For ten years now, Jim Lauderdale has been one of the savvier gents among Nashville's hipster fringe. He's released a series of well-received C&W-rooted discs that delve into various forms of country, twanged rock and bluegrass (including his 1999 collaboration with Ralph Stanley, I Feel Like Singing Today). He's also penned hits for George Strait, Vince Gill, Patty Loveless and more, and guested on recordings by Dwight Yoakam and other heavies. With the release of The Other Sessions, however, Lauderdale's own catalogue gets a hearty addition of trad-country credibility: The album is a masterful example of 21st-century honky-tonk that blends the traditions of Buck Owens and George Jones with Lauderdale's own up-to-date genius.
"If I Were You" sets the tone, kicking off with moaning steel guitar before slipping into a loping shuffle behind Lauderdale's tender-but-muscular tenor. Sure, it sounds expertly retro, produced with dry, antique perfection by Tim Coats. But Lauderdale tweaks his retro gems with grinning lines -- "If I were you, I'd love me forever" -- that echo the lost art of old-school country wordplay while poking a little fun at overly sincere current stuff. "Just to Get to You" is a Yoakam-ish tune that weaves country chord structures over atypical country rhythms, while "What's on My Mind" features a loopy, sticks-in-the brain chorus and a groove that borders on New Orleans-style, second-line percolation.
Sessions really showcases Lauderdale's impeccable, always-fresh phrasing and knack for hitting his target and then moving on, leaving the empty spaces good country requires. The disc delivers its knockout punch on a series of barn-dance laments that would make Buck and the Possum tear up: In "Merle's World," the tunes of Mr. Haggard are the soundtrack of "a place where loneliness waits with emptiness, just holding on"; "Honkytonk Haze" is quintessential drinking music, its protagonist settling into a fog of drinks, smoke and sorrow. (Don't bother the singer with questions about his troubles: "Don't ask me, cause I don't give a damn/Just give me one more hour and I won't know who I am.") The Other Sessions peaks with the restrained magic of "Oh My Goodness," where, under a canopy of weeping steel guitar, a long-separated couple unites and the sparks fly. "Oh my goodness/Who thought it would be like this?" Lauderdale asks, stretching his voice haltingly across each syllable. Meanwhile, his band delivers stately country from the shadows, dropping every string bend and snare fill in just the right place.
Many of these songs rate as heartbreaking, adult Americana at its best, easily making The Other Sessions one of the finest country discs of the past few years.