Jim Lauderdale has written some of the best songs you’ve ever heard, for artists including the Dixie Chicks, Elvis Costello and many others.
As far as his own music goes … well, Jim Lauderdale has written some of the best songs you’ve most likely never heard.
This dichotomy is a shame, because Lauderdale is both a great songwriter and a fine performer. See for yourself when he plays at Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace on Saturday, April 23.
During a recent phone interview, Lauderdale explained his formula for a good song.
“I’d say that it’s a few different things,” Lauderdale said. “It’s something that moves another person in some way, whether that be emotionally or in a groove way that makes them want to dance or move—something that makes you enjoy when you hear it, and makes you want to hear it again or sing along.”
For inspiration, Lauderdale holds the Grateful Dead’s songwriter, Robert Hunter, in high regard.
“One of my favorites, who I’ve been very fortunate to write with, is Robert Hunter,” Lauderdale said. “We wrote at first through fax machines, and I was working on a record with Dr. Ralph Stanley, who is a bluegrass guy. Robert came to Nashville for a while, and we wrote three songs in each other’s presence. A few years went by, and I went to visit him where he lives in California, and we sat down and wrote again. After that, we wrote a bluegrass record. We had written in all those kinds of ways. I’m such a huge fan of his that I still feel in awe in his presence. I just try to act as normal as possible around him.”
Another one of his frequent collaborators is country and Americana singer-songwriter Buddy Miller.
“Buddy and I have written several songs together and did an album together, finally, and we have a radio show together, too,” Lauderdale said. “It’s different than working with Robert, because I knew Buddy since I moved to New York after I got out of college and played in some country bands in New York City. Buddy had a great band there; then he moved away and quit music. Then he contacted me when I was living in Los Angeles a few years later and said he was going to move to Los Angeles and asked if I knew any gigs for a guitar player. I hired him for the gigs I had, and we just became better and better friends. We know each other so well that we’re like brothers. With Robert Hunter, he’s someone Buddy and I both idolize. It’s kind of that thing where it’s hard to believe you’re actually sitting there with him. It’s a much more familial thing with me and Buddy.”
While Lauderdale has had epic success as a songwriter for other people, he’s struggled with record labels when it comes to his own music, despite various accolades.
“In some ways, I’m like my friend the late Chris Gaffney. I met him in Los Angeles, and he was an amazing singer and songwriter,” Lauderdale said. “He said, ‘Well, I don’t listen to anything past 1975 when it comes to country.’ I know he was in some ways kidding, but my taste tends to be toward the earthier, rawer kind of honky-tonk and emotional stuff. I’m into the heavy pedal steel and a Telecaster, and that kind of thing. All music styles evolve, and I’ve kind of likened it to rock ’n’ roll going through an evolution, and it’s not just Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee, Elvis and the Beatles: It’s changed, and it’s like that in many ways. I guess in some ways, I would term it as “corporate music.” In some ways, it’s formulaic and there are certain things that sell, and they kind of repeat that, but that’s the music business in general. Occasionally, something new and fresh will break through in music, and the industry will try to follow those trends. I guess I try to be optimistic, and I think there’s so much great undiscovered talent out there that will eventually break in, and I continue hoping. All we can do as writers and musicians is keep doing what we do and keep striving to make better and better music—even if it’s just a part-time thing for people.”
In 2015, Lauderdale released a double-album titled Soul Searching, with one part focused on Nashville, and the other on Memphis. He explained how it was different than anything he’d done in the past.
“It’s the first time I’ve actually done a physical double release. The one I did before that, I considered it a double album, because it was 20 songs, and I just wanted to not waste the plastic and put it on one disc,” he said. “But there are 13 songs with this one on each disc, and with 26 songs total, that was too many to put on one disc. It’s the first time I’ve put 13 songs on a record in the style of the ’60s and early ’70s soul music with a great horn section and writing in that feel. I had a lot of influences as a kid with rock ’n’ roll, country, bluegrass and blues, and that’s the first time I’ve really focused that much on soul music. The Nashville disc is pretty eclectic. The songs I actually had finished weren’t going in that direction, and I thought, ‘I’m going to spend these next couple of months writing and recording whatever comes out.’”
Lauderdale tries to make it to Pappy’s every April.
“I moved to Los Angeles in 1985 and started going to the desert a few months later. I just really fell in love with Pappy and Harriet’s,” he said. “For several years, I’ve been trying to do an annual gig out there, and my birthday is April 11. I used to play there on my birthday or kind of near, but this was the kind of date that worked the best this time.”
He added that through the years, he’s seen quite a change at Pappy’s.
“When I first went there, it was a country band that was semi-local or coming up in Los Angeles, and they’d play from Thursday through Sunday,” he said. “Now it’s just a wide national-touring-acts venue. It’s really grown, and it’s a magical place for me to play.”
Jim Lauderdale will perform at 9 p.m., Saturday, April 23, at Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, 53688 Pioneertown Road, in Pioneertown. Tickets are $15. For tickets or more information, call 760-365-5956, or visit www.pappyandharriets.com.