Jim Lauderdale returns to his roots with a new bluegrass album

Jim Lauderdale is nothing if not prodigious. And prolific. Over the course of his 40 year career, it hasn’t been uncommon to find him releasing several albums simultaneously, and multiple recordings in the span of a single year. He’s achieved some of that success through collaborations with a veritable who’s who of the music community at large — one that’s encompassed such iconic individuals as Dr. Ralph Stanley, George Jones, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Robert Hunter, Larry Campbell, Roland White, Lucinda Williams, Dale Watson, and of course, his longtime pal Buddy Miller — but it’s his ambition and enthusiasm that lies at the root of these accomplishments.  

And it’s certainly paid off. He garnered a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album for his 2002 project with Ralph Stanley, Lost in the Lonesome Pines. He’s also won widespread acclaim for his well-received live appearances in a variety of venues that range from intimate house concerts to massive festival stages. Along the way he’s participated in radio, theater, and as host of the Americana Music Awards, where he was a staple for many years.

Lauderdale’s latest album, the bluegrass-based When Carolina Comes Home Again, marks a mighty return in his trajectory. It also initiates a commitment to consistently pursue that sound for the near future. In addition, the album pays homage to his roots in the fertile realms of North Carolina, the state where he was raised and initiated his musical pursuits early on.

Bluegrass Today was fortunate to catch up with Lauderdale following a performance in Bristol, Tennessee in early March, prior to the news that the coronavirus would cause a cancellation at MerleFest, one of his favorite stomping grounds. Nevertheless, the interview offered the opportunity to talk with Lauderdale about the new album as well as his ongoing involvement in bluegrass and the community it entails.

The new album really reaffirms your commitment to bluegrass Will this commitment continue?

I would like to do more along the lines of the When Carolina Comes Home Again album. There were a lot of songs that I didn’t even get to with this. I wanted to make it a double album, but I kind of ran out of time. But I do want to get into a regular bluegrass release schedule because that music was a real early love of mine. 

You recorded early on with bluegrass great Roland White, did you not?

When I was 22, the first album of mine that was supposed to come out was a record I did with Roland just after college. Roland took me under his wing, and as luck would have it, we recorded a record in Earl Scruggs’ basement where there was a studio. But then I couldn’t get a deal for it. I kind of thought that it was going to be my big break. I was pretty crushed, and I just set it aside. When I got my first major record deal on Reprise Records in 1991, I thought I’d finally get a chance to release it. But then Roland and I realized we didn’t know where the masters were. So I figured it was lost. But then his wife found a copy of a reel to reel in the bottom of a box, so what would have been my first record became my 30th record. So I was so pleased that it finally came out. 

Did the fact that the album with Roland was all but lost for a time distance you from bluegrass for awhile?

After the disappointment of the Roland White record not coming out, I was kind of on hiatus with bluegrass for several years. I didn’t pay attention to how many great writers there are out there in bluegrass. There’s a really healthy amount. We notice so many great pickers and singers out there, but there are as many great writers as well. There’s no shortage of talent in bluegrass. One of the writers I was fortunate enough to work with in writing straight ahead bluegrass was Robert Hunter. We wrote around 100 songs together.

Fortunately, you eventually had other bluegrass projects that did see a timely release.

When the first two bluegrass records that I did with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys came out, that really meant a lot to me. One of them won a Grammy. Then I put out a few other releases and kind of got ahead of myself. But this record will be my tenth bluegrass bluegrass record, and my 33rd record overall. It represents a third of my total output and I just want to keep going with it because I love bluegrass so much and there’s a lot I want to record, and a lot of pickers I want to work with and writers.

How did you connect with Ralph Stanley?

I was doing a TV show on what was then called the Nashville Network. It was called, Ricky Skaggs Live at the Ryman. I was a guest and Ralph Stanley was a guest as well. I was about to do my first record with RCA and I really had planned to make a traditional country record. But Ralph was there, and I thought “Gosh, this would be really cool to include a song I had written for Ralph and the Clinch Mountain Boys. So they agreed to do it with me. So we recorded it and and after that I got to guest on Ralph’s record, Clinch Mountain Country.

So was that the start of what become an ongoing relationship?

I was a kid at the time, so if he was playing somewhere in driving distance, I’d go see him and he would kindly let me sit in. I went to MerleFest for the first time, and it turned out Ralph Stanley II was ill, and so they let me sit in for him. After that, I got the courage to ask him to make a record with me and that got me the Grammy nomination. So I just continued my association with Ralph and did his festival and various dates on the road with him. 

What other connections did you find compelling? 

When I met Robert Hunter, I found out that Robert and Jerry Garcia were huge bluegrass fans. So Robert sent me some lyrics. I was working on another country record for RCA at the time, so I chose to record one of those songs that Robert and I wrote. One night, I did the Ralph songs at the Grand Ole Opry and the next night I did the country songs I had written with Robert. Our writing relationship grew from there.

What do you think accounts for bluegrass’ burgeoning popularity, especially among young people?

I think that it’s just because the music is so good. You can be any age and enjoy it. I do come across people that discover it later on and then they start playing it. And when you’re really young and start playing it, that does give you an advantage as far as your career trajectory is concerned, whether it’s done for a living or just for fun. When you hear that music and hear so many younger musicians doing it and doing it so well — I can’t quite define it but there’s something about the magic in the music that just sort of overwhelms you and makes you want to learn it and play it. Then who knows where it will go from there? Molly Tuttle started so young and was so great, and now, even though she’s branched out into other areas, she can shift gears automatically to play traditional bluegrass if she wants to. There are a lot of examples of young folks who started at an early age and are now just so good. 

You started pretty young as well.

When I started playing banjo at 15, I thought it was pretty late. Even in high school in my senior year, I started playing acoustic guitar and dobro, but by the time I got to college I got so busy. I was in a couple of bands for awhile, but I started doing solo gigs and duo gigs whenever I had the opportunity. As hard as I tried to play like Earl Scruggs and Ralph Stanley and Bill Keith, I just got to the point where I said I’m never going to be a great banjo player. I’m okay, but I’ll never be an innovator. So I just started writing songs. It was a good transitional period that allowed me to move into other areas. It kind of amazes me how it evolved from the Grateful Dead and these various rock bands. Our forefathers jammed, but it all evolved from bluegrass. It’s just really cool the way things come back around and evolve.

What else is on the horizon for you now?

I’m working with a young banjo player named Alex Leach. I produced an album for him, and a single will be released in the spring. I’m really, really excited about it. It’s super traditional, but he looks towards the future. He started working for WDVX in Knoxville at the age of eight! I just kind of had a drive to do it. And, for better or worse, I’m kind of ahead of myself. I have several albums I’ve already finished and I’m just waiting for the right time to put them out.

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About the Author

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman has been a writer and reviewer for the better part of the past 20 years. He writes for the following publications — No Depression, Goldmine, Country Standard TIme, Paste, Relix, Lincoln Center Spotlight, Fader, and Glide. A lifelong music obsessive and avid collector, he firmly believes that music provides the soundtrack for our lives and his reverence for the artists, performers and creative mind that go into creating their craft spurs his inspiration and motivation for every word hie writes.