Outside Looking In

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

"Man, I must have just dozed off," Lauderdale cracks at one point, his funky sense of humor saving him the embarrassment of semi-coherence. "I was going to take this tai chi workshop, but then this thing came up with Ralph ... he was one of my ultimate heroes ever since I was a kid. I got into the dressing room about five minutes before they were supposed to go on, and they say, 'Oh good, you're here. [Ralph's son] is sick, so you're going to fill in for him. I just kind of froze. We did a couple of sets, and it was probably one of the greatest experiences of my life."

And what about his hand? "I'll tell ya," he laughs, "I didn't even notice."
Lauderdale ought to be in fine shape for his latest string of Texas dates, when he joins onetime Houston resident Clay Blaker for a double bill that promises to be anything but predictable. The two artists -- close pals and songwriting partners -- will share Blaker's Texas Honky Tonk Band, with all parties arriving at Blanco's early enough for their Friday Houston gig to rehearse Lauderdale's new material.

Friends have been easy to come by for Lauderdale, despite his mobility. Born in the little Carolina hamlet of Troutman, and brought up on a steady diet of George Jones, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and the mountain bluegrass indigenous to his home state, Lauderdale made his way to New York and Dallas before settling in Los Angeles in the mid-'80s. L.A.'s rampant superficiality might have been ill-suited to Lauderdale's rural constitution -- if he hadn't fallen in with the right people.

"I sang and played guitar in this country-rock musical, and we had a run there," he remembers. "I didn't think that I would like it or want to stay very long. But it was a good scene -- Rosie [Flores], Lucinda [Williams], Dale Watson -- a really neat writer's scene. I lived up in the hills in a real quiet place. I liked to go to the desert to write."

Curiously, Lauderdale's first real full-length recording, 1987's The Point of No Return, was a stone-cold country album produced by Pete Anderson for Epic Records. It's never been released.

"It's got a little more of a Bakersfield sound all the way through, very heavy pedal steel guitar and Telecaster. It was basically Dwight [Yoakam's] band," says Lauderdale of the release. "I like it, but the A&R guy who signed me got transferred."

Always talented enough to get a deal but never predictable enough to stay around for long, Lauderdale spent the next ten years pinballing from label to label. In 1991, he recorded the honky-tonk-flavored Planet of Love, which fizzled. "There just didn't seem to be the interest with radio," Lauderdale says. "But, ironically, eight of its songs have been recorded by other people."

Planet of Love was, in essence, Lauderdale's entree into the potentially lucrative songwriting trade, which eventually landed him in Nashville. There he shifted to Atlantic for a pair of brilliant rock-flavored releases, Every Second Counts and Pretty Close to the Truth. From there, it was on to Rounder's Upstart imprint, which released the stripped-down, poppish Persimmons in 1996.

Now, it's the BNA folks' turn to see what they can make of Lauderdale. In the meantime, he continues to churn out songs at an almost alarming rate. "I wish that I could put out more than one record a year," he says. "I wrote a few things with Jack Ingram, so hopefully they'll be on his next album," he says. "Then, when I was in Europe, a bunch of melodies came to me -- a whole bunch of bluegrass tunes came into my head. I'd just love to write a whole album for Ralph Stanley and his guys to play on."

There Lauderdale goes, waxing all eclectic and unmarketable again. Maybe he's trying to tell us something.

Jim Lauderdale performs with Clay Blaker and his Texas Honky Tonk Band at 9 p.m. Friday, May 15, at Blanco's, 3406 West Alabama. Tickets are $6. For info, call 439-0072.

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