MORE

Onward Through It All

Putting words in their mouths: Jim Lauderdale has written songs for country's biggest names.

For the country artist with principles, preserving a career in these days of shlocky commercial twang requires survival skills. Jim Lauderdale's life-saving methods have helped him somehow earn dollars in the mainstream as well as credibility among country's fringe. But along with his more obvious skills -- stellar songwriting chops, a wood-putty voice and a good nature that makes Dolly Parton seem surly-- Lauderdale has a self-protection weapon that makes it clear he's no ordinary country gent. "The thing that I do is called 'Wild Goose,'" Lauderdale says, naming a type of martial arts that he practices regularly. "It's about an 1,800-year-old form, sort of a predecessor to tai chi. It has really helped me deal with the stresses from the ups and downs of what I do."

Lauderdale's ancient defenses are personified in one Master Wong, a 76-year-old Chinese master who has channeled his martial arts powers into a unique style. "He's not a fighter or tough guy," Lauderdale says of Wong, with whom he trained most recently at a tai chi camp in California. "But he has more physical strength than a bunch of football players. It's not a muscular energy -- it's beyond that. He'll have a line of people push against him, then he'll barely move and knock every one of them down. Or he'll have five people surround him and press against him, and he'll make some very slight move and push them all off."

For the past decade, Lauderdale has pushed off similar life-threatening forces in the country-music realm. After inking with Sony in the late '80s, he watched as his debut disc was shelved by nervous label heads -- the very same folks who were touting him as some sort of New Country hotshot in the early days of the Garth boom. "You really can't imagine what that feels like," he says.

Faced with that setback, Lauderdale began to rely on his songwriting skills, and it worked. In the early '90s, Vince Gill, Shelby Lynne and Kelly Willis covered his songs; George Strait began using Lauderdale tunes to flesh out his big-selling platters. Strait has now covered a dozen Lauderdale numbers. The list of artists who have performed Lauderdale songs has grown to include George Jones, Patty Loveless, Kathy Mattea, Dwight Yoakam, the Dixie Chicks, Buddy Miller and many more.

"When I'd lose a deal, I'd just go, 'You gotta write,' and that's how I'd pull myself through those times. It's the only way I can do it. The music business is not a bed of roses. There are so many days and nights when you feel like you're banging your head against the wall. Or you write what you think is a smash hit and you get it turned down, and you're like, 'No, you don't understand, this is a hit song.' And it might never get recorded. But the struggle is all part of the process. As much as it hurts, you're better for it. It's all part of growing and getting along in this business."

Lauderdale's songwriting credits helped him pay his bills while he released a passel of critically acclaimed, if not hugely successful, discs that made him a name in the alt-country camp. Lauderdale's 1991 debut, Planet of Love, established him as songwriter and performer, a status he boosted with 1994's Pretty Close to the Truth, 1995's Every Second Counts and Persimmons, released in 1996. He followed those albums with esteemed neo-twang platters, 1998's Whisper and Onward Through It All in 1999. That same year, he released a knockout, back-to-his-roots disc, I Feel Like Singing Today, that paired him with the legendary Ralph Stanley and his band. That recording added one more ham-sized chunk of country cred to Lauderdale's name, an image-enhancing move that he's since topped with his current disc, The Other Sessions.

Sessions finds Lauderdale delving into another past love, the honky-tonk stylings of Buck Owens, George Jones, Ray Price and others. It's one of the finest collections of 21st-century twang in recent memory, a must-have, down-home collection that stretches from goofy truck-driving anthems ("Diesel, Diesel, Diesel") and drinking numbers ("Honky Tonk Haze") to breathtaking ballads ("Oh My Goodness," "If I Were You"). "Merle World" and "I'd Follow You Anywhere" are textbook honky-tonk songs loaded with crackling emotion, heady wordplay and brilliant performances by Lauderdale and his bandmates. And while Lauderdale's tunes reflect the musical merits of the past, he escorts them into the present with convention-busting lyrics.

Examples? "What's on My Mind" (co-written with Leslie Satcher) is a bouncy gem tempered by the singer's admission that what's occupying his gray matter is best left alone. "You can't handle what's on my mind/I've got roses growing over what you'd find." What the heck does that mean? "I still don't know," Lauderdale says, laughing. "That was a line that just came out. But it's one of those lines that makes sense to me, but I can't really define it for you."

Like some of his lyrics, the release of Sessions was rather unexpected. Lauderdale had been working on an "eclectic" mix of largely acoustic numbers intended to constitute a debut for his new label, Dualtone. But Lauderdale's recent collaborations with Melba Montgomery (the revered soloist and Jones's former duet partner) and Satcher, and his elbow-rubbing with various legends during recent appearances on the Grand Ole Opry, led to a change in plans. "I started thinking, 'You know, I think I'm gonna put together some other things I've been saving and do a country record.' I'd been playing the Opry more and more, and it inspired me a lot. I thought there needed to be some more traditional stuff out there right now. In all forms of music, you need to respect the folks that blazed the trails. With this record, I wanted to show that respect. You can never do that enough.

"I've always had this sense of awe about country and bluegrass," he says. "And I don't want to see it ever become a museum piece. But as country has evolved into a commercial art form, some people have treated it like it was disposable, and I think it has to be preserved. But there's still lots of good stuff out there, and we should all take joy in what's being laid down."

One of Lauderdale's keys to success in Nashville has been his gift for connecting and recording with a wide range of artists. His singing skills have landed him backup work on recordings by Dwight Yoakam, Lucinda Williams (with whom he's now touring) and various others. Lauderdale's recently expanded the hefty list of songwriters he's worked with by joining forces with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter: Earlier this year, the pair wrote 34 songs over a ten-week period.

Doing time with the likes of Ralph Stanley, the Dixie Chicks, George Jones and Jerry Garcia's songwriting partner might seem a stylistic stretch, but for Lauderdale it's not. "There's this thread through all of those people of country and bluegrass music; it's the common denominator of them all. They're different in some ways, but going back, their influences are not. Ralph influenced Patty, George Jones influenced George Strait, Ralph influenced Robert Hunter."

Lauderdale hopes to release his efforts with Hunter sometime during the next year or two. That may be easier said than done -- his busy schedule suggests that his career is peaking. He already has another disc with Ralph Stanley in the can, and he intends to unveil his Dualtone debut in the next year. He's also in the process of securing the rights to his never-released Sony debut, which he hopes to put out in the near future.

In the meantime, he's spending the next month doing solo opening slots for Williams, his longtime friend. "Touring with Lucinda just means so much to me. When I go to these venues, I get emotional. I feel like if this is where it all ended, I'd be satisfied that I got this far. I've known her for years, and it's great to see that she's come so far and to see how powerful she is and how her music has grown. The thing I love about her and Muddy Waters, and Ralph and George Jones, is that ability to grab you by the heart and alter your consciousness by the sheer force of her artistry." Lauderdale will join Williams for a few tunes each night of the tour. "Singing with Lucinda is almost a metaphysical experience," he notes. "It's one of my favorite things -- ever."

Not long ago, Lauderdale had an experience that suggested his years of trudging along in country are paying off -- and that the tune in Nashville might be changing: He got a call from a major-label A&R man in search of songs. "After a while he told me, 'Really what I'm calling for is to see if you have any bluegrass songs.'" The call, Lauderdale notes, was prompted by the success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and the appeal of the music Lauderdale has helped champion. "It was so satisfying to have a major record company ask me that. To know that now, behind closed doors, they're having their meetings and they're going: 'Find me a bluegrass act! We need bluegrass on this label.' I never thought I'd get that call."