Jim Lauderdale is one of North Carolina's most successful independent artists.
He's the owner of two Best Bluegrass Album Grammy awards and the Americana Music Association's Artist of the Year and Song of the Year awards.
Active since 1986, Lauderdale has recorded 20 albums and is also considered an "A" list songwriter in Nashville, having scored hits for such artists as George Strait. Not too bad for a guy from Troutman, N.C.
Lauderdale is a versatile artist, jumping back and forth from bluegrass to country and mixing the two together in Americana stylings. He cites Ralph Stanley and George Jones as influences, but an equitable impression must have been made on Lauderdale by the Grateful Dead and their legendary lyricist, Robert Hunter.
So enthralled by the writer of seminal Grateful Dead songs like "Friend of the Devil" and "Box of Rain," Lauderdale started pursuing Hunter in the late 1990s to collaborate on music. The pair started writing songs together in 2000. The first full album of Lauderdale-Hunter material, "Patchwork River," appeared in 2010. The pair returns on June 21 with "Reason and Rhyme." The album is Lauderdale's first with N.C.-based Sugar Hill Records.
"Patchwork River" was a country-styled Americana album; for "Reason and Rhyme," Lauderdale said, "This one's back to total bluegrass." Eleven songs recorded in one day in Nashville, "Reason and Rhyme" once again combines Hunter's lyrics and Lauderdale's music. This time, there's much more of an old-time feel, from the lyrics and harmonies to instrumentation that includes banjo, mandolin, fiddle and resonator guitar.
Hunter proves to be as versatile an artist as Lauderdale, his lyrics bending well to meet the music at hand. Hunter is no stranger to traditionalism, having played mandolin and upright bass in bluegrass bands with Jerry Garcia in the days before the Grateful Dead. Hunter's new songs do not depart from his folk and storytelling roots. The disturbing family custom revealed in "Not Let You Go" and the poor boy's lament for "Janis Jones" are exceptional examples of Hunter's work falling right in line with bluegrass convention.
Lauderdale is a bluegrass natural. His authentic drawl, earnest delivery and ear for melody easily explain his popularity within the genre. Lauderdale says bluegrass is what he wanted to do when he started his career; "Reason and Rhyme" acts as yet another display of Lauderdale's comfort with the style.
Every corner is covered on "Reason and Rhyme." The songs vary from porch-sitters like "Jack Dempsey's Crown" to toe-tappers like "Doin' It On My Own." Knowing bluegrass and gospel are often synonymous, and Lauderdale and Hunter deliver "Fields of the Lord," which would fit in seamlessly with Sunday morning radio gospel fare.
In the catchy "Don't Give a Hang," Lauderdale sings, "I don't give a hang, and that's for sure, for supermarket music in my ears. Don't give a hang about telephones that follow you when you leave home." Bluegrass fans will relate to Hunter's words and, if that's a problem, Lauderdale's voice and the music will easily win them over. In some cases, see the "Tiger & The Monkey," Hunter's lyrics are vague and open to interpretation, but are nonetheless interesting and certainly entertaining.
From the start to end of "Reason and Rhyme," Lauderdale is an effortless navigator of Hunter's words. Although diehard Grateful Dead fans will argue that there is no Robert Hunter collaboration that will exceed his work the Grateful Dead, they will have to admit that his work with Jim Lauderdale is impressive and worthy of admiration. If they have an aversion to bluegrass, they shouldn't pass over Lauderdale-Hunter, but first pick up the prior album "Patchwork River" and then try out "Reason and Rhyme."
Bluegrass fans will have no problem jumping into and enjoying the album. "Reason and Rhyme" will undoubtedly stand as one of this year's best bluegrass albums.