Singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale puts soul in his country
For years, I maintained country and soul music were separated only by a degree or two at most.
Both sprung from old rural Southern music forms with gospel leanings, both borrowed a little from the blues, and both captured a hard times and a Saturday night/Sunday morning dynamic that made for simple but resonant narratives about sin and redemption.
But I didn’t always find old purveyors of either form to be receptive to the theory. Their ears heard two completely different types of music. Maybe radio segregation caused the disconnect.
But Jim Lauderdale - like artists from Solomon Burke and Arthur Alexander to Buddy Miller - finds the commonalities in the two forms. He’s another golden thread in the rich seam between two styles.
“I think country and soul can be interchangeable,” Lauderdale says. “There’s a strong connection between a lot of that old music, country and R&B, country and soul.”
Lauderdale certainly projects country, with a high silver mane, the western shirts and rhinestone-dappled jackets, the hits he wrote for George Strait and his high lonesome voice that slips effortlessly from country to bluegrass and back again. His ability to slide through forms - including an album of soul music a year ago - leads Lauderdale to a variety of places.
He’s a prolific writer, having put out nearly 30 albums since his debut about 25 years ago. The music has often been rooted in country, though Lauderdale isn’t one to let his shoes sink too deep into any genre. Most recently, he ventured into the sound of old Texas dancehalls with “This Changes Everything.”
Still, Lauderdale is no stranger to Texas. His best-known connection is through Strait, who has recorded about a dozen of his songs. Last spring, Lauderdale was in the Hill Country for a show that was rained out. He used the time to take some shuffles and Texas-influenced songs he’d written or co-written with Texas guys, like Bruce Robison and Hayes Carll, and record them with a group of musicians from the state - like Austin pianist Floyd Domino and Houston native and guitar hotshot Chris Masterson.
For Lauderdale the album felt like a connection back to his earliest days as an aspiring singer and songwriter.
Born in North Carolina, Lauderdale grew up in the perfectly named Due West, S.C., where he was immersed in country and bluegrass. He moved to New York in the late-’70s, where he befriended Tony Garnier, a well-recorded bassist whose has worked with Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Tom Waits and dozens of others. The first time they rehearsed together, Garnier loaned Lauderdale an album by Houston country great Johnny Bush and another of Ray Price singing Bob Wills songs.
“I was just mesmerized,” Lauderdale says. “Those records, they were a real life game changer for me to hear.”
Lauderdale had entered a vibrant world of roots music oddballs living in New York in the ’80s: guys like Garnier, Buddy Miller and Domino, whose band Lauderdale joined as a singer. In some ways, “This Changes Everything” started then. It just took a few decades to become real.
Lauderdale was 34 when he finally made his debut album, “Planet of Love,” in 1991. His music tipped closest to country, but he spun it with all sorts of other sounds and embellishments. His was a novel update on a classic form, which made him a difficult artist to market and sell.
But starting with Strait’s cover of “The King of Broken Hearts” in 1992, Lauderdale found plenty of success with others singing his words. His success writing for others earned Lauderdale renown as a “songwriter’s songwriter,” a phrase that often gets stuck to writers who don’t sell many albums of their own.
But the thing about Lauderdale: While the songs pay the rent, his own recordings are always rewarding. His voice could’ve become a hit-making machine in another era. Instead, he put the words in the mouths of better-known singers, all the while quietly building a dedicated crowd interested in his creative restlessness.
So Lauderdale more than ably pours his voice into one of those Strait hits, “We Really Shouldn’t Be Doing This,” which shows up on “This Changes Everything.”
Working on the album and digging out older songs like “We Really Shouldn’t Be Doing This” put Lauderdale back in touch with some old Houston connections. His first publisher, Blue Water Music, was Houston-based. And Rodney Crowell produced “Planet of Love.”
He found a bit of inspiration in an old phrase, updating it with an East Texas twist “All the Rage in Paris.” And again, he takes a familiar phrase and turns it into a narrative with dancing in “Lost in the Shuffle.”
“It’s funny how, after writing all these years and studying the history of songwriting, once in a while you still find something - a melody or phrase or a title - that’s just perfect, that hasn’t been used,” he says. “It gets harder and harder. But I’m always glad when it does.”
Lauderdale’s next project will be his farthest flung yet, a recording he made with Nick Lowe’s band. Though both have roots in the British pub rock and new wave scenes of the ’70s and ’80s, Lowe and Elvis Costello are both admirers of Lauderdale’s work. Lauderdale says the first time he ever performed in Houston was opening for Lowe at Rockefeller’s.
That album will further explore the way old soul music infuses other styles.
Then Lauderdale hopes to revisit the themes and sounds he harnessed on “This Changes Everything.” He’ll have a chance to work in that mode on the tour that brings him to McGonigel’s Mucky Duck Thursday. Typically, of late, Lauderdale has toured alone, but for this show, he’ll be backed by several of the players on the album, including drummer Tom Lewis, bassist Kevin Smith, guitarist Bryce Clark and Tommy Detamore, a multi-instrumentalist and engineer, who Lauderdale credits with helping shape the album’s sound.
“I’d love for this to lead to more playing in Texas and more writing in that style,” Lauderdale says. “There’s a lot of great music history there.”