Lauderdale returns to his old college stomping grounds

by Ryan Snyder

Jim Lauderdale, right, played his alma mater in Winston-Salem last week, giving new meaning to the term “old schoool.” (photo by Ryan Snyder.

I can tell now that there are so many of my old school friends here tonight,” said Jim Lauderdale with a wink and a nudge as a lighting miscue sent the house lights on in the middle of his Saturday night concert at the Stevens Center. Lauderdale was of course referring to many of the same faces that had been integral in his performance edification at the North Carolina School of the Arts in the mid-’70s, but it could have easily been a reference to the sea of silver hair before him. Of course, you can’t fault Jim for appealing so heavily to the elderly; you simply don’t find music like his in most popular outlets these days. Not that it sounds dated in any way, but it’s clear that Lauderdale has influences that reach back into the earliest days of the Grand Ole Opry and his music comes with a similar appeal.

With his electric country band on the backburner for the time being, Lauderdale’s five-man bluegrass outfit took the stage with not only the Grammy-nominated Could We Get Any Closer? in mind, but snapshots from his entire acoustic catalog. There’s little doubt that an amazingly versatile artist like Lauderdale can appeal to the “old schoolers” in the crowd, but after working with a veritable Who’s Who of brand name musicians over the years, a profusion of influence has seeped into his work. Songs like “Can We Find Forgiveness” from Bluegrass Diaries portray Lauderdale as a purist picker with a high and lonesome tenor, while the Robert Hunter-co-written “Lost in the Lonesome Pines” carries some decidedly folk nuances to it. The song clearly has Hunter’s influence all over it; it’s a descriptive and poetic tale of love, death and everything in between that could have just as easily been translated into a minor-key Dead jam.

Lauderdale’s band certainly wasn’t beyond a little unhinged jam themselves, even if in a quiet kind of way. Dobro player and regular Lauderdale producer Randy Kohrs regularly led the charge on instrumental jam “Lonesome Road Blues” and the furious breakdowns on songs like “You Ain’t Gonna Cut No Highway Through My Home.” He also doubled asJim’s onstage second-incommand, as indicated by his charcoal grey suit,while the rest of the band was donned in all black. Lauderdale, ofcourse, was his usual snappily-attired self. Second only inappreciation to Lauderdale’s body of work is his wardrobe, and thisevening he eschewed his neo-Western nudie suits for a more conservativeelectric blue get-up.

Banjoist,member of the SteelDrivers and Lauderdale’s (alleged) comedy writerRichard Bailey might have provided the second most dominant sound ofthe evening, second only to the main man’s resounding voice. If hetruly was the source of Lauderdale’s dry-asmelba-toast wit, then hekept most of the stodgy crowd in stitches. He talked a lot about hisassociation with bluegrass legend Dr. Ralph Stanley, only to reveal thesource behind his title.

”Peopleoften wonder what kind of doctor Ralph Stanley is,” Lauderdale saidstraight-faced. “Folks, I just want to say that he’s the finestacupuncturist I’ve ever been to.”

Evenwhen he got lost in his own stage banter, Lauderdale managed to saveface with a stern and jokey glare in Kohrs’ direction. He put a wrypolish on his repeated name-dropping of Buddy Miller, Nick Lowe, PattyLoveless and Gram Parsons as he told of the influence behind each songby coyly confessing, “I just wanted you to like me.”

Ofcourse, there was little cause for anything but. In a day when Top 40country music is looked upon with disdain by the cowboys of old as thetritest expression of Low Art, Lauderdale is a true American treasure.He lingers at the dusty old intersection of country, Western, bluegrassand rock, but he shouldn’t be easy to miss. Just look out for theelectric blue suit.