In a two-decade career that has honored and enhanced almost every aspect of Americana music, Jim Lauderdale never wound up as a performer at the Festival of the Bluegrass until this year. But he knows the Lexington event well. He was a wide-eyed patron more than 35 years ago.
"I went to it back in 1975," said the two-time Grammy-winning songwriter and performer, who makes his stage debut at the festival Friday. "I was graduating from high school at the time and went there to help a guitar player I used to have a duo with. He was selling guitars and strings.
"I remember seeing J.D. Crowe and the New South back when they had Ricky Skaggs and Tony Rice and Jerry (Douglas). That band was right up there as one of my favorites. So it's meaningful for me to get to come back and play the festival after all these years, after it made such a strong impression on me."
A North Carolina native, Lauderdale was a strong presence in mainstream country circles during the early '90s — his songs have been recorded by Vince Gill, the Dixie Chicks, Patty Loveless and George Strait — and with alt- country and Americana audiences as the decade progressed, thanks to albums including Persimmons and Whisper.
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Bluegrass didn't surface on his recordings until a 1999 collaborative album with string-music patriarch Ralph Stanley, I Feel Like Singing Today, but the music helped forge Lauderdale's artistic voice long before country took command.
"Oh, bluegrass definitely came first. Back in 1975, when I first came to the Festival of the Bluegrass, my goal was to be a bluegrass banjo player, recording artist and singer. And it just never happened. Eventually, I let the banjo go. I knew I wasn't going to be great on it, so I started doing more traditional country and singer-songwriter stuff. It took me years to finally do a bluegrass record. Luckily, the first one was with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, so that kind of made the earlier disappointment seem OK."
A second album with Stanley, Lost in the Lonesome Pines, won Lauderdale his first Grammy and cemented a working partnership that remains strong. In fact, shortly after our interview, Lauderdale hit the road to perform at Stanley's annual bluegrass festival in Virginia.
"Ever since I was a kid, Ralph has been one of my heroes. I just love his singing, his playing, his choice of material and the bands he has put together since the Stanley Brothers. He is just a true original. I'm so grateful that I have gotten to know and work with him, and sit in the wings at shows and just watch him. I'm amazed by his endurance."
The 2007 album The Bluegrass Dairies earned Lauderdale a second Grammy. But increasingly, his newer bluegrass music has relied on a songwriting collaboration with Robert Hunter that began with 2004's Headed for the Hills. Hunter is best known as a lyricist on Grateful Dead songs composed by Jerry Garcia. Lauderdale's third and newest album with Hunter is 2011's Reason and Rhyme, and a fourth is completed and ready for a possible late-summer release. The two also are working on songs for an album that Lauderdale is cutting with the new- generation electric-roots troupe the North Mississippi All-Stars.
"Robert and I write pretty quickly together," Lauderdale said. "The melodies will come out or he will give me a lyric. You never know what is going to be written. It's really unpredictable. Sometimes, I can give him a melody and have no preconceived notion of any kind. There will be no story line, no concept lyrically. And I just let him run with it. Some of the things he can come up with I would never have been able to record on my own."
Bluegrass might be Lauderdale's foremost musical preference, but it is by no means his only one. He toured in recent years with Elvis Costello and Hot Tuna, and he maintains a prolific recording career. Aside from the upcoming Hunter projects — the in-progress North Mississippi All-Stars record and the finished bluegrass follow-up to Reason and Rhyme — Lauderdale has cut a record, described as a mix of soul and Beatles-esque pop, in England with the band of British pop vet Nick Lowe and a second record with his ensemble, Dream Players, that includes guitarist James Burton and steel guitarist Al Perkins ("some of that is more straight-ahead country and some of it really pushes the envelope").
"I've recorded a lot in the past (to be exact, 20 albums in as many years leading up to Reason and Rhyme) but never as much as I have this past year. But I really enjoy it. I feel like I'm on a roll. I'm usually pretty slow about everything else in life, so this is a good thing."