IN PRINT: The many faces of Jim Lauderdale

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by Jordan Green

Skinny, dressed impeccably in a black shirt and pants, an eye perpetually on the verge of a wry wink, Jim Lauderdale stepped out with an acoustic guitar and more than two decades’ worth of songs to hold an audience in thrall for the better part of two hours at Mack and Mack on Friday night.

Clearly enjoying himself, Lauderdale struck up an easy rapport with the audience of about 100 people. He narrated his set list through a stunning list of songwriting collaborators (Robert Hunter, Elvis Costello and Melba Montgomery) and artists he’s written for (Solomon Burke, Ralph Stanley and Patty Loveless) while maintaining a humorous banter.

He has an interesting story to tell, one that begins in these parts, flings out into the wider world and swings back through the realm from time to time.

Lauderdale was born in Statesville, and went to college at NC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, now UNCSA, where bluegrass music and the films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton tugged equally at his imagination. After graduation, he made his way to New York City, where he fell in with Buddy Miller in the city’s thriving country music scene. Eventually landing in Nashville, where he’s tilled the soil beneath the star machinery by writing songs for more successful artists. Too purely rooted in the country idiom and at the same time too disinterested in the commercial demands of the moment, he’s been generally spurned by the industry and allowed to chart an independent course.

Lauderdale’s itinerary has often brought him back to North Carolina. Such is his working familiarity with his native state that he referenced the first Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival that was nearly rained out. He gave a shout-out to the festival’s presiding hosts, the band Donna the Buffalo.

His set list drew liberally from across the span of Lauderdale’s repertoire, but the concert was by no means an exercise in nostalgia. This is an artist hitting all gears: Last year, he released a total of three records, including two co-written with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, along with a bluegrass album. This spring, he plans to release a country album with roughly 20 songs.

The title track of the bluegrass collection Old Time Angels — a thoughtful inversion of the standard murder ballad that empowers the female victims to avenge their killers — received a spare reading by Lauderdale. “I Loved Her After All” from the same record is a weeper worthy of the late George Jones, distilling regret by voicing raw emotion through clenched jaw and naked, unsentimental lyricism: “I said she should dance with him, she was better off/ But when the dance was done, I found I loved her, after all.”

Hardcore honky-tonk and its more virtuosic cousin, bluegrass, comprise the basic architecture of his oeuvre, but a restless talent such as Lauderdale is equally at home with a hill-country blues, as in “Throw My Bucket Down,” the lead track on last year’s Black Roses collaboration with Hunter. Going back to the title track from an earlier co-write with Hunter, “Patchwork River,” Lauderdale let his voice slink around the wry lyric. It was hard not to imagine the late Jerry Garcia reworking the song given that one of his talents was mining material from great Americana songwriters like Lauderdale.

Witnessing Lauderdale, armed as he was with only an acoustic guitar and a creaky but resonant voice in an intimate room, one remembers that underneath the conventions of any particular genre, the elements of a good song are feeling and technique. An inhabitant of Nashville’s musical shadowlands, Lauderdale treads a different circuit but the same fertile ground of songcraft as contemporaries like Dave Alvin in southern California and Nick Lowe in England.

Lesser artists might revisit a bluegrass gospel song to evoke spirituality, but Lauderdale went someplace deep in uncharted territory in his performance that night of “That’s Not the Way It Works”  — inaugurated in 1995 and revisited eight years later in a collaboration with Donna the Buffalo: “Keep your spirits pointed to the heavens/ We’ll know better when we get back home.”