Robert Hunter’s best lyrics since his Grateful Dead heyday embellish Patchwork River, singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale’s 19th album.
Lauderdale has written hits George Strait, Patty Loveless, and the Dixie Chicks, but his second album-length collaboration with Hunter (following 2004’s Headed for the Hills) are on another level altogether. The loping and lovely title track alone, like “Uncle John’s Band” or “New Speedway Boogie,” seems to distill the Zeitgeist's every enigma and the state of the union into four minutes ("Forgiveness is nifty but enough's enough/ When they keep on pullin' that same old stuff"). And that’s just the beginning. Lauderdale digs deeply into America’s country, gospel, Cajun, and r&b history and Hunter’s right there with him, moralizing, romanticizing, and providing all the aphorisms you need to make it through these crazy days.
Lauderdale’s something of a triple threat. In addition to his mainstream country career, he’s also written, recorded, and performed with bluegrass icon Ralph Stanley; collaborated with the terrific New York group Donna the Buffalo; and, most recently, has toured and recorded as part of Elvis Costello’s Americana supergroup, the Sugarcanes.
I spoke with Lauderdale from somewhere on the road with the Sugarcanes. Don’t miss him when he swings through your town to croon these wonderful tunes. Bonus: He looks about as good in a Nudie suit as any country kicker around.
HeadCount: How did you end up writing a second album of songs with Robert Hunter?
Jim Lauderdale: I've always been a big fan of Robert's. And I thought he’d be a perfect co-writer for some songs I was writing for the Stanley Brothers because I knew how much Jerry Garcia had liked the Stanley brothers and also how deeply rooted Robert was in all sorts of bluegrass and country music. I got somebody to email him and he sent back the lyrics to “Joy Joy Joy." I wrote a melody for them and he sent me back another one called “I Will Wait For You." I put a melody to that and he liked it. He sent me another one called "Trust" that ended up on a country album I made. We started off like that, and then he came to Nashville for about three months and we ended up writing about 34 songs. We would chat for a while, and then a melody would come to me and I would put it down on a cassette and leave it with him. Then I’d come back from out of town and he’d have written something amazing, always something I never would’ve imagined on my own, or no one else would have, either.
I ended up doing an acoustic record called Headed for the Hills, which was a collection of stuff we'd written in Nashville. David Rawlings, Buddy Miller, Darrell Scott, and Tim O’Brien are all on it. That was kind of the last we'd written for about six years, and I was really itching to write with him again. So I went out to his town and we got together. And then I went back on New Year's Eve in 2007 and we wrote till about one-thirty that night. Four of the songs on Patchwork River ended up being form that batch of recordings. Time went on and I had a backlog of other projects I had to finish, and finally I went out last May and we wrote several more songs and I took three of those to the Andy Griffith studio in Nashville. So this album took about three years altogether.
“Patchwork River” seems like an especially classic Hunter song in the vein of "Uncle John's Band" or "New Speedway Boogie." It's one of his state-of-the-union songs in which he seems to distill the country's – not to mention the listener's – mood into about four minutes.
It was an amazingly effortless song to record. I ran it down with the guys, and I might’ve fixed a thing or two vocally, but it might’ve just been one take. It’s one of my favorites. He’s in a league of his own.
Would you consider "Patchwork River" a political song on some level? And do you consider yourself a politically engaged person?
I do. It resonates with me on a lot of different levels – some of them subconscious. I've also been writing some gospel music with Hunter.
That sure sounds promising.
Here's an example of what an enlightened pro Robert is. Last week I got a call from Ralph Stanley’s son. They were gonna be in the studio and needed a gospel song for this gospel record they were doing. Robert sent me this great lyric. I put a melody to it and went in the next morning and recorded a guitar-vocal. Well, it wasn’t quite what they were looking for. But I’ve experienced this before in Nashville: Sometimes I think a certain song's perfect for a particular artist, something that to me sounds right down their alley, but then the artist doesn’t want it. I certainly thought this song was absolutely perfect for Ralph, like one of those career-defining songs that perfectly exemplified his personality and what he does and everything. But they decided not to record it anyway, and I let Robert know. And within an hour he sent another song. And I worked it up again and sent it the studio. And then, just out of the blue, he sent yet another song that same day. I was really impressed by how all three of those songs sounded like they could’ve been from forty, fifty years ago. They were like anything the greats back then might’ve written. So if Ralph Stanley doesn’t use this material, I will.
You’re obviously in the upper tier of working country artists. Do you worry about the older generation of performers and how they might fare in terms of healthcare or just survival?
Sure, yes I do. I'm saddened because of all the opposition and attacks against just trying to improve the situation and pull things back together. I guess it’s just the nature of politics; and human nature, too. I guess that’s the way things have been through history.
Living in Nashville, do you feel the whole red state/blue state fairly strongly?
Yes I do. With certain friends and family you might start discussing issues and find out that their views aren't quite the same as yours. There can be arguments and animosity sometimes. And after 9/11, of course, there was so much fear. And I felt a lot of sadness after the next election. There was so much upheaval and anger. So sometimes you have to walk a fine line with people you’re close to or work with. And you kind of don’t engage in discussions of that nature because it’s a no-win situation.
How did you get to a place where you could so easily switch gears between the bluegrass world, the mainstream-country world, and the jamband world?
My childhood enthusiasm for various styles of music was ingrained in me. It was a kind of ear-training in what was on the radio during the early '60s, which was a melting pot of rock 'n’ roll, country, soul music. A little bit of everything. Cit might have slowed me down career-wise, too. Maybe if I'd gone further into a certain genre at the time I would’ve been more successful. But I just really enjoyed doing many different kinds of music rather than just one thing.
What’s it like being a Sugarcane?
It’s great. I'd been an Elvis Costello fan for years. I had his first records when I was around 20. He had such a striking image, and I didn’t really know anything about him. I was more into roots stuff at the time and not really up on current rock n’ roll. But I read an interview with him saying how he was a Gram Parsons and George Jones fan. So was I, so I got his records and started listening to him and there’s definitely a George Jones influence. It’s a real treat to sing harmony with him and follow what he’s doing. And the band is just amazing. It doesn’t get much better.
Read any good books lately?
I read a new book about the rock group Cream. I love those guys, especially Fresh Cream. I’m also about halfway through WSM: Air Castle of the South. It’s about a big radio station in Nashville. And I'm about to start doing a weekly show on that station. During the first show I played “Cumberland Blues,” which might be the first time anybody has played a Dead song on that station. I play some classic country too. They should eventually be archived at www.wsmonline.com.
(Jim Lauderdale photo by kfjmiller.)