Jim Lauderdale,
(Yep Roc, 2006)

As a songwriter, Jim Lauderdale lives inside the Nashville mainstream, which is to say that he has provided hits for some of the top acts in the industry that persists in calling itself "country music." As a performer, however, he swims in other waters. In the wake of a failed 1990s effort to attain stardom for himself, he now plays venues that cater to smaller, more adventurous audiences hungry for the rootsier sounds of pure honkytonk and bluegrass. He has recorded two well-reviewed albums with mountain-music patriarch Ralph Stanley, and there's no shortage of accomplished honkytonk records bearing Lauderdale's name.

A close listening to most (not quite all) of this, however, reveals that whatever the trappings, these are, mostly, slickly crafted, potentially commercial country songs. It's only the arrangements that might lead a listener paying but casual attention to think otherwise.

Bluegrass, which draws on the services of some of the genre's leading pickers, benefits from Lauderdale's impressively biting vocals and his professional's composing skills. But except for the final cut, the pull-you-out-of-your-seat delight "Where They Turn Around" (a hard-drivin' ramblin' song that sounds as if intended for Stanley), little of the material strays far from lyrics and melodies that would render the product unacceptable to some 15-minute superstar looking for the tune that would give him or her a shot at 16. For the first dozen cuts anyway ("Turn Around" being 13), this is bluegrass country, not bluegrass folk -- or, as I like to think of the broad distinction between country and folk, inside music as opposed to outside music. Expect no rural landscapes, no regional accents or references, no narratives beyond the usual tried-and-true themes of love won and lost. In other words, these are domestic dramas playing out behind the doors of bars, living rooms and bedrooms.

Of course, one also is reminded that there's nothing wrong with good commercial songwriting, even if it often looks better, as here, clad in uncommercial, ostensibly more "authentic" garb. In any event, the emotions feel real enough, the production kicks, and "Who's Leaving Who" -- with its image of a guy sitting in a diner, talking to his cereal, wondering why people are staring at his pajamas -- makes me laugh.

by Jerome Clark
30 September 2006

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