One of the most respected songwriters in the suddenly-chic genre called Americana had been chasing the dream of a recording deal ten years when he finally found success through the backdoor to Nashville at age 35.
Jim Lauderdale, 57, who visits Dosey Doe's satellite Music Cafe in Conroe Friday night, struggled for a decade in New York -- even working as a messenger for Rolling Stone magazine -- and Los Angeles before finally hitting the big time in 1992 when two of his songs, "King of Broken Hearts" and "Where the Sidewalk Ends"" from his first album Planet of Love, were selected by Tony Brown and George Strait for the soundtrack of Strait's movie, Pure Country.
The North Carolina native, who majored in drama in college, had already cut his first album, The Point of No Return, for Columbia in 1990 but it was shelved (although later released once Lauderdale had some success).
"It was a Bakersfield sound album and they just never had faith in it doing anything, that old 'too country' thing," says Lauderdale. "I couldn't figure out what I was doing wrong, but I definitely wasn't going over commercially in country music."
He moved on to Reprise Records, which released Planet of Love in 1991. While that album, produced by Rodney Crowell and John Leventhal, did not chart or catch on with country radio, it did get Lauderdale's songs placed with up-and-coming publishing company Bluewater Music, which was owned by Houstonian Brownlee Ferguson.
"My manager took them Planet of Love and Brownlee liked it, so they signed me and took over my catalog," Lauderdale recalls. "I was attached to their Nashville office, but I was still living in L.A. at the time, still just wanting to be a major-label recording star."
Reprise wasn't interested in recording another album, but with Strait recording two songs from Planet of Love, Lauderdale's career options looked brighter than ever. Atlantic Records took a chance on him, releasing Pretty Close to the Truth (1994) and Every Second Counts (1995). Though both are rock-solid in hindsight, neither album charted and he was released again. His recordings may have been going nowhere, but Lauderdale's songwriting income was exploding as Vince Gill and others took notice.
"Vince putting "Sparkle" on his Pocketful of Gold album was a huge break for me as far as Nashville recognition," he says. "That made me so much more visible as a writer."
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Lauderdale has since released more than 20 albums and while he has found some chart success, mostly with the New West Records release Buddy and Jim with longtime cohort Buddy Miller -- he remains largely unknown outside Americana/bluegrass circles.
"Through these things that didn't pan out on a larger scale, other good things happened because of them," he observes. "I've gotten to record with my bluegrass idol, Ralph Stanley, and I've been able to branch out by writing with guys like Robert Hunter, who wrote a lot of Grateful Dead stuff.
"Things just kept opening up to me even though they were never on that path I always thought I would follow, which was a major-label record deal," he adds.
Lauderdale, who has written five albums with Hunter, comes to town pushing his latest effort, the 20-track I'm a Song, released recently on Sky Crunch Records.
"I've always wanted to do a double album," he explains, "but we'd run out of studio time and I'd only have 14 or 15 songs. This time I got there."
The new album also contains a fresh recording of "King of Broken Hearts."
"People ask me where they can buy that all the time but it's out of print, so it made sense to put it on here so people can buy it again," he notes.
About the new album, Lauderdale says it has something for everyone.
"There's straight country, there's some stuff that's a bit more up-tempo, almost rocking, and there are the ballads," he explains. "I like to push myself, go beyond whatever boundaries I run into that seem like they can stop me. I think I did that on the new one.
"I like to work fast and keep things fresh and moving in the studio," says Lauderdale.
He notes that he's had trouble with management and labels over the years "because I'm kinda unmanageable. Mostly the issue is always that I want to do more than just record one album a year and then tour hard on that one record.
"Would I be better off if I did that? I don't know, but I'm sure I wouldn't be enjoying it the way I am now," Lauderdale laughs. "Frank Davis, my distributor, he's fine if I want to do two or three records a year. So that's what seems to happen."
Asked about his next project, Lauderdale gets excited in spite of not feeling up to par.
"Buddy Miller and I are going to produce a Ralph Stanley album in November," says Lauderdale. "That's about as good as it gets."
Jim Lauderdale and special guest Milk Drive perform Friday night at Dosey Doe Music Cafe, 463 F.M.1488 in Conroe. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.
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