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Jim Lauderdale was hard at work on an album of traditionally minded country songs when the pandemic brought his progress to a halt in early 2020. For years, he’d been Americana’s resident busy bee — the prolific poster child for a community of roots musicians whose songs orbited the worlds of folk, bluegrass, blues, and country. He wrote profusely and recorded voraciously, often releasing multiple albums a year. It simply wasn’t in his nature to stand still.
Yet stand still he did, watching the outside world descend into a spiral of sickness and social struggle.
“I felt like I was in this void,” he remembers. “It was really hard for me to create. A part of me felt like it wasn’t even appropriate to create at a time like that. I was in this funk, and I was very concerned about how grave things had gotten.”
When Lauderdale began writing once again, things felt different. His new songs spoke to the modern moment, focusing on themes of optimism and tenacity. They were silver linings for a dark time, imbued with the sunny swagger of 1970s folk-rock. Those songs form the backbone of his 34th album, Hope (to be released July 30).
Laced with keyboard contributions from Micah Hulscher, pedal steel from Russ Pahl and Will Van Horn, gorgeous sibling harmonies from Lillie Mae and Frank Rische, and fretwork firepower from guitarists Chris Scruggs and Kenny Vaughan, Hope matches Lauderdale’s songwriting with performances from a hotshot band of Nashville all-stars. He recorded the album at Blackbird Studios, with students from The Blackbird Academy serving as engineers. To Lauderdale, there was something striking about the balance between his veteran bandmates and the wide-eyed, eager-to-be-there engineers.
“It was inspiring to watch these young students at work,” he says. “There’s an earnestness about them, and it added something to the whole creation process. I really wanted to get something out there as soon as I could. I wanted to see, in some small way, if I could bring any kind of comfort or relief to the people who needed help getting through such a hard time.”
On “Brave One,” Lauderdale pays tribute to America’s first responders over tangles of jangling guitar arpeggios. He reminds us to savor the moment during the meditative “Breathe Real Slow,” lets his hippie flag fly with “Mushrooms are Growing After the Rain,” and gets funky during “The Opportunity to Help Somebody Through It,” a song whose benevolent message may as well double as the album’s mantra. Pitching its tent somewhere between disco and Americana — territory rarely explored by Nashville songwriters, to be sure — “The Opportunity to Help Somebody Through It” spotlights Lauderdale’s willingness to reach far beyond his comfort zone, matched step-for-step by Dave Racine’s percussion and Chris Scruggs’ Nile Rodgers-worthy guitar licks. It’s his finest full-band recording in years. Even so, Lauderdale says it’s the message, not the manpower, that he hopes to emphasize.
“Whenever I write something new, I like to have an anchor,” he explains. “If I’m recording music in a specific place, like Memphis, I can write a song with that location in mind. If I’m working with artists like North Mississippi Allstars or Ralph Stanley, I’ll write something with them as my muse. If I’m working with musicians like Al Perkins or James Burton, I’ll write a song that I can picture them playing. This time, instead of the specific musicians inspiring my writing, it was this larger theme of hope. That was a bit of a different approach for me.”
Hope also features one of Lauderdale’s final co-writes with former Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. The two had been collaborators since the late 1990s, teaming up for such albums as 2004’s Headed for the Hills, 2010’s Patchwork River, and 2012’s Carolina Moonrise: Bluegrass Songs by Robert Hunter and Jim Lauderdale. “Memory” was finished not long before Hunter’s passing in September 2019, and Hope’s cover features a painting by Hunter’s wife, Maureen.
“Robert was an incredible, brilliant man,” says Lauderdale. “We wrote more than 100 songs, and I recorded 88 of them. When we first worked together, I was getting ready to do my first record with Ralph Stanley, and it felt like the ultimate fantasy to be able to write with Robert. I knew that he and Jerry Garcia had been big fans of the Stanley Brothers, so I reached out. Robert came to Nashville for a few months and stayed at the Spence Manor, and we wrote 33 tunes during that first visit. We worked like that for years. When we last wrote together, I went to his place a couple of times and we’d write five or so tunes a day. We’d sit and talk for a while, and a melody would come to me, and I’d put it down. He’d go into the other room and work on lyrics while I was starting another melody for another song. It was pretty spontaneous and really, really quick.”
For an album that touches upon themes of loss and lingering anxiety, Hope still maintains an optimistic outlook that’s remarkably unforced. Call it the Lauderdale effect. Now in his mid-60s, the man sounds spry and spirited, as though he can’t wait to resume his pace of annual releases. Last year was a reminder to make the most of every show, every co-write, every hour. It was, above all, a reminder to be thankful.
“I’ve wanted to make records since I was a teenager,” he explains. “I had some stops and starts — some record deals that fell through, some albums that were shelved — and my first record didn’t come out when I was about 34. At the time, I felt like I had a lot of catching up to do with my peers, so I got real determined to write songs, release albums, and just document the music that was happening. It became ingrained in me. It doesn’t seem to be out of the ordinary. It’s just what I do.”
This article first appeared in the Summer 2021 edition of The East Nashvillian. Used with permission.