At the Carter Fold in the Appalachian mountains where the Carter Family originated, Jim Lauderdale walked off stage where he was the night’s host and headed to the merch table. Standing alongside Junior Sisk and the Church Sisters, Lauderdale was mingling with the crowd when he handed me a new CD. It wasn’t just that Lauderdale looked markedly younger on the cover, it felt like I was like looking at photo from an old family album.
Suddenly it felt like he was in an episode of Back to the Future. Beneath the plastic wrapper was a time capsule which revealed details of Lauderdale’s own life story.
The print revealed a collaboration with Roland White and represented Lauderdale’s Nashville debut that had long been thought to be lost, only to be found a few years ago by the bluegrass legend’s wife. The difference between then and now could be solved by math of nearly forty years and thirty-one albums. But here at the Fold, Lauderdale was handing it out like it was his new album. Which it is.
“I shouldn’t call it old,” said Buddy Miller, Lauderdale’s longtime friend and co-host of the weekly Buddy and Jim Show on a recent show on on SiriusXM radio.
“Well it is old but it’s new,” Lauderdale countered about the record he calls his thirtieth album. His thirty-first called Time Flies has been simultaneously released on Yep Roc.
And there you have it. In Jim Lauderdale’s world time is relative.
When Lauderdale first left college and set to Nashville, he told me he had two goals. One was to hang out with George Jones and the second was to play with one of his bluegrass heroes, Roland White of the Kentucky Colonels. The first didn’t happen. But he got to sit in on shows with White. The two ended up recording a duet album that Lauderdale thought was going to be his big break.
The masters were thought to have been lost. But a few years ago, Lauderdale found himself sitting in with White at the Station Inn when he casually mentioned, “Oh by the way, my wife found the tape.’” You could have pushed Lauderdale over with a feather.
Lauderdale, who came to Music City with a guitar and a dream, found it hard to get any traction signing with a publisher. But he did meet White who invited Lauderdale to his house to play after the two met at the Station Inn. Soon the two stepped inside Earl Scruggs’ basement to make a record.
White was an alumnus of the Blue Grass Boys, the backup band of his childhood idol Bill Monroe. He later joined the Nashville Grass, the new backup band of Lester Flatt. Lauderdale suggested covering “That’s What You Get,” a song White recorded in the Kentucky Colonels. White was the one who liked Donovan’s “Try and Catch The Wind” and the duo covered it.
“Would you mind if Marty Stuart played on this?” White asked as the album didn’t have banjo. Lauderdale, who was in high school when he saw the teenage Stuart play at a festival with Lester Flatt, jumped at the chance.
The contrast between then and now is marked. On Jim Lauderdale and Roland White, we get a glimpse of someone young and talented. But it hardly tells us about the artist who would come to be, one who slips in and out of genres at a whim and whose deep, muscular voice is like an instrument that can dominate a listening room all by itself.
If the release of album wasn’t enough, Lauderdale also has a brand new album to talk about. For the adventurous Time Flies, Lauderdale took a less than linear path. It’s a bit dizzying to follow for the songwriter who is in perpetual creative motion.
Lauderdale originally went to Memphis and cut twelve tracks with Luther and Cody Dickinson thinking at the time it would be his next record. Simultaneously, he began recording songs with musicians in his local band and liked what he heard. A sound began to form, augmented by harmony singer Lillie Mae. With thirty tracks to choose from, he decided to save the Memphis sessions.
It fits a pattern and is not the first time he has left music in the can. For years Lauderdale talked about the sessions he made with Nick Lowe and the members of Rockpile. One day, he said repeatedly, he would get around to releasing them. It was like savoring wine in the barrel until it’s time. Over the years Lauderdale built momentum and they finally came out last year as London Southern.
Back in the Eighties Lauderdale’s idea of success was to record and tour. “‘I just have to get a record deal,’” he remembers thinking. “When it didn’t happen, it felt like it was the end of a dream. The next phase would have been to have hits. It didn’t happen. I never thought about other people recording my songs.”
Lauderdale’s breakthrough occurred when Vince Gill recorded “Sparkle.” Then, when George Strait sang “Where The Sidewalk Ends” and “The King of Broken Hearts” on the Pure Country soundtrack, it drew attention to Lauderdale the songwriter.
Looking back, the historical context of Jim Lauderdale and Roland White is even more significant today. When Lauderdale’s dreams appeared dashed, Lauderdale met someone during one of his last nights at the Station Inn, a man named John Messler who told him he could get him a gig at O’Lunney’s in New York. Lauderdale had read that Steve Forbert, a singer he admired, had gotten a job as a messenger in New York, and figured he could do the same to survive.
There’s a story Larry Campbell tells about the night Lauderdale introduced himself upon arrival in the Big Apple. In his inimitable impersonation of Lauderdale’s accent, Campbell recounts the soft spoken South Carolinian walking up and asking “Y’all mind if I sit in with you?” Campbell obliged and Lauderdale played in between the band’s sets. From that night, he’d go on to meet future collaborators John Leventhal and Buddy Miller, who would change the course of his career.
“I think there’s small things, seemingly small things, people do for you that alter the course of your life,” Lauderdale says reflectively, remembering the significance of the night Messler unknowingly put things in motion and all that’s happened since. “It is amazing those things you can do for people that totally open up so many doors for the rest of your life.”
All these years later, Lauderdale thought hisbduet album with Roland White would be his big break. But Lauderdale, who sent out handwritten notes and cassettes to bluegrass labels, ran into a wall for much of the next decade. Labels said he wasn’t well known and not on the festival circuit. Publishers told him his songs were great–but just not for them.
Flummoxed, it propelled a career that resulted in a Lifetime Achievement Award for Americana music.
“It didn’t turn out the way I thought it was going to be, but in some ways it turned out a lot better,” he told me.
A footnote for the record. The only time he ran into George Jones during his first time in Nashville was backstage at the Opry. Jones was “lit” that night according to Lauderdale. Eventually he went on to play George Jones in a musical with “The Possum” watching from the front row. He can also say he recorded a duet with George Jones that was released after the singer passed away.
As Jim Lauderdale has learned, you can’t replace lost time but you can certainly make up for it.