Outside Looking In

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.

"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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Hobart Rowland