Listening to a new Jim Lauderdale album is a little like catching up with a trusted old friend that you only get to visit once or twice a year. The encounter, without fail, leaves you feeling buoyant and renewed. As one of Nashville’s most prolific singer-songwriters and tireless multi-taskers, Lauderdale always keeps his calendar crowded with an array of genre-crossing collaborations, both on stage and in the studio.
In recent years, he’s earned a Grammy for his bluegrass outings (2007’s The Bluegrass Diaries) and recorded a pair of albums with Ralph Stanley. (In a typical Lauderdale-style change of pace, he recently toured with popular British rocker Elvis Costello.) Lauderdale’s latest bluegrass foray also represents the most recent installment of his ongoing collaboration with songwriter Robert Hunter, who for years was the principal lyricist for the Grateful Dead. Their partnership began back in 2004 when they cowrote songs that Lauderdale included on Headed For The Hills, an album he recorded with Ralph Stanley that was released that same year.
These new Lauderdale/Hunter bluegrass compositions usually hew closely to the traditional verse/chorus/refrain template that’s the heart of most bluegrass classics. Yet, the lyrics and melodies are often full of provocative surprises in the form of quirky rhyme schemes and odd narrative twists. These delightful eccentricities lend themselves well to Lauderdale’s exuberant, expansive, and thoroughly down-home vocal style. “Tiger And The Monkey,” for instance, sounds like a surrealistic update of an old Buck Owens novelty tune, while “Not Let You Go” is a haunting and enigmatic story-song shot with dark mystery. On the other hand, “Don’t Tempt The Devil” is a lovely, traditional-sounding ballad and “Fields Of The Lord” is a revved-up, but reverent gospel ode. The wistful, plaintive title tune also packs a powerful emotional jolt.
Lauderdale is joined on Reason And Rhyme by another long-time collaborator, award-winning resonator guitarist Randy Kohrs, who produced and (along with bassist Jay Weaver) mixed the album, while also playing and singing harmonies throughout. Other featured players are: Mike Compton on mandolin, Scott Vestal on banjo, Tim Crouch on fiddle, and Clay Hess on acoustic guitar. (Sugar Hill, P.O. Box 120897, Nashville, TN 37212, www.sugarhillrecords.com.) BA