Jim Lauderdale
Photo: Scott Simontacch / IVPR

Jim Lauderdale and the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys Create Bluegrass Alchemy

Even if bluegrass isn’t your thing, don’t let this new Jim Lauderdale LP slip by without a listen. He’s a true master of the songwriting craft at work.

The Long and Lonesome Letting Go
Jim Lauderdale and the Po' Ramblin' Boys
Sky Crunch
15 September 2023

From his home base in Nashville, Jim Lauderdale has long served as a singular ambassador and tastemaker of country, roots, and Americana music, and he remains unmatched among contemporary songwriters in his ability to continuously head to the well himself and come back with worthwhile words to sing. He’s released 36 albums since 1991, both as a solo artist and as a songwriter and collaborator with folks like Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, Buddy Miller, Donna the Buffalo, and Sara Douga. (To note, Lauderdale surely also stands as the person to write the most songs with the late Robert Hunter, besides one Jerry Garcia.) His musical utility and ability to collaborate with anyone is the sort of tangible proof that Nashville myths are made of. Simply put, when Jim Lauderdale calls on you, you’d better be damn sure to answer the phone.

For his newest record, he called on the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys. The band began their life as a house band at the Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The band, mandolin player C.J. Lewandowski, fiddle player Laura Orshaw, banjoist Jereme Brown, guitarist Josh Rinkel, and bassist Jasper Lorentzen, have since toured everywhere, earning multiple nominations for the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Emerging Artist of the Year, and a Grammy nomination for their 2019 debut album, Toil, Tears & Trouble.

Like most of Lauderdale’s projects, The Long and Lonesome Letting Go truly embodies the definition of collaboration, with Lauderdale writing six songs with Po’ Ramblin’ Boys’ guitarist Josh Rinkel. The album as a whole feels like a sequel of sorts to Lauderdale’s 1999 record, I Feel Like Singing Today, an absolutely stellar collection of bluegrass and gospel tunes recorded with Dr. Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. 

The LP’s title and opening track, “Long and Lonesome Letting Go”, establishes the project’s bluegrass bonafides early, with Lauderdale trading verses with that signature high tenor of bluegrass icon Del McCoury. The tune is pure tradition at work, a bluegrass masterclass that follows the rules: the pickin’ is hot, the singing is sweet, and the song is broken down and wrapped up, all in under three minutes. If this one feels familiar already, it’s because it will soon be within and out of bluegrass circles.

On the Lauderdale and Rinkel co-write “I’m Only So Good at Being Good”, the pair imply a dangerous addiction to either love or liquor or some combination of both. They delay the titular pay-off well into a chorus that reads most like some revived brimstone address: “One taste might not hurt what I think I’m really worth / It dares me there to leave it if I could / It’s all in the past but temptation seems to last / It’s so hard to walk away like I should / I’m only so good at being good.” The chorus is punctuated with Orshaw’s tenacious vocal harmony and lonesome fiddle, and the veteran Lauderdale is careful never to reveal the true cause of his protagonist’s admission.   

If justice exists, “Ghost of a Rose” will wind up high on a country chart someday, recorded with an old pedal steel and sung by some neo-traditionalist searching for a hit. Certainly a homage to the songs of Harlan Howard, a man Lauderdale collaborated with up until his death, here the track becomes a bluegrass standard, its chorus an aching all-voices-together affair. Lauderdale could have put this song out anywhere in any genre, but it speaks to his relationship with and admiration for the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys to record it here. 

Longtime listeners of Lauderdale’s will recognize “Darkness Is the Other Side of Light” as one of his most favored musical forms: the opposite song, which sees him searching antonyms to great lyrical effect. He’s done it often because it works, and here it comes with the type of call-and-response vocal line that all bluegrass albums require at least one of. Another Lauderdale/Rinkel co-write, “A Better Place”, features one of the best opening lines of any bluegrass song written today: “It’s that two birds with one stone kind of thing.” Lauderdale pushes the type of lyrics you can get away with in any genre.

On The Long and Lonesome Letting Go‘s closing track, “Drop the Hammer Down”, the collected unit begins to really fire up for a long night of playing the closing set on the stage of all of your bluegrass dreams. It’s the kind of reminder of what The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys are capable of when let loose, and just when you think they are going to go for broke, the whole record is through. 

Every Jim Lauderdale record wouldn’t be worth writing about if they all weren’t so damn good. This is another to stack on the pile of Lauderdale’s long list of achievements. It is an album almost great in its musical consistency, the remarkable ease at which the assembled play and sing faultlessly together, and its lyrical virtuosity within the genre and beyond. Even if bluegrass doesn’t usually call on you, don’t let this one slip by without a listen, if for no other reason than to hear a true master of the songwriting craft at work with an emergent bluegrass outfit standing with him.

Avery Gregurich is a writer living and working in Marengo, Iowa. He was raised next to the Mississippi River and has never strayed too far from it. More of his work can be found at averygregurich.com or at his Substack, The Five and Dime.

RATING 8 / 10