indication of the quality of his aspirations, than all one can say is, strive on.