Photo credit: Scott Simotacchi

Soul Searching, Songwriting and Straight Up Hustling With Jim Lauderdale

It was a Sunday when Jim Lauderdale bumped into an old friend. Before he knew it it was Tuesday and he was on his way to making two new albums.
Jim Lauderdale
Soul Searching: Volume One: Memphis and Volume II: Nashville
Sky Crunch

“We’re both hustlers, man, me and Jim,” says Luther Dickinson, speaking over a clear phone line from his home in Nashville, the city he’s been based out of for the last couple of years. Having grown up in Mississippi and spent much of his life there and in Memphis, he grew tired of extensive travel to and from work and the seeming impossibility of catching a direct flight. The Jim in question is Jim Lauderdale, the incredibly affable Grammy-winning singer-songwriter whose latest releases, Soul Searching Volume 1 and Volume 2, Dickinson had a hand in bringing to life. That’s where the hustling comes in.

Dickinson and his brother Cody had worked beside studio legends Spooner Oldham and David Hood on Lauderdale’s 2013 Black Roses LP. Recorded at the Dickinson family’s Zebra Ranch studio with some players that Dickinson had assembled and some that he’s worked with on down to his latest release, Blues & Ballads: A Folksinger’s Songbook: Volumes I & II. Black Roses spotlighted songs written by Lauderdale and his frequent collaborator and former Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. To say that the record was eclectic may be redundant when you consider the range of the players involved but it spanned rock, soul, and R&B and touched on some areas in between.

With work done in a characteristically fast fashion, there was time to work up but not complete some extra tunes. Lauderdale, a prolific artist who is often thinking one or two projects ahead, knew he wanted to find a home for those tracks and began referring to them as “the R&B record” and still had them in mind when he met up with Dickinson in Nashville in early 2014. Quite by accident and on a Sunday, too.

Dickinson was attending a school picnic with his family. “We were at this city park, it’s my first school function with my kids in this new town,” he says, “and I peek over and see Jim Lauderdale doing Tai chi in sweatpants, surrounded by 50 eight-year-olds and six-year-olds.”

And that’s where the hustle comes in. Dickinson approached his old friend and before the day was over they’d made plans to start tracking tunes that Tuesday at RCA Studio A, now called Grand Victor. Dickinson promised to bring his brother. They really weren’t too concerned about the material. That’d take care of itself. What was maybe more important was grabbing the right players. That, Dickinson says, is a lesson he learned from the great Buddy Miller.

“Buddy says, ‘Just get everyone you need there together. If you need a banjo, call the banjo player and wait for ‘em. If you need background singers, call the girls and wait for ‘em.’ Just get everybody together and commit to making the music,” he says. In fact, “commitment” is a word he’ll use several times when discussing the Lauderdale projects. He’ll also praise Lauderdale for his ability to commit to creativity even under trying circumstances.

Things weren’t trying in Nashville at that moment, though. Lauderdale had assembled the players and was in the room where Dolly Parton recorded “Jolene” and where Waylon Jennings committed “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line” to tape. It was a room built for and on hits and his idea was to record something in the vein of his 2014 country album I’m A Song.

The musicians were able to finish or nearly finish seven songs in those sessions, which Dickinson says went by “like a dream.” He was bursting with enthusiasm at the moment and began asking Lauderdale about the material they’d worked on together before. The idea was to go to Memphis and record at Royal Studios and finish “the R&B record”. The room was a perfect one for that kind of work; it was where Al Green cut many of his greatest hits, and a place where Dickinson had spent many hours recording.

Lauderdale went along with the plan but soon stumbled into a situation he’s all-too-familiar with. “It happens a lot where I get something that’s like a block right before I got into the studio,” Lauderdale says, “and it’s like I’m not really prepared. It’s like it all has to come together right before and during the sessions. So, the odds kept going against me and it kept getting harder and harder.”

He flew to California to play a festival in Monterey on a Sunday, then flew to Memphis right after. He holed himself up in the control room at Royal and in a marathon eight-hour session worked up some ideas to take into the studio with him the next day.

“I have never seen Jim frazzled but he had put so much into it, his eyes were spinning and his hair was messed up,” says Dickinson, who produced the Memphis sessions. “He knew it was great but he was so spent and overwhelmed. But for him to bring the quality of writing and performances and commitment with him to Royal was a real treat cause that kind of commitment and that kind of quality is rare.”

The Memphis record was finished via several sessions in the coming weeks, more than a year after everything had started at the Zebra Ranch. Before long, Lauderdale, who’d struggled to get the material for the Memphis sessions started, had an enviable problem. He had two records: One cut in Music City, another cut in the city that birthed rock ‘n’ roll.

That, too, that feeling of creative exhilaration and completion was familiar and may even a greater high than the actual act of creation. At least for some. “Sometimes it’s an unpleasant experience when I’m in the thick of it,” Lauderdale says of his methods. “Being in the studio without being prepared is scary, intimidating. When those times happen I think, ‘I will never put myself through this again. I just can’t put myself through this pressure and stress, it’s too much.’ Because you really get down to the core of who you are and you go through this self-doubt and so it’s really kind of a hellish thing. But then most of the time it’s like a catharsis and the stuff just kind of starts coming out.”

Dickinson says that that tension, that possibility of everything not coming together is central to the excitement heard in the record’s grooves. “The creative spark is being recorded because it’s so raw,” he notes. “It really is the moment of creation.”

