In the increasingly crass realm of country music, Jim Lauderdale is indeed a class act. And that praise doesn't apply to just his music. In this game of critical appreciation (or approbation, for that matter), taking the measure of a man's music by taking the measure of the man himself rarely works out to a pat karmic equation. In other words, the person is rarely as good as the art he produces.
Jim Lauderdale is an exception to this not-so-golden rule. A number of years back during South by Southwest, about a dozen or so folks, including Lauderdale, were having dinner at Manuel's, one of Austin's pricier Mexican eateries. When the check came, before anyone could even get to their wallet, Lauderdale pulled out his AmEx card and picked up the entire tab. He had no reason to feel obligated to buy everyone dinner. He did it because he's a cool cat.
Mind you, it's not that Lauderdale can't afford a plate of enchiladas or 20. Of all the artists who are too hip for the Music City marketing machine and so-called country radio, Lauderdale has enjoyed the most success as a songwriter, especially in scoring a number of George Strait cuts among his many Nashville star covers. So when someone who has enjoyed such success displays such munificence, it does indicate something about the spirit behind the artist's creativity.
There's indeed a kindness, gentility and generosity in Lauderdale's music. A veteran of the 1980s Los Angeles country scene that yielded Lucinda Williams and Dwight Yoakam, Lauderdale was obviously a special talent from his very first record in 1991, Planet of Love (produced by the equally gracious Rodney Crowell). Like Lauderdale's onstage predilection for flashy vintage-style duds, his music dresses up country roots in stylish and sophisticated garb. His songs may be fashioned from the old oak of rural music, but they're varnished to a modern beauty that remains pure and natural while also being smart and, well, classy.
After taking a stab at the commercial country market with his album Whisper -- maybe not Lauderdale's best, if only because discs like Planet of Love and Pretty Close to the Truth are so superb, but certainly one of the most tasteful Nashville albums since the ascent of Darth Brooks -- he's been exploring the music for its own sake on his subsequent projects. His 1999 collaboration with bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley, I Feel Like Singing Today, far outshone The Mountain, Steve Earle's disc with the Del McCoury Band, mostly because it was a genuine creative union rather than a grafting of an artist's consciousness onto a musical style.
Lauderdale's latest, The Other Sessions, finds him exploring honky-tonk music. It's probably indicative of his niceness that the songs are more about love than the usual barroom fare such as drinking, cheating and heartache. But it's a measure of Lauderdale's talent that he can make the honky-tonk style sweet and romantic without ever betraying the concept.
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