Jim Lauderdale,
The Other Sessions
(Dualtone, 2001)

Although his songs have been recorded by the likes of George Strait, the Dixie Chicks and Vince Gill, Jim Lauderdale's own albums have never received the acclaim they've deserved. The Other Sessions won't, either. While it's certainly more commercial than Lauderdale's 1999 bluegrass outing with Ralph Stanley, I Feel Like Singing Today, the hardcore honky-tonk of The Other Sessions is, sadly, just as out of fashion. (Ironically, the title refers to the fact that Lauderdale had recorded and originally intended to release a more folk- and bluegrass-influenced acoustic project.)

The marginal status of Jim Lauderdale and his ilk is a blessing, however, as well as a curse. At least, for the fans it is. Artists like Lauderdale don't spend much time worrying about getting their music on the radio, with results like the inclusion on The Other Sessions of an honest-to-goodness truck-driving song, "Diesel, Diesel, Diesel," co-written with the legendary Del Reeves ("Looking at the World Through a Windshield").

The rest of The Other Sessions isn't quite so aggressively retro, but from the very start of the steel-and fiddle-driven first track, "If I Were You," there's no doubt that Lauderdale hasn't made a commercial country album -- unless the commercial country we're talking about is that of Bakersfield circa 1962.

This neo-traditionalism doesn't mean Lauderdale can't put his own quirky spin on the honky-tonk form, though. It's tough to imagine Webb Pierce rhyming "inconclusive" with "elusive," as Lauderdale does in "What's On My Mind." Songs like "You'll Know When It's Right" (co-written with Harlan Howard), "Just To Get To You" and "First Things First" (both co-written with Melba Montgomery) all do a fine job of evoking the soul of classic country, such as that of Montgomery's old duet partner George Jones, without being derivative. The same can be said for the performances of the musicians: led by the pedal steel of Waylon Jennings' road-band string wiz Robby Turner, the pickers on The Other Sessions take a welcome step backwards into Buck Owens territory, but don't sound a bit dated.

The show-stopper here is "Merle World." It takes a talented singer to convey a certain "ain't this silly" tone and absolute conviction at the same time -- think Gary Stewart's classic "She's Actin' Single (I'm Drinkin' Doubles)." Lauderdale himself hasn't always been so successful at this trick; especially on his earlier albums, his singing has often come across as more satirical than sincere. But here Lauderdale does it up right: the title conceit is utterly silly; the pain in Lauderdale's voice is anything but. Like the rest of The Other Sessions, "Merle World" is playful but heartfelt -- like the best country music, in fact. The Other Sessions will most likely be consigned to the alt-country ghetto, but it deserves much more.

[ by Chris Simmons ]
Rambles: 27 October 2001

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