Interview: Jim Lauderdale Reflects on Lifelong Journey to ‘London Southern’
He might not like the title, but when you consider that he's released 29 solo albums over the course of just a few decades, written and co-written some of the biggest hits ever to hit country radio and paved the way for the Americana genre, it's hard not to look at Jim Lauderdale and simply call him a legend.
In September of 2016, the Americana Music Association acknowledged Lauderdale's legend status with the WagonMaster Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by none other than George Strait, for whom Lauderdale has written a number of songs. With or without that award or fans and critics calling him a legend, though, Lauderdale has made a career by doing whatever he wants to do, recording with whomever he wants to and pushing the envelope whenever and however he deems fit -- case in point, his brand-new album, London Southern.
Lauderdale recorded London Southern with a band that he had never worked with before, and in a city he'd never worked in before -- and while the LP is a listening experience like nothing fans have heard before, it's also still rooted in everything they've come to know and love about Lauderdale. While in New York City promoting his newest project, Lauderdale sat down with The Boot to discuss the new record and the journey that led to this moment.
Congrats on London Southern. It's out now — how does it feel?
It feels good. This record is different for me because I've never recorded in England, and the band was all from there. Most of the records I've done were in Nashville; only a handful were recorded elsewhere. My very first record was in LA with Pete Anderson, who produced Dwight Yoakam, and then I did a few out there with my friend Dusty Wakeman. Other than that — the two I did with Ralph Stanley in Virginia and part of one with Donna the Buffalo — everything else has been pretty much done in Nashville.
This was a real different thing for me. I really enjoyed working with those guys.
And those guys were Nick Lowe's band.
I was such a big fan of Nick Lowe. Nick had this great band in the early '80s called Rockpile, and there was just this thing with them ...
I started listening to Elvis Costello after reading an interview with him; I saw his picture and was curious about him. In the interview, he talked about how much he loved George Jones and Gram Parsons, and I realized we had this common thing together. It was the same with Nick Lowe. Those guys really love a lot of the same things I do. I have a lot of respect for them.
I toured with Nick back in '94 and '95. Bobby Irwin was Nick's longtime drummer and was on that tour. The keyboard player, Geraint Watkins, was also in that band, and they both were just monsters. Sadly, Bobby and [producer] Neil Brockbank have both since passed away since finishing the record. They were a huge part of Nick's sound and a big part of this new album.
The record's been ready to hit the streets for a while now, right?
I guess it's been done for about four years, and I think I've released seven records in the meantime, while I was waiting to put this out. Now seemed like finally the right time.
I kept thinking, after I finished it, that it's too late to put it out in the spring. And so, each year, I kept thinking, "This spring, I'll put it out." Finally, I just made it happen.
It did seem like the right time. There was a label in England that really wanted to put it out, so I let them put it out first, back in January, and then since they did that, I had to get it out over here. Finally.
This record is a nod to the life-changing experience you had seeing the Beatles perform on Ed Sullivan. One simple way to pay tribute was to record it in the UK, but you were careful not to make this a flat-out Beatles tribute album. What was the songwriting process like for London Southern?
What was written was mostly specifically just for this record. The one song I had when I went over to England was "We've Only Got So Much Time Here," and that was written with a guy named Odie Blackmon, who lives in Nashville. He had a George Strait hit called "She'll Leave You With a Smile." And I thought this song I co-wrote with Kendell Marvel — who helped write Strait's "Twang" — deserved a different treatment for this record, too. Everything else I wrote was just for this record.
There is one song that I never finished, and it's still in the can. I put down the music, and luckily I have the tracks, so hopefully I can finish it and mix it one day.
You also wrote with Dan Penn.
Yeah, we wrote a couple of songs together. After I went there for the initial six songs, we didn't finish everything, so we had a few weeks. I contacted Dan, and he's just really sharp. Stuff was just flowing out of him.
Was this your first time writing with him?
We had started a song with another fella about 15 years ago, and that was when I first met him. I lost that recording, unfortunately. But then I sang some harmonies on a record with the Hacienda Brothers. Chris Gaffney was one of my favorite singers and writers, and he was in that group, and I had worked down in Dan's studio.
He is such an accomplished guy and has written some iconic songs and has been involved in historical stuff. I have so much respect for him. Man, once we started, we wrote two songs in one sitting. He was all on board because he knew Nick Lowe's guys and liked them and everything.
What was it about that Beatles performance that led to this album?
