Jim Lauderdale's new album is called I'm A Song, a title that suggests his deep
immersion in songwriting. His compositions have been covered by singers ranging from George Strait to Solomon Burke, from the Dixie Chicks to Elvis Costello. Since his debut album in 1991, he's recorded more than 25 albums for a variety of record companies, and I'm A Song contains a generous 20 songs. Rock critic Ken Tucker says Lauderdale's career is at once admirable and somewhat puzzling.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Jim Lauderdale has a new album called "I'm A Song." The title suggests his deep immersion in songwriting. His compositions have been covered by singers ranging from George Strait to Solomon Burke - from the Dixie chicks to Elvis Costello. Since his debut album in 1991, he's recorded more than 25 albums and "I'm A Song" contains a generous 20 songs. Rock critic Ken Tucker says Lauderdale's career is at once admirable and somewhat puzzling. Here's his review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S HAVE A GOOD THING TOGETHER")
JIM LAUDERDALE: (Singing) Hello, my name is Mr. sunshine. I've been away until you smile. You gave me something I will treasure. Let's have a good thing together.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Jim Lauderdale has a great voice for honky-tonk music - a plumy tone that lopes along the side the genre strong rhythms. On most Lauderdale songs you can hear the wide smiley he flashes so frequently on stage. He's a naturally cheerful fellow, at least in his public presentation, which hasn't stopped him from composing one of the most durable sad songs of the past few decades.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KING OF BROKEN HEARTS")
LAUDERDALE: (Singing) The king of broken hearts doesn't ask much from his friends and he has quite a few of them. They know he will understand that's just the way it goes. The king of broken hearts doesn't know he's a king. He's trying to forget other things like some old chilly scene he's walking through alone. He talks to angels and the stars start to spin. He thinks of trouble --
TUCKER: That's "The King Of Broken Hearts" a song that first surfaced on Lauderdale 1991 debut album "Planet Of Love", coproduced by Rodney Crowell and John Leventhal. The song, written in homage to George Jones and sung by Lauderdale in Jones's trademark clenched-jaw style, has been a consistent crowd pleaser right from the start. Lauderdale said recently that since "Planet Of Love" is now out-of-print he wanted to re-recorded for this new album for a hopefully new raft of fans. The song holds up so, it seems to me, will newer ones like this one "Today I've Got The Yesterday's featuring harmonies with Patty Loveless.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TODAY I'VE GOT THE YESTERDAYS")
LAUDERDALE AND LOVELESS: (Singing) Today I've got the yesterdays. They took me to another place, just visiting what's gone away. Today I've got yesterday's. Me and cinnamon sometimes it won't send you back. Another return visit know how much I miss it to have what we had. Today I've got.
TUCKER: So with all of these good songs and strong singing, why isn't Lauderdale bigger star? I think one answer is the absence of the consistent persona in his work. Look at his idols - George Jones is, in Jim's phrase, the king of broken hearts. Gram Parsons is the sensitive tragic hero that Lauderdale is too optimistic and too wise to the ways of the music biz to emulate. Bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley, with whom Lauderdale recorded a Grammy-winning album, is the kind of formalist that Jim never aspired to be. Lauderdale rarely goes as bleakly dark as his pal Buddy Miller can, both the guitar and lyrics with his wife Julie Miller. One reason Lauderdale is a success songwriter for others is because he can slip into others' skins and write from different points of view and moves. On his own projects, and on the satellite radio show he co-hosts with Buddy Miller, he projects a sunniness that to some listeners may come across as lightweight. But it takes as much craft to sound resilient as it does to sounds shattered and depressed. Listen the way he adroitly bounces back from a wrecked romance on a song Like "I Lost You."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LOST YOU")
LAUDERDALE: (Singing) I lost you. I've lost you. You've slipped from your costume. Like an actress in this tragedy you're just an apparition in this haunting mystery. I fear you've passed over me. And there's nothing I can do because I've lost you. Just like the rich man...
TUCKER: with its Whitman-esque title "I'm A Song" it's 20 songs and collaborators including Elvis Costello, Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter and the great country rock steel guitar player Al Perkins this album has the heft of as major a statement as Jim Lauderdale has ever made. That it also proceeds through 20 songs with such speedy ease suggests just what a satisfyingly deep lightweight Lauderdale has become.
GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Jim Lauderdale's new album called "I'm A Song." I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.