Match of the (song writing) titans

Some songwriters decide to focus on one style, which tends to make their work exist only in that genre. That doesn't apply to Jim Lauderdale, who has penned songs and produced records that have permeated the scenes of Nashville country, jam-rock, bluegrass, soul, blues and alt-country. Thanks to his considerable creative energy and natural sense for song craft,  his melodies and lyrics have been recorded by George Jones, Solomon Burke, The Dixie Chicks, John Mayall, Vince Gill, George Strait and Ralph Stanley, to name just a few.

Man of many genres: Lauderdale's storied career has been versatile and full of collaborations.

That said, he's not a hired-hand songwriter; he's a full-time touring, performing musician with a successful solo career that's yielded 18 albums and numerous cross-pollinated projects with musical legends. He's in demand as a strong lead and harmony singer, no doubt owed in large part to the warm country soul character of his well-aged voice. When you add in his instrumental skills and that big book of songs, it's no wonder he's toured with the likes of Lucinda Williams, Ralph Stanley and Elvis Costello.

Lauderdale's newest recording project, entitled Patchwork River, is a song writing collaboration with the iconic Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter (in fact, it's the second studio recording for which the two have combined creative forces). Lauderdale's show at the LAB will be the N.C. record release party for the Tarheel state native. Lauderdale talked to Xpress about the new album and his ever-expanding variety of musical adventures:

Xpress: As a songwriter and singer/instrumentalist, you've been involved in many collaborations, including making a few records with Ralph Stanley. As s North Carolina native, were you indoctrinated into the bluegrass world as a child growing up around the Appalachian mountains? How did the music initially grab your attention and soul?
Lauderdale
: I had heard bluegrass growing up, but when I was 14 when the bluegrass bug hit me really hard. I was working in Flat Rock one summer and I started taking banjo lessons at the Mountain Folkways Center. I wanted to be a banjo player, but as I turned 17 I started playing guitar, and over the next five years I realized I would never be an innovator on the banjo and began writing [guitar] songs when I was 19.

How did you initiate the collaboration with Robert Hunter? He's such a monumental lyricist in American music, with a golden catalog of established work. Were you apprehensive about approaching him for a collaboration?
When I was doing the first record with Ralph Stanley (I Feel Like Singing Today), I contacted Robert and threw out the idea of doing a few songs for the record, and Robert sent me a few lyrics. He and Ralph both liked the finished product and we went from there. He's always been one of my favorite writers. I was nervous about approaching him with the idea, but it all worked out.

Regarding the new release Patchwork River, what was the modus operandi for co-writing? Does Hunter write any melodies or chord sequences, or did you offer him some lyrical themes or ideas?
It had been six years between writing sessions with Robert, and I really wanted to get back together with him. When we write, Robert usually hands me a lyric and I come up with the melody, or else I give him a melody and then he writes a lyric to it.  He's a certified genius in my book so I don't mess with any of his lyrics or add anything. He's a master.

You've written hit songs for some of the most recognized singers in Nashville. What enabled you to get a foot in the door of the Nashville publishing business?
It all started unplanned. I had made an album that didn't come out, but during that time I got a publishing deal in Nashville and started getting a few cuts.  When my first record was released, George Strait cut a few off of that one, which ended up in the movie Pure Country ("Where the Sidewalk Ends," "King of Broken Hearts").

As a singer and performer you've had some extraordinary opportunities outside of your successful solo career, including touring with Lucinda Williams and Elvis Costello. How did you meet and forge artistic alliances with those folks?
I met Lucinda Williams in L.A. when I was living out there back in '86, and started singing harmony with her. I met Elvis back then too, but it was in the last four years that I started running into him more and more at shows, and eventually started singing with him. Recently I've been doing occasional shows with his band The Sugarcanes, and we'll be going to Europe in July.

How does Patchwork River stand out from all of your previous recording projects, both in your experience in the production process and your views on the final results?
Each record I do is different in some way, and whereas Headed for the Hills was all acoustic, except for the Donna the Buffalo track, Patchwork River is all electric and a continuation of our process.  I'm real happy with it and hope folks will like it.

When not on tour with The Wiyos (www.thewiyos.com), Parrish Ellis lives in Asheville, writes songs and studies multiple idioms of American rural music, including western swing, country blues and Appalachian mountain fiddle and banjo styles.

who: Jim Lauderdale
where: Lexington Avenue Brewery
when: Sunday, June 6 (8 p.m. $25. lexavebrew.com)

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