[31 July 2014]
Jim Lauderdale is a musician’s musician, a singer’s singer. But on I’m a Song, his staggering-to-reflect 26th album, he has plenty to offer the listener and fan. After many handfuls of Grammys, Americana Music Association and other awards, Lauderdale has put together his debut double album, packing 20 of his own songs and co-writes together with a house full of big names in the country and Americana circuits. The Troutman, North Carolina native’s career stretches back to the 1980s, and over the years has written songs recorded by Patty Loveless, George Jones, Shelby Lynne, Solomon Burke, the Dixie Chicks, Blake Shelton, and George Strait. Quite the stellar cast. And newer listeners will have heard Lauderdale’s music on ABC’s Nashville and in the film Pure Country.
The result of two separate writing and recording spurts, I’m a Song features an all-star cast of friends and contributors, such as Buddy Miller, Lee Ann Womack, Patty Loveless, Al Perkins, Kenny Vaughn and Dennis Crouch, as well as songs co-written by another group of names which includes Elvis Costello, Robert Hunter, Bobby Bare and John Oates. The album kicks off with a bang, with one of Lauderdale’s own signature country/rock ‘n’ roll numbers in the shape of “Let’s Have a Good Thing Together”. You can instantly tell that despite the years, that strong, smooth voice is as polished as ever, surging through the tough arrangement. “Past It” continues in the same vein, on a feel-good, optimistic song which again shows off the strength and ability of the singer’s voice, as well as his natural ability to write killer songs and tunes which pervade the entire work.
The album’s songs are all quite short, compact pieces, but the writers do not scrimp on the images and imagery in their songwriting. “You’ve Got a Way All Yours” slows things down, with Al Perkins’ steel guitar making its first appearance. The title track has an acoustic, almost recitation-style opening, before it branches out into a breezing, flowing track, which feels like an auditory vacation, as it reflects on the life of a singer and a songwriter.
Lauderdale steps away from the predominant honky tonk on songs like Bobby Bare’s contribution, “The Feeling’s Hanging On”, and a song written with John Oates, “Let Him Come to You”. Here, regrets are played out with a slow piano and guitar backing on the former, and with touches of jazzy blues on the latter. “I Lost You” is a co-write with Elvis Costello on which you can feel the input of both parties, contributing as they do to a light, driving feel which perhaps hints at their combined freedom from expectation and unnecessary baggage. “Doin’ Time in Bakersfield” features Lee Ann Womack and has a very classic country feel to it, both in terms of song and accompaniment—with sentiment, strength and some powerful, resounding singing & playing. “A Day With No Tomorrow” also features the vocals of Womack.
The sweet but not oversentimental “Today I’ve Got the Yesterdays” represents country music as it is and should be, with effective fiddles and Patty Loveless on backing vocals, but “I Wish You Loved Me” doesn’t work so well, with lyrics and rhymes which stretch believability a bit. “There’s No Shadows in the Shade” proves that Lauderdale can convert to more or less straight rock territory if he chooses, and “End of the World Rag” shows that he’s not above a bit of political commentary. “Hope and Find” is an amazing song, from its quietly creeping, ominous opening, to the way the steel wails in the background. The arrangement centres on Lauderdale’s voice, here at its most emotional, almost ghostly. And, after the rather strange rock effort of “The World Is Waiting Below”, the collection is rounded off in more traditional style, with a honky tonk rocker, fittingly entitled “We Will Rock Again”.
Instincts can sometimes question double albums, and it has to be said that as hugely enjoyable and varied as I’m a Song undoubtedly is, it does fade a little as it goes along. Two-CD sets are always big projects, and all of the musicians and writers should be credited for their contributions. The album is unapologetically country, and traditional in focus, and offers a lot for fans, completists, and those that like well-constructed, classic, complete songs. Lauderdale’s voice, and his sense of self and his music is both obvious and celebrated. With a wide range of style, I’m a Song is a very good record which could do with either a little more pep down the stretch, or a slightly stronger editing hand.