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If the era of consumers buying albums is over, nobody bothered to tell singer/songwriter Jim Lauderdale. His latest album, the appropriately named I’m a Song, boasts a whopping 20 tracks of the twangy stuff.
“I still think in terms of albums and I probably will until they tear the CD from my cold, dead hands,” says the droll Jim with a laugh, seated in the CW/NASH greenroom. He’s sporting a spectacular purple embroidered jacket that looks ready for the Opry stage even though he’s just here for a quick visit.
I’m a Song is the result of a productive period of writing and recording sessions for the revered songwriter, whose credits include George Strait’s “Round About Way” and Patty Loveless’ “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me,” among many others. While director Jeremy Dylan was recording the documentary Jim Lauderdale: The King of Broken Hearts about him, Jim assembled a crack band that included James Burton, Al Perkins, Chad Cromwell, John Jarvis and Dennis Crouch and headed into the studio with nine songs in his pocket. From there, the tracklist just kept growing.
“I wanted to rerecord ‘King of Broken Hearts,’ because that was on a record I put out in ’92 called Planet of Love and it’s been out of print,” explains Jim, citing a signature number that has been recorded by George Strait and Lee Ann Womack. “I do it just about every show. One of my touchstone guys is George Jones and I thought, well, George has rerecorded. He’s done several versions of ‘She Thinks I Still Care.’”
Despite the lengthy tracklist, I’m a Song never wears out its welcome, thanks to Jim’s immaculate songcraft and the concise tunes, many of which fall shy of three minutes. Then there’s the guests: Lee Ann Womack appears on a pair of tracks (“Doin’ Time in Bakersfield,” “A Day With No Tomorrow”); Buddy Miller shows up for “I Lost You,” which Jim co-wrote with Elvis Costello; and Patty Loveless provided vocals on “Today I’ve Got the Yesterdays.”
The title song, Jim says, is his life in melodic form. “I thought, ‘That’s a great title for an album.’ I just felt like it kind of summed up my life in a lot of ways,” he says, before laughing and turning self-deprecating. “I was getting ready to start talking about myself in the third person and start going, ‘This song is more about Jim than anything,’ but I caught myself.”
Though his artistic career through the major and independent labels hasn’t carried him to the same heights of fame as people who have recorded his songs, Jim has earned himself a pretty coveted spot as one of Music City’s most trusted writers and an artist who has the freedom to follow his muse through folk, bluegrass and whatever else feels good, hit potential be damned.
“You can never predict the results of your writing, what might happen with it, and so it’s best to just keep a steady flow of material out there,” he says. “I wrote a record several years ago and titled it Country Super Hits Volume 1, thinking that the majority of the songs would get recorded by other people, and they haven’t yet, so . . .” He trails off, laughing. “I guess it’s best I’ve just learned to do things without thinking of the results too much, and really just the process of writing and recording is my big thrill.”
If I’m a Song bucks the present singles-market trends with its 20 tracks, it also doubles down on sounds we associate with country: steel-assisted balladry, honky-tonky two-steppers, Jim’s George Jones-derived croon—with a couple of rocking Neil Young-esque detours along the way. It is, by and large, way different than what’s on country radio right now. But Jim, now a major figure in the Americana world (see sidebar), gets it: all things must change.
“Country, like any musical genre, has evolved, and it will continually change,” says Jim, who notes that he’d love to collaborate with new country darling Kacey Musgraves. “Like anything—rock, all of them—I think country music, going way back, also integrated forms of popular music of the time into it, and that’s continued and it always will.”
Which, in some way, is kind of justification for both country rap and Mumford & Sons-style busker folk.
“There’s always new artists coming along that have something different to say, that sound different, and that’s gonna keep happening,” he adds, closing in on a point he’s been trying to make. “So there’s no danger of country music disappearing, because it has too many great artists out there and too many fans that are gonna demand it.”
Satisfied with that explanation, Jim grins and leans back in his chair. “Now see, that was what took me half an hour to say, right there!”