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Lauderdale shines in 2009, but even bigger things in store for coming year

by Ryan Snyder

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In ways that extend beyond simply performing and recording music, 2009 was one of the best years in Jim Lauderdale’s 20-year career. Sure, he was an integral part of Elvis Costello’s band the Sugarcanes and the subsequent album Secret, Profane and Sugarcane, which, by the way, is nominated for the Best Contemporary Folk Grammy. It also deserves mention that his monthly radio show from Knoxville’s Bijou Theatre, “Tennessee Shines,” found its way to the Bonnaroo Music Festival this summer. He’s also written songs for George Strait’s and Lee Ann Womack’s respective albums, both of which are Grammynominated for Best Country Album in this month’s ceremony.

The former is the title track to Strait’s Twang and the latter, King of Broken Hearts, is a tribute to George Jones and Gram Parsons.

Of course, Lauderdale is up for his own Grammy as well, in the Best Bluegrass Album category for his 2009 release Could We Get Any Closer? He picked up one of those as recently as 2008 for Honey Songs, so that still might not qualify for his most important achievement of 2009. That distinction likely belongs to his amazingly successful recovery from surgery to remove polyps from his throat. It was so successful that some, including his producer and band member Randy Kohrs, believe that his voice is stronger than it was before. Ironic, because he was afraid that the procedure would have a detrimental effect on both his singing and speaking voices.

“It was certainly scary. From the time I was diagnosed, I was ordered not to talk and be completely out of commission for four months,” Lauderdale said. “I was really worried that I might never be able to sing again.”

After a nine-month recovery and rehabilitation period, Lauderdale was giving a songwriting clinic and performing shows at the spring Shakori Hills Festival outside of Pittsboro. Now fully healed, he foresees another highly prolific year in which he again collaborates with Costello, but also will release an album co-written by former Grateful Dead songwriter Robert Hunter. Entitled Patchwork River, it’s an electric album featuring Al Perkins, Ron Tutt and former Elvis Presley guitarist James Burton, a regular collaborator.

by Ryan Snyder / ryan@yesweekly.com

Lauderdale is still shopping for a label, however, and expects an April release.

Lauderdale will return to his home state and, more precisely, his alma mater this Saturday night when he plays the Stevens Center at the UNC School of the Arts, where he earned a drama degree in 1979. While he’s not strictly a bluegrass musician — Lauderdale has built a cult-like following on the strengths of both his vintage honky-tonk country and his award-winning acoustic stuff — he’s bringing his bluegrass band for this particular date. It’s a dichotomy that few artists are able to maintain successfully, but one afforded by the numerous mainstream artists who have achieved success though recording his songs. It’s alright with Jim if the Womacks and Straits of the country music world make hits of his work, as it gives him unparalleled freedom to continue to explore his every creative impulse.

“I’ve been grateful that I haven’t been limited to just one kind of music through the years,” said Lauderdale. “My songwriting has given me the artistic freedom to do what I want with my own records and I can have more eclectic releases and go in different directions.”

There’s little pattern from one project to the next, but Lauderdale doesn’t mind. The irst decade of his recording career was riddled with trial and error; he experienced phases of hard country, bluegrass and honky-tonk before he inally caught a break with Epic Records. He did an album with Dwight Yoakam producer Pete Anderson, but it was deemed “too country” for the time and was inally released seven years ago. Strait and Yoakam both recorded songs from it, however, and that allowed him to continue working until his irst album, Planet Love was released in 1991.

“It’s always been a combination of luck and timing that seems to go in cycles,” Lauderdale stated. Sometimes that’s the way it goes in the music business. You can have these periods where it seems like nothing’s going on and then something great will happen. I think this one coming up will be a good one too.”

Jim Lauderdale will perform at the Stevens Center this Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

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