Schooled in the Triad: Jim Lauderdale, UNC School of the Arts

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Photo by Scott Simontacchi

Story by Jordan Green

Jim Lauderdale almost didn’t get accepted to NC School of the Arts.

“When it was time for college, I auditioned at the School of the Arts,” he recalled about four decades later. “I was in a bad car wreck, and ended up being late for my audition. I read some of the comments from the teacher years later. She said I seemed wooden, but I had just been in a car accident, so perhaps that affected my performance. They let me in.”

The son of a Presbyterian minister and a native of Troutman in Iredell County, Lauderdale fell in love with bluegrass music. He learned to play guitar and banjo, and started writing songs long before setting foot on the campus of School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. But he had also developed a keen interest in theater. That explains how the Grammy-award winning artist credited with paving the way for Americana music, who has written songs for the likes of George Strait and Blake Shelton, co-written with Elvis Costello and Robert Hunter and recorded 26 albums while co-hosting a popular roots music show on SiriusXM, once considered a career as a mime. 

“I really enjoyed that,” Lauderdale said. “This wasn’t white-faced mime. It was more like silent-acting comedy. I enjoyed the comedic aspect of it. I was tempted to go into mime, but I really decided my heart was in writing songs and performing as a musician.”

Lauderdale likes to compare his college experience at what is now UNC School of the Arts to med school, based on the rigor of the curriculum and challenge of balancing a heavy course load.

“I think it’s one of the most unique schools out there,” he said “They just have excellent studies in music, drama, design and dance. It was a very creative environment; it was very busy. I can’t imagine college being busier. It was a real full schedule.

“I tried to be in a couple bands; I was briefly,” he added. “It was too hectic, schedule-wise. Somehow I was still able to find some time to continue my songwriting.”

Lauderdale has maintained a relentless pace over the past few years, releasing two albums Black Roses and Blue Moon Junction last year, and a double album with 20 tracks called I’m A Song that came out in July. Speaking over the phone mid-afternoon on a Thursday, he confessed to being a little groggy because he had stayed up the previous night to write songs. His Wednesdays are blocked out every week for his duties as musical host of “Music City Roots,” a two-hour music-and-variety radio broadcast from Nashville that reclaims the original spirit of “The Grand Ole Opry.”

Leading up to his time at School of the Arts in the late ’70s, Lauderdale’s interest in music and theater were both fanned by the rich cultural traditions of North Carolina. He moved with his family, first from Troutman to Charlotte, and then to Due West, SC, returning to North Carolina to attend the Carolina Friends School in Chapel Hill for his last two years of high school. Working summers during high school at the Flat Rock Playhouse in Henderson County fed both passions.

“I was working the snack bar for a woman named Leona,” Lauderdale recalled. “We had honey lemonade. I originally wanted to work at Leona’s health-food store. She said they needed help at the playhouse.”

The job exposed him to theater behind the scenes, and even provided the opportunity to act.

“I auditioned for the part of Eugene in Look Homeward, Angel and didn’t make it,” Lauderdale recalled. “That would have been an interesting challenge for someone who hadn’t had much experience. I was in a play called The World of Carl Sandburg, which incorporated banjo and guitar playing. That was an interesting use of my musical abilities.”

Lauderdale joined a mime troupe at Carolina Friends School. Carrying that interest into college, he also studied voice acting, discovering that “my forte was as a character actor, not a leading man.” During his time at School of the Arts, Lauderdale played Crook-Finger Jake in The Threepenny Opera and First Voice in Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood.

Putting his music on hold to finish the program at School of the Arts, ironically, might have prepared Lauderdale for the tough realities of the music business.

“I had some offers to join some bands, bluegrass bands and country bands, which would have required me to leave school,” Lauderdale said. “I wanted to finish the program. It was quite a challenge to stay in the program. It was very strict, as far as I started with a class of 54, and by the time I graduated it was 13. They would cut students every year. As time went on, I was afraid I wouldn’t make the cut.”

After graduating from School of the Arts in 1979, Lauderdale moved to Nashville, but was unable to establish himself. He wound up going to New York City, where he found a flourishing country-music scene. He worked in the mailroom at Rolling Stone magazine during the day while playing in bands, including a bluegrass band that he fronted at night. His theatrical training came into play when he landed a role in Cotton Patch Gospel, an off-Broadway show with music and lyrics commissioned by Harry Chapin before the songwriter’s death in 1981. The acting role allowed Lauderdale to quit his day job.

He played several other theatrical roles, including Jesse James in Diamond Studs: The Life of Jesse James, opposite Shawn Colvin, another budding singer-songwriter.

Lauderdale’s acting and music also took him to Los Angeles, and eventually led to the release of his first album, Planet of Love, in 1991.

For someone who grew up in the Carolinas, places like New York and Los Angeles were intriguing, Lauderdale said, and they provided him with good experiences. But he said there’s nothing to preclude a graduate of School of the Arts from staying in North Carolina to pursue their craft.

“As a singer and touring musician, you can live anywhere,” Lauderdale said. “North Carolina is one of the best places to live. It has everything. I really appreciate the laid-back nature of it, compared to New York and Los Angeles. It’s an easier life, as far as meeting one’s needs and getting around as well.”

He maintains close ties to North Carolina, and has takes pleasure in visiting former teachers at School of the Arts.

“Leslie Hunt, who taught drama, and Dolores Simonel, a voice teacher, they’ve both great teachers who still live in Winston-Salem,” Lauderdale said.

Last year, he brought Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, two legendary songwriters from the Muscle Shoals soul scene, to School of the Arts for a concert at the Music Academy of the American South.

“I developed my work ethic at School of the Arts,” Lauderdale said. “There were just so many times when I had to push myself beyond my limits and then come through the other side, and was able to accept and accomplish the challenges. That remains with me to this day.”