Outside Looking In

Jim Lauderdale is a living lesson in how to profit from Nashville's fringes

Jim Lauderdale will be the first to tell you that, try as he may, he lacks the goods for Nashville mega-stardom. After all, the prolific singer/songwriter knows himself better than any Music City image-maker could ever hope to.

"The more I'm just myself, the better off I am," says Lauderdale. "I really don't know what else would work."

First among Lauderdale's supposed deficiencies is that voice, a dusky, substantial tenor that can dip to a shivery baritone when the mood beckons -- no doubt siphoning a tic or two from one of Lauderdale's heroes, George Jones. Loaded with character, if far from technically stunning, that voice has irked countless critics who otherwise lauded his studio work over the last seven years (including the recent Whisper, perhaps his best release yet). Still, it's a nice voice, a friendly voice -- even downright homey. But it's a bit too rugged and imperfect to set the hearts of young suburban housewives defibrillating.

Then there's the matter of Lauderdale's image: He has none. More aging rocker than rodeo Romeo, the earthy 41-year-old has a distinct culturally mixed look about him -- a little like a Carolina cousin of Robbie Robertson (Lauderdale grew up near Charlotte, North Carolina). Frankly, he's too weathered, exotic and just plain unruly to fit the clean-cut rebel composite of country hunkdom. Really, what self-respecting hat act would be nuts enough to wear paisley pants to a photo shoot for his latest CD, let alone leave the tails of his fancy, embroidered western shirt flapping in the wind for the cover pic?

It's not as though Lauderdale hasn't heard all of this before -- over and over. "It does get to [me] a little bit, but you just get used to it," he says. "Because it happens every record."

In fact, Lauderdale has had more than a decade to adjust to the fact that he may never conquer Nashville, the city he currently calls home. That may explain why he spends so much time away from the place, and why he makes a good portion of his living behind the scenes, supplying some of the richest raw material to keep the business humming profitably. He's written number-one singles for the high-profile likes of Mark Chestnutt, Vince Gill, Patty Loveless and George Strait. Specifically, Strait has already tapped Lauderdale's seemingly endless supply of intelligent, ready-made C&W hits nine times. That list includes such classics as "Where the Sidewalk Ends" and "The King of Broken Hearts," both of which first appeared on Lauderdale's 1991 Planet of Love debut.

To be honest, there's no good reason why Lauderdale's own rendition of the instantly memorable twang-pop and straight-up romantic sentiments of "Goodbye Song," from Whisper, shouldn't be chasing the latest single from Strait's new CD right up the charts. But so far, it hasn't shown signs of such success. Released in February -- with a healthy push from his new label, BNA Records -- neither Whisper nor "Goodbye Song" (co-authored by C&W legend Harlan Howard) has made a ripple on the charts. "It just hasn't done anything," laments the artist's publicist, Lisa Shively.

Shively -- like many behind-the-scenesters in Nashville -- is gunning for Lauderdale, not only as his PR flack but as a fan. She sounds dejected when handing out such bad news, like a wife telling relatives her husband didn't snag the promotion he'd spent months smooching duff for. She has every right to be blue: Whisper is Lauderdale's most shameless bid for pure country respectability, employing well-seasoned songwriting machines Howard, Frank Dycus, Melba Montgomery and John Scott Sherrill -- not to mention his old running buddy Buddy Miller -- to help compose most of the album's material. Lauderdale then turned to producer Blake Chancey (David Ball) to give his hard-swinging Bakersfield primer a slick coat of Nashville refinement.

Most likely, though, for all its polished, radio-friendly virtues and plain-as-day hook sense, Whisper will wind up taking its place among the most commercially undervalued country releases of the decade. And for their part, critics will continue to gravitate toward the least-mainstream aspects of Lauderdale's muse. In Whisper's case, that would be the bluegrass-leaning ditty that closes the album, "I'll Lead You Home," which features backup from Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. Tacked to the end of the streamlined collection, this rustic, spiritual ditty seems out of place yet somehow right at home. Much like its maker.

The only one in the Lauderdale camp who doesn't seem down about Whisper's paltry showing thus far is Lauderdale himself; he's simply too busy to care. Between trips to Europe, road work here in the States, special appearances with various friends, colleagues and mentors in the biz and his regular tai chi classes, he has had very little time to mull over Whisper's fate.

On this particular Monday, the artist's restless lifestyle has taken a toll on his health. Just in from Europe Friday, Lauderdale is suffering the effects of jet lag, which causes him to zone out at choice moments in a phone conversation. He's also nursing a badly swollen left hand, which he slammed on a banister while running up the stairs of his home. Both conditions were doubtless exacerbated by a breathless weekend jaunt to North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, where he performed with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys at the Merlefest folk and bluegrass extravaganza.

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