Jim Lauderdale

by Dan MacIntosh

If you read the songwriting credits on country albums, you've likely already come across Jim Lauderdale's name. However, folks like soul/gospel legend Solomon Burke have recorded his songs, and rock icon Elvis Costello has brought him on the road singing harmony. This means he's in demand for both his voice and his pen. But Lauderdale is best known for writing George Strait hits, ranging from two songs on the Pure Country soundtrack, to the title cut of the country legend's 2009 release, Twang. He's a songwriter's songwriter.
Lauderdale's latest album is called Patchwork River, the fruit of songwriting collaboration with the Grateful Dead's Robert Hunter. Lauderdale is a country purist – and a successful one, at that – in an age where a lot of country radio just doesn't sound all that country. Yet the man doesn't let the changing of the times bring him down.

"Well, it used to disappoint me, but it started many years ago, so I've grown used to the fact that all genres of music change. I do have a real soft spot for traditional country and bluegrass, but it's moved on," he explains. "Just like rock and roll has changed, you know, today's rock isn't the same as it was 30 or 40 years ago."

He not only writes for the country music industry; he also writes about it. Take, for example, his song "King of Broken Hearts," which has been recorded by George Strait, Lee Ann Womack, and Mark Chestnutt, to name just a few.

"I was reading this book about Gram Parsons, and there's this story by this lady, Pamela Des Barres, telling about how he was playing George Jones' records for people that had never heard him before, and he started crying, and he said that's the king of broken hearts," Lauderdale remembers.

Eventually, guys like Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley used rock & roll to kind of overthrow country. "Country has been real influenced in the last 45 years by rock and roll," Lauderdale has noticed, "stylistically a lot of times it's kind of merged. But that's the way it is, that's the nature of music."

When heavyweights like George Strait regularly record your songs, you know you have a talent. But surprisingly, Lauderdale cannot always predict which songs from his pen will be hits, and which ones will miss the commercial mark. "I've had a lot of songs that I felt certain were hits, and then for one reason or another didn't get recorded," he admits. "It's at times baffled me. But that's just the nature of things. So I'm pleasantly just surprised at the ones that are."

Many of the greatest songs come not from hard work, but from bursts of inspiration - those fleeting moments when it all comes together.

"The first #1 I had was called 'Gonna Get a Life,' Lauderdale explains, and I wrote that with a great guy, Frank Dycus. We wrote it really quickly, so sometimes it's funny, the songs that you really labor over might not get cut, and then the ones that you put a lot of effort to and feel a certainty about turn out not to be that way, so you just never know."

While Lauderdale writes hits for country stars, and records country, folk, and bluegrass records under his own name, Nashville isn't the only city that is especially fond of him. He's had a few unlikely customers for his fine tunes over the years. "Solomon Burke did one called 'Seems like You're Gonna Take Me Back' that Buddy Miller produced," Lauderdale elaborates. "And Dave Edmunds did one called 'Half Way Down' that Patty Loveless had a hit on later. And [blues singer] John Mayall did one."

Even though Lauderdale has had much success in the music business, there are still folks he'd love to work with. He's written with Elvis Costello and Robert Hunter, yes, but he'd still jump at the chance to work with one songwriting legend.

"Well, I'd love to do some stuff with Bob Dylan sometime," he says, echoing the words of almost any songwriter worth his or her salt. "That'd be great. Norah Jones. Yeah, there's a lot of people, real big list. There's so much good music out there that I've been very fortunate to work with a bunch of real greats."

However, the one time Lauderdale actually met Dylan; it was not to write songs. Lauderdale recalls, "I met him several years ago in Switzerland, I was up at the Montreux Jazz Festival playing. And I had done some work with the guy that was playing steel with him at the time, Bucky Baxter. I went to another festival there playing out in Switzerland, and sat down and we ate together. We all ate together. He's very reclusive, but he was a nice guy."

These days, you can often see Lauderdale performing with another respected songwriter, Elvis Costello. Yet, unlike Dylan, Jim has been able to pen a few songs with our modern day Elvis.

"Well, I had been working on my Honey Songs record - that has James Burton and Al Perkins and Garry Tallent. Garry Tallent plays bass with Bruce Springsteen. So I had a track that I didn't have lyrics for when I did that, and Elvis wrote a song called 'Poor Borrowed Dress.' And I started a song when the tour was almost over - in Texas, I gave that to him, and that's called 'I Lost You.'"

The average music fan would play that, "One of these things is not like the other" game, if they ever heard Lauderdale, Dylan, and Costello in the same breath. But he just may be the king... the king of broken hearts.
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Comments: 2

  • Dave BrightHe was great singing backup to Lucinda Williams for sure
  • Don Gonzales from Lindsay, CaI like yoursong writing skills. I also knew Frank DycusI was one of the guys that helped him to learn guitar when we were in the Air Force. We use to sing together, anyway a friend of Franks is a friend of mine. Keep up the singing and writing Jim.
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