It’s a good thing Jim Lauderdale has been around for as long as he has been, otherwise he might be considered to be cashing in on a very good thing. However, knowing all of the people who are on his latest album—Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Allison Moorer, Tim O’Brien, and Buddy Miller—seems to be paying off at the right time. A couple of years removed from the “O Brother Not Another Mountain Music Album” phase, Lauderdale’s last recording with Donna the Buffalo was okay in spots. Compared to this record, though, which he co-wrote entirely with Robert Hunter, it is like rotten apples and ripe oranges. “High Timberline” has him on lead vocal and guitar while the overall feel is like that of the Carter Family. And with Emmylou providing high harmonies, Lauderdale is just as up to the task, nailing the tune swimmingly. O’Brien’s mandolin also plays an important part, but it’s the “group” mentality that makes it look and sound oh so easy. It also has that swaying, waltz-like arrangement that is an asset.
“Looking Elsewhere” features more of a gospel-blues-country-bluegrass collage as Lauderdale “comes around” with Randy Kohrs on harmony and dobro. You can picture them doing this around an old microphone in a semi-circle, possibly in one or two takes. Lauderdale and Hunter (who doesn’t perform on the album at all) have taken the high road down these lonesome roads of heartache and heartbreak. It’s as if you’ve heard these songs before, despite hearing them for the first time, a testament to their quality. Lauderdale even brings a bit of Buck Owens to mind on this track. “Sandy Ford (Barbara Lee)” is a throwback to the slightly frantic Civil War-tinted style, ambling steadily like a freight train. Justin Clark and Kohrs duel on mandolin and dobro, respectively, during the bridge. “What they do in civil war in peace time they call crimes”, Lauderdale sings as the time passes easily for nearly five minutes.
One of the early high moments comes during the bluesy mountain aura hanging over “Headed for the Hills”, thanks in large part to the tandem of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. Every other line has Lauderdale reaching a bit near the end of the lyric, but it’s not enough to turn you off. The greatest thing going for the musician is his ability to be entirely authentic in this style, especially on the slower yet cute “Trashcan Tomcat”, which has Lauderdale in his niche. “Even madness has its season / Well you know it’s difficult / Never ask and know the reason when you can judge by the result”, he sings prior to Byron House’s bass stepping into the fold more than earlier songs. “Paint and Glass” has much in common with Welch’s “Caleb Meyer”, offering a bit more edge due to Buddy Miller and particularly Bucky Baxter (Steve Earle circa Exit O) on mandolin. “Tales from the Sad Hotel” is the first song to fall flat, which seems disappointing considering Allison Moorer is doing a duet with Lauderdale. It’s almost too slow or rigid for its own good. She atones for it with a much stronger “Leaving Mobile”, a number which has a lot of Irish or Celtic melody pouring from it despite the topic being leaving a city in Alabama.
The best track of the baker’s dozen is “Joanne”, which ventures into singer/songwriter Americana enough to soar. Baxter’s pedal steel guitar might make the tune work also, but Lauderdale is able to convey the sadness in the lyrics without much work, hoping for one more chance to make things right. But for all this strength, the rather mundane “I’ll Sing Again” is a run-through that shouldn’t be included as it has nothing going for it. The Allison Moorer trilogy concludes with “Head for the Sun”, a ‘70s style George-and-Tammy or Conway-and-Loretta duet that is very easy on the ears. Thankfully, there isn’t a large lush arrangement behind it also. The record would stand apart from most of the “mountain” albums on the go now, but a who’s who that accentuate the songs only adds to its triumphant and fulfilling achievement.