Music Reviews

posted: July 3, 2017

Jim Lauderdale London Southern

Proper Records, CD
Jim Lauderdale

I first interviewed Jim Lauderdale 20 years ago. During the course of our conversation, we went to the Nashville music club the Station Inn. He was eager to catch a set by his dear pal and mentor, bluegrass icon Ralph Stanley. Lauderdale drove a nondescript late-model car—functional, but nothing fancy. With his shag hair, suit trousers, and plain western shirt, he seemed as low-key as his vehicle. If you didn’t know his backstory, you could easily miss the fact that he reigned as one of the most commercially successful songwriters in Nashville.

Indeed, Lauderdale boasts a fascinating history. As a solo artist, he has recorded many projects for myriad labels over the course of a modest but vibrant career. As a stellar tunesmith, however, he’s won the mailbox money lottery, penning material for a plethora of artists including hits for trad-country singers Patty Loveless and the great George Jones. Lauderdale’s songs are also all over George Strait’s watershed Pure Country soundtