Mr. Americana: Jim Lauderdale’s Lifetime Award from the Americana Music Association
When Jim Lauderdale takes the stage on September 21 at the Americana Music Association’s 15th Annual Honors and Awards Show at the Ryman, I have no doubt he will receive not only thunderous applause, but likely the longest standing ovation anyone has ever gotten an an AMA event.
In case you have not heard, Lauderdale — the congenial, nimble, and quick-witted host of the Honors and Awards Show — will receive the 2016 AMA’s Wagonmaster Award. That award is a special lifetime achievement honor that’s bestowed only upon significant contributors to the deep history of roots music. The award, named for country music icon Porter Wagoner, will be presented to Lauderdale by Country Music Hall of Fame member George Strait. Strait has recorded more than a dozen of Lauderdale’s songs.
If Buddy Miller is the soul of Americana and roots music, Lauderdale is its heart, face, and voice. He’s recorded at least 25 albums in the past 25 years, both solo and with friends like Ralph Stanley, Donna the Buffalo, and Buddy Miller. He and Miller also have the highly lauded Buddy & Jim Show on satellite radio. He has received two Grammy Awards and was honored with the AMA’s first Americana Artist of the Year award.
Lauderdale also hosts the weekly Music City Roots show in Nashville and the annual Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest.
Lauderdale has recorded, written with, and/or appeared with a who’s who in country, bluegrass, alt-country, roots and Americana music. It’s a long list, but in addition to the above, here is just a taste: George Jones, Willie Nelson, Patty Loveless, Robert Hunter, the Dixie Chicks, North Mississippi Allstars, Elvis Costello, and Lucinda Williams.
His association with Williams is especially noteworthy as he was on her seminal 1988 self-titled album on Rough Trade, which I have long touted as the album that crystalized alt-country as a genre. He’s also in the band that backed up Williams on her 1989 Austin City Limits appearance.
Lauderdale was born in North Carolina. His father was a preacher and his mother was a school teacher and piano teacher. He began playing the drums in his pre-teen years, but soon picked up other instruments. While attending college, he also played a substantial amount of music, and was particularly intrigued by Ralph Stanley and the Grateful Dead. After graduation he moved to Nashville, making the rounds and hanging out with lots of folks — most notably, to me, a man whom I have long-admired and have the good fortune to know, Roland White, brother of Clarence, and an icon in bluegrass.
He met Buddy Miller and joined Miller’s band in 1980. His first solo album was released in 1991, produced by Rodney Crowell and John Leventhal. More were to come on major labels who soon dropped him for lack of airplay. This series of unfortunate events led Kim Richey to coin the phrase the “Jim Lauderdale Phenomenon” when, despite the fact that Lauderdale was nominated for a Grammy, another label dropped him.
As with nearly all noteworthy artists, Lauderdale’s road has been a unique one, grounded in experiences, setbacks, road blocks, and good times. Of the dozens of times I have seen him perform, I have never seen a man more happy just to be wherever he happens to be: onstage and off.
While I would be a fan in any event, Lauderdale is extra special for me as he is how I became associated with No Depression as a contributor. Not long after ND had begun its online publication, I took my first digital camera to MerleFest in 2009. While I had done a lot of photography years before, I just wanted to take home a few mementos of folks I had seen at the festival. I posted a few on ND’s web site. The following week when I opened the newsletter in my in box, I saw my photo of Lauderdale at the top.
Before his set at the most recent Finger Lakes GrassRoots Fest, I was backstage chatting with the emcee who had been going over his notes when he introduced Lauderdale. I will leave you with what I suggested he simply say, “Here’s the hardest-working, best-dressed, most handsome man in Americana music, Jim Lauderdale.”