Aspen Songwriters Festival: Lauderdale on the writing life

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Contributed photoSinger-songwriter Jim Lauderdale performs on Saturday, Sept. 18 in 7908: The Aspen Songwriters Festival.

ASPEN – After appearing in 7908: The Aspen Songwriters Festival on Saturday, Jim Lauderdale intends to spend some extra days in Aspen. Call it a hiding-out period; back in Nashville, which has been home for 15 years, Lauderdale is a wanted man.In Music City, U.S.A., where you can’t spit in the air without hitting a songwriter, Lauderdale is in high demand. The 53-year-old says he can’t pinpoint the reasons why, but he is called on so often to collaborate on songwriting that he needs to schedule time for writing solo, which he says is a far different activity than co-writing.”I really enjoy that process of writing alone,” said Lauderdale, who appears in the Nashville Songwriters Circle event on Saturday at 6:16 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House, with Gary Burr, Jeff Black and Suzy Ragsdale. “And I need to challenge myself to do that. I figure Aspen will be a very inspiring place to write.”The list of people Lauderdale has collaborated with is long and illustrious, and includes J.D. Souther, who co-wrote a handful of hits for the Eagles; Buddy Miller, the writer and guitarist who has been a right arm to Emmylou Harris and Robert Plant; Joe Henry, an award-winning producer who wrote Madonna’s hit “Don’t Tell Me” and the music for the movie “Knocked Up”; and John Leventhal, the producer behind albums by Rosanne Cash, Shawn Colvin and Marc Cohn. Last month, Lauderdale teamed up for separate sessions with Elvis Costello and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. The collaboration with Costello yielded a song, “I Lost You,” slated for Costello’s upcoming album, “National Ransom”; virtually all of the other songs on the album were written by Costello alone. With Hunter, Lauderdale wrote 18 songs for Lauderdale’s next release, a bluegrass album titled “Reason & Rhyme” scheduled for release this winter. Last week found Lauderdale writing a song with Exene Cervenka, singer of the punk band, X.”It falls into my lap,” Lauderdale said of his extensive activity as a co-writer. “I get asked to do it a lot, and when I have time, I schedule it.”Lauderdale, a native of the Carolinas whose mother taught piano and chorus, became obsessed with music early in life. After hearing the Beatles, he got deeply interested in the rest of the British Invasion groups. By first grade, “It was a metaphysical experience. And it expanded from there,” he said, as he explored the soul and r&b he heard on the radio, the country and bluegrass that was all over the mid-South, seminal blues artists like Howling Wolf and John Lee Hooker, and the more experimental stuff – Zappa, John McLaughlin, Gram Parsons – he discovered while working as a DJ at a college radio station. At the North Carolina School of the Arts, Lauderdale was nominally part of the drama department. “But music was kind of my first love,” he said. “I didn’t read music and didn’t study it. But I didn’t have the drive and burning desire to be an actor like I did for music.”Instead of studying formally, Lauderdale engaged in a dorm-room writing session with fellow student Kevin Atkinson, his first collaborator. After a stretch in New York City, where he wrote some with Leventhal, he relocated to Nashville, and wrote songs for George Strait, the Dixie Chicks and Patty Loveless. In Tennessee, Lauderdale learned that collaborative writing had a long and entrenched tradition, and he sought out writing partners, including Harlan Howard, who had written the Patsy Cline hit “I Fall to Pieces”; and Melba Montgomery, who had sung numerous duets with one of Lauderdale’s heroes, George Jones.The extensive collaborating seems to have fostered a diversity in Lauderdale’s own music. While he is routinely placed in the Americana category – he has become the regular host of the Americana Music Awards – Lauderdale has found many different corners of that realm. He has made a series of albums that stick close to bluegrass traditions; “Lost in the Lonesome Pines,” a 2002 collaboration with bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley, earned a Grammy for Best Bluegrass album, an honor he repeated with 2008’s “The Bluegrass Diaries.” He collaborated with the roots-rock band Donna the Buffalo for the 2003 album “Wait ‘Til Spring”; “The Hummingbirds,” another album from 2002, was uptempo electric country-rock.After earning acclaim for his writing and for his own albums, Lauderdale largely stopped seeking out writing partners. But when he signed on to make “Lost in the Lonesome Pines” with Stanley, it struck him that Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, the principal songwriting team in the Grateful Dead, had been big fans of the Stanley Brothers, Ralph’s duo with his brother, Carter. Lauderdale called up Hunter and together they wrote two songs for the album, then another two for “The Hummingbirds.”That partnership has kicked into high gear. “Patchwork River,” released in May, was a full-album collaboration. The album, which leaned toward old-time rock with a bluesy element, featured former Elvis Presley sideman, drummer Ron Tutt, and guitarist James Burton, on several tracks. Lauderdale and Hunter teamed up again this past summer to write the songs for “Reason & Rhyme,” which was recorded in one day with an A-team of pickers: banjoist Scott Vestal, mandolinists Mike Compton and Tim Crouch.”I’m a slow lyric writer, generally,” said Lauderdale, who got attracted to the Grateful Dead during the band’s early-’70s folkie period. “With Hunter, when it clicks it’s a much quicker process. Melodies are the things that come to me very frequently. I’ll get an idea for a lyric, but it will take me a lot longer to finish that.”

The inaugural 7908: The Aspen Songwriters Festival, co-produced by the Wheeler Opera House and John Oates, runs through Sunday, Sept. 19. Friday’s events include the New Voices Songwriters Circle, featuring Jill Andrews, Nathan McEuen, Reed Waddle and Mason Reed, at 5:15 p.m.; A Tribute to Jeff Barry, at 6:30 p.m.; Psychedelic Furs singer Richard Butler, at 8 p.m.; and the Triple Threat, with Oates, Sam Bush and David Bromberg, at 9:30 p.m. An 8:30 p.m. concert at Steve’s Guitars, in Carbondale, will feature four singer-songwriters.Highlights on Saturday, Sept. 18 include performances by Tift Merritt and Allen Toussaint, and afternoon sets at the Red Onion and the J-Bar by local musicians Dan Sheridan, Obadiah Jones, Michael Jude & John Michel, and others.Highlights for Sunday, Sept. 19 include a performance by the duo Garfunkel & Oates, a festival-closing concert featuring Oates and Jimmy Wayne, and afternoon sets at the Red Onion and J-Bar.For full program details, go to