You know, I was pretty set in my ways musically. [Laughs] I mean, I was six, but when I saw the Beatles, I changed. I opened up. It was just so different and magical compared to what I was hearing at the time, on the radio or around my house. It was like the world made sense musically all of a sudden.
That music from the British Isles, that folk stuff and everything else, it all influenced American music so much. After World War II, American music was big over in England. The Beatles really absorbed it all, and they loved Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins and Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers and Arthur Alexander. That combination of all of those artists, together, kind of morphed into a sound that the early Beatles had.
They changed music when they came out. It left an impression on me and my music, and on country music as a whole. It changed everything. It's like Elvis changed everything, and then the Beatles came along, and they changed everything.
When you release an album, are you the type of artist who likes to reflect on the process on the accomplishment?
Nah, I'm always looking ahead. I'm usually behind my own personal deadline, and so I'm just forging ahead. [Laughs]
And forging ahead, right now, means preparing for a new country album.
I went in the studio in Nashville, called Blackbird Studio, and I thought it'd be cool to use the guys that usually play with me live — I call them "the country band." It was nice to record with them. Four of the songs, I wrote with this guy Mando Saenz. He's been living in Nashville for a while and is originally from the Houston area. I think he just did something recently with Miranda Lambert and Aubrie Sellers. I like to write late at night, and we wrote those four songs really late.
There is one more song that I didn't get around to recording yet, so I'll do that. I don't know how to categorize those songs — they're country, but I wouldn't know what style to say, you know? It seems like, when I make country records, I either do a real traditional style of country, or it's kind of pushing the envelope for me somehow. This is even a different kind of sound, country-wise, for me. I have to finish writing them, but there are two other songs that are pretty different from what I've done. I'll be writing to the last minute when I go in. That always happens. I'm never prepared.
It seems like you're always figuring out how to push the envelope with each release. Do you find a sense of freedom in the different sounds you pursue?
Yes, yes I do. I wanted to start making records when I was 15, but bluegrass records. I really wanted to do that. Then, when I was 22, I went to Nashville for about five months after college and just couldn't get things going. I did get to hang out a lot with Roland White, one of my bluegrass heroes. We recorded a duo record, and Marty Stuart played lead guitar and acoustic guitar on about half of it, but I couldn't get a record deal for it.
I became discouraged, and then moved up to New York. During a period that Buddy Miller calls "The Great Country Scare of 1980," there were all of these great musicians up here and, like, four or five country bars. I had a day job, but at night, I was always playing. There was a community up here that was really supported, and people filled the places, and then it started dying out.
I did not catch on with country radio, but eight songs from my record Planet of Love got recorded, including a couple that made it onto that George Strait movie, Pure Country. When that happened, it kicked the doors open for me as a songwriter. Finally, in my mid-30s, things started kind of happening. I had one more major-label country deal on RCA, but there again, radio for me never caught on.
I was trying to do something different. There was no Americana back in those olden days, you know? Because of the unfortunate situation that I never had my own hits on country radio, it never mattered, because I could do whatever I wanted, and I could put out however many records I wanted to. So I did, and I figured I might as well do what I want.
How long were you in New York?
I moved out to LA from New York in '85. I was afraid to go back to Nashville from New York. I thought if I just went there and things didn't happen, it would crush me, and I didn't have anything to fall back on. So I went out to LA, and there was this really cool scene happening with Lucinda Williams, Chris Gaffney, Dale Watson. There was this club, the Palomino, and there was this guy, Ronnie Mack, who had the Barn Dance once a week. He'd have four or five bands that would come out and play, and he'd have people sit in. It was this gathering place for people in that scene. Dwight would come out, and I started singing harmony on his records. Buck Owens came out of retirement, and I got to hang with him.
It was a really cool time, and then I started going to Nashville more and more and started working with this guy, Tim Coates. I ended up doing hundreds of songs, and a bunch of those turned into albums with Tim.
The Barn Dance makes me think of Pete Seeger's old Hootenanny celebrations. Are there vibrant scenes like that around the country today?
I might be biased, but I'd say right in Nashville. Music City Roots happens once a week. We have four or five bands each week, and it's always different. It keeps things fresh for me. There's also something happening at the American Legion Hall each week, part of the East Nashville scene, and that's really cool, and there are some really great people there.
So you're not too worried about another "great country music scare"?
Let's put it this way: This is a great time musically. There are some really diverse country acts coming out that are for a wide variety of tastes. There's no country music scare right now.
What Is Americana? Its Artists Define the Genre