Review: Jim Lauderdale – Reason and Rhyme (Sugar Hill, 2011)
There’s a select set of modern musicians who’ve found fortune in Nashville, yet maintained (or in the case of Patty Loveless and Dolly Parton, developed) bluegrass credentials. Jim Lauderdale hasn’t had the level of commercial success as Vince Gill or Ricky Skaggs, but his songs have been turned into hits by George Strait, Mark Chesnutt, and Patty Loveless, and he’s won critical accolades for this own work. He’s a favorite of roots listeners, a valued collaborator to a wide variety of other musician’s projects, and like Gill and Skaggs, he’s maintained a deep connection to bluegrass, including collaborations with Ralph Stanley and Donna the Buffalo, and his own Grammy-winning Bluegrass Diaries.
For the past few years, Lauderdale’s work has intertwined with the history of the Grateful Dead, including his participation in The American Beauty Project, and extensive songwriting with former Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. Lauderdale’s previous collaboration with Hunter, Patchwork River, was an electric affair that blended country, rock, blues and Southern soul. Their latest set reaches back to the string band and harmony sounds of 2004’s Headed for the Hills, but with purer (but certainly not pure) bluegrass arrangements. The result reflects the specific talents of each participant: Hunter’s lyrics reaching places you don’t often visit in bluegrass, and Lauderdale’s Buck Owens-ish drawl adding country twang to everything he sings.
Hunter’s writing fits the curves of Lauderdale’s melodies with ease, drawing the listener to words and rhymes as well as the stories. You may never figure out what “Tiger and the Monkey” is about or how Hunter put himself into the person of a boxer who beat Jack Dempsey, but you’ll have a lot of fun singing along. More traditionally, the self-loathing “Don’t Give a Hang” hides its sorrow in a curmudgeon’s complaints, and the deep longing of “Love’s Voice” is emphasized by the way Launderdale drags the verses and charges into the chorus, contrasting happy memories with present day pain.
Producer Randy Kohrs assembled a terrific band of pickers and ran through the entire album in a single day. The result is professionally tight, but still very fresh, with some fine rolling leads and rhythmic vamps from banjo player Scott Vestal, lyrical mandolin picking from Mike Compton and moody draws of fiddler Tim Crouch’s bow. You can catch Lauderdale on the summer festival circuit, where he’ll no doubt be tearing things up with the hot-picked “Fields of the Lord” alongside other great tracks from this latest album and highlights of his extensive catalog.