Born James Russell Lauderdale on April 11, 1957, in Troutman, NC; son of a minister from South Carolina. Addresses: Record company--RCA Records, 8750 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90211 Phone: (310)358-4000.
Though he spent much of his career based in Los Angeles, California, Jim Lauderdale has nevertheless made a name for himself as one of Nashville's leading songwriters. He landed eight cuts with the platinum-selling country artist George Strait, including "Where the Sidewalk Ends" and "King of Broken Hearts." Other hit-makers who covered Lauderdale's songs include Vince Gill, Mandy Barnett, Kathy Mattea, and Kelly Willis, among others. Country singer Mark Chesnutt scored a number-one hit with Lauderdale's "Gonna Get a Life," co-written with frequent partner and Nashville veteran Frank Dycus, while Patty Loveless notched two chart-topping songs with "Halfway Down" and the Grammy-nominated "You Don't Seem to Miss Me."
Unfortunately, the same popular success Lauderdale enjoyed behind the scenes never carried over into his pursuits as a recording artist, despite pages upon pages of press raves about his albums, his soulful voice, and confessional songs about life. As an explanation, many point to the fact that, although Lauderdale has released his own albums since the late-1980s in addition to writing scores of songs for other country artists, the artist's most admirable virtue as a solo performer may also be his curse--his ability to mine from a wide range of musical influences. Known for his eclectic tastes, from country and bluegrass to jazz, blues, folk, and rock and roll, the singer seemed too restlessly creative for mass marketing. "His literate style of country," commented Mark Schone for a profile in the Encyclopedia of Country Music, "applies the progressive mind-set of Gram Parsons to the musical legacies of Memphis [Tennessee] and Bakersfield [California]."
Thus, the very diversity of Lauderdale's style resulted in country radio usually ignoring his own recorded efforts. "Someone would say, 'How do you describe this album?'" he said to Chris Morris of Billboard, referring to his 1994 release Pretty Close to the Truth. "They'd say, 'Are you country? Is this alternative? Are you alternative country?' I think the music is pretty eclectic, to the point where it's several different things." Lauderdale, without any hint of snobbery, noted the differences between the music that inspired his own writing and the styles that nurtured his contemporaries as the reason why his records sound so unlike mainstream country. "One of my takes about country music these days is that there are songs that are really kind of soft-rock--what would be like early '70s California country, or Eagles-type stuff. That's really kind of one of the main styles in country. Some of these country guys right now grew up listening to some of the softer rock, or the Eagles or Styx or Kiss or whoever," he added. "But my influences were rawer. Of course there was the Beatles and the Stones and everything, but also Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. Maybe there will be a time in country music when maybe it's OK to have those influences and show them."
Influenced by Southern Musical Heritage
Born on April 11, 1957, in Troutman, North Carolina, James Russell Lauderdale, the precocious son of a minister, was influenced by the musical heritage of the South from an early age. Raised on the songs pouring from his father's scratchy radio and the music performed at regional bluegrass festivals, Lauderdale as a teen studied the vocal turns of George Jones, admired and understood the oaky baritone of Johnny Cash, embraced the emotional appeal of Buck Owens, and took in the subtle confessionals of Merle Haggard. After college, Lauderdale became a journeyman songman, singing, writing, and accruing life experience as he moved from New York to Texas to Tennessee--where he stopped in Nashville long enough to record an unreleased album with bluegrass great Roland White--before settling down in Los Angeles.
All the while, Lauderdale carried with him the true country music that defined his childhood, yet also appreciated the music that infiltrated the various regions in which he lived. Because of this open-mindedness, the songwriter was able to expand the definition of country music without compromising his roots. "Great music--whether it's George Jones, Hank Williams, Muddy Waters, or Bob Dylan--is great music because it's so real," Lauderdale noted on his website, though he adds, "And part of being real is being true to who you are. Maybe you pick up some new influences, but you can never become something else."
After recording a second unreleased album for Columbia Records in 1987, Lauderdale finally made his way into record stores in 1991 with a cut on the second Town South of Bakersfield compilation, an anthology of the Southern California alternative country music scene. Since then, all of Lauderdale's solo efforts, while they did not earn mass acceptance, nonetheless garnered favorable critical response. His debut outing entitled Planet of Love, a stunning "hard country album," he said, exhibiting Lauderdale's vocal and compositional gifts and co-produced by Rodney Crowell and John Leventhal, arrived on the Warner Brothers label in 1991.