He credits the studios used in part with the magic that’s heard on the final recording. “These are studios meant to get a full band up to strings and horns all recording at once,” he says. “It’s the old school proper way. To me, our studio in Mississippi is classic in this way: There’s so much music made there that the path is so well trodden. It’s a place you go to do one specific thing and it’s been done there so much that you just fall right into it. You definitely just sense the music there.”

And, he says, with the necessity of completion lingering in the air, there wasn’t much time to think about the process itself. Or overthink it. “We just followed the songs and try to play them as well as we could. But it was apparent that there was some new territory,” Dickinson says. “You’re working so fast and hard and by the end of the day you’ve recorded seven songs that no one’s ever heard before. It’s like, ‘Whoa! What just happened?’”

That new territory he refers to is mostly to the music heard on the second volume of Soul Searching, the music recorded in Nashville. If one is expecting a clear cut definition between Memphis and Nashville, that one is country and the other soul, one will be disappointed. It doesn’t quite happen that way. Not here.

“It’s more of an East Nashville kind of sound,” he says of that record. “I’m not comparing it to anybody but it’s not traditional country or the really quirky stuff like I did on Persimmons. I did that in Nashville with pedal steel and Tele and all that. But then I just let it fly lyrically. Since Soul Searching wasn’t really a country record I knew that I really wanted it to be free,” he says, “without any concern about, ‘Well, but would that song fit on this record?’ So, it’s a little more out there lyrically. It’s a challenge to write and record stuff in that country framework but to somehow change it up some.”

That volume opens with the sometimes dark, sometimes seductive rhythms of “You Were Here”, a track that one might have expected to hear on late night FM radio sometime around 1978. “All At Once” could almost come from the classic era of outlaw country except for its lack of rebellious lyrics and curious metaphors. Much of it, like “Signals From Space” and “Plan B” is haunting, even at times spooky. But “Timing Is Everything” is ballsy, funky stuff with jazz-inflected vocals that accentuate the uniqueness of the writing and performances. The closing “Tarzan Houdini” has a bite that places it closer to New York than Nashville but “What Do I Know About Anything” could just as easily be culled from country’s earliest years as it could be something recorded, well, in 2015.

The “R&B record”, the Memphis album might fall a little closer to what one might expect from such a recording. It’s gritty, soaked in soul and sweat and features some incredible performances from Lauderdale the vocalist, especially on the opening “There’s No End to the Sky”. “Thanks You For Saying Hi” would make Royal alum Al Green proud and “Super Power” demonstrates that our artist is unafraid to take deep risks.

Lauderdale is well aware of rules and when to and when not to break them. He’s as fascinated with and committed to tradition as he is to breaking new creative ground. Perhaps it’s no surprise that he would favor that kind of eclecticism. He was born at the right time for it.

He was six when the Beatles came to the United States and grew up in the early years of FM radio, an era when the Grateful Dead could veer off into country rock terrain with Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, then reverted to exploring the uncharted, the strange via Wake of the Flood. He’d also listened to Andy Williams and Peter, Paul and Mary. “Stuff with those kind of vocal harmonies just really intrigued me,” he says. He’d already been intrigued by country because his father and uncle listened to it but the Grateful Dead, he says, led him further down the path as did Gram Parsons. By 16 he was listening to George Jones, Buck Owens, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. “There was that kind of Mount Rushmore of country guys,” he says.

“I loved Earl Scruggs, he just had this magic. Everything he played on just really got to me,” he says. “When you think about Ralph Stanley’s voice and Earl’s playing it was this sound of two really unique players. It sounded so different. I’d give me goosebumps. It was this overwhelming feeling that I guess we get as listeners when we hear something that really does it for us.”

He’d continue his country evolution, listening to Emmylou Harris and others in the pantheon of great country female vocalists. But he also loved soul music, psychedelic rock and those, like Jimi Hendrix, who bridged the two worlds. You can hear those disparate elements trickle in across the Nashville record, though they’re cohesive in that setting and evidence of an artist whose vision is carried over to tape via that all-important commitment to his art.

But Lauderdale isn’t a complete iconoclast. Like his good friend and collaborator Buddy Miller, he’s at home in the larger world of music and so can offer sweet, traditional songs just as often as he can bring us groundbreaking tunes. Some of that comes down to his having had success writing tracks for other artists.

Patty Loveless, George Strait, the Dixie Chicks, and Vince Gill have all recorded Lauderdale tunes and as those songs gained traction he was able to spend some time coloring outside the lines when he felt like. “I was able to do whatever I wanted to with my own records,” he says. From time to time his publisher would call and ask for a song to give to another act and he’d either work on it himself or in collaboration with someone, sometimes placing the tune other times not. Writing to order just wasn’t his thing. “I’d say that 95 percent of the time those kinds of songs wouldn’t get recorded. Sometimes I’d think they were hit songs. I’d get excited by that process. Even though the songs wouldn’t get recorded it was challenging and sometimes fun.”

So, being himself is something that doesn’t just come naturally to Lauderdale; it seems to be the only way he can really thrive. He’s defied expectations before, and he’ll soon do it again. He recorded an album with Nick Lowe’s band a while back, titled London Southern and believes that will see the light of day at least in Europe in 2016.

He also knows he wants to record new country and new bluegrass records in the near future. “I don’t really have anything written for them,” Lauderdale says. “So I’ll go back to square one. It might be a little nerve-wracking. The writing process isn’t nerve-wracking, when that’s coming out and I’m playing for hours and hours, I love that. The worst stuff is when the guys are sitting there looking at me in the studio and you’ve been trying to write something in the car on the way over, that’s the scary part.”

But somehow, it seems, the material will be better that way, Lauderdale’s commitment and craft winning out over the agony of a blank canvas in the end.