Western Beat Star
By now, Lauderdale was a favorite within the Los Angeles area country music scene, though he was often linked to artists from a seemingly dissimilar genre--like Lucinda Williams (with whom he later toured in 1999), Dave Alvin, Rosie Flores, and Chris Gaffney--under the label "Western beat." As Lauderdale explained to Morris, "That concept came up when a bunch of us guys were playin' at the Montreux Jazz Festival a few years ago. They had a country night. I thought that was a cool tag."
Next, Lauderdale moved to Atlantic Records to release a pair of equally impressive, though more roots-oriented efforts: 1994's Pretty Close to the Truth and 1995's Every Second Counts. The first Atlantic album was hailed by several reviewers as one of the best country-rock efforts of the decade. On the latter, wrote Alanna Nash for Entertainment Weekly, "Between the chiming guitars and from-the-gut vocals you can hear traces of everyone from Cream to Van Morrison to Al Green. It took Lauderdale to make eclecticism this seamless." Likewise, Tony Scherman in People concluded, "Few singer-songwriters have Lauderdale's talent, curiosity and spine. He remains one of pop's best-kept secrets."
In 1996, Lauderdale returned with Persimmons, considered his rawest-sounding album to date. Like his previous releases, the album built upon styles from across the musical spectrum: from straight country, "Some Things Are Too Good to Last" sung with Emmylou Harris, mid-1960s garage-band rock, "Tears So Strong," to blues, "Optimistic Messenger," to near metal-rock, "Jupiter's Rising." Released by the small Upstart label, Lauderdale had recorded Persimmons just before signing with RCA Records.
With RCA, Lauderdale released a more mainstream country album in 1998 entitled Whispers with the help of some of country music's finest songwriters: Nashville heavyweights Dycus, Harlan Howard, Melba Montgomery, and John Scott, as well as California friend Buddy Miller. In 1999, the singer/songwriter released two more records, another straight-country album for RCA entitled Onward Through It All and a bluegrass duet album, I Feel Like Singing Today, with Ralph Stanley on the Rebel label. Lauderdale had also recently guested on Stanley's Clinch Mountain Country, and Stanley sang as a guest on Lauderdale's Whisper. "I've been wanting to do a bluegrass thing for years and years," Lauderdale told Jim Bessman of Billboard, "and to finally have one with Ralph Stanley is mind-blowing."
Again, Lauderdale raked in stellar reviews, but still lacked popular sales support. However, the musician felt satisfied and fortunate for what he had accomplished. "As day jobs go, [songwriting] isn't so bad. Realistically, all an artist can hope for is to get a chance to release a record and have support behind him. The rest is really gravy," he told David Sprague of Billboard. "There seems to be a growing crossover [appeal]," Lauderdale continued. "There are people who've heard my name in relation to Mark Chesnutt and people who know me from seeing me open for Hootie & the Blowfish. But I don't worry about making a niche for myself. It may be someone's job to do that, but it's not mine."
by Laura Hightower
Jim Lauderdale's Career
Became a journeyman musician after college, traveling to New York, Tennessee, Texas, and finally California, where he settled in Los Angeles; recorded two unreleased albums before releasing debut entitled Planet of Love, 1991; released two roots-oriented albums for Atlantic Records, 1994's Pretty Close to the Truth and 1995's Every Second Counts; released the raw-sounding Persimmons, 1996; released mainstream country albums Whisper, 1998, and Onward Through It All, 1999; penned songs covered by George Strait, Mark Chesnutt, Patty Loveless, Vince Gill, Mandy Barnett, Kathy Mattea, and Kelly Willis, among others.
- Selected discography
- Planet of Love , Warner Bros., 1991.
- Pretty Close to the Truth , Atlantic, 1994.
- Every Second Counts , Atlantic, 1995.
- Persimmons , Upstart, 1996.
- Whisper , RCA, 1998.
- Onward Through It All , RCA, 1999.
- (With Ralph Stanley) I Feel Like Singing Today , Rebel, 1999.
- Kingsbury, Paul, editor, Encyclopedia of Country Music, Oxford University Press, 1998.
- Billboard, June 25, 1994, pp. 13-14; June 29, 1995, pp. 11-12; July 17, 1999.
- Entertainment Weekly, September 15, 1995, p. 108; August 20, 1999, p. 128.
- People, October 23, 1995, p. 23; September 23, 1996, p. 25; February 23, 1998, p. 28
- Jim Lauderdale Official Website, http://www.jimlauderdale.com (May 11, 2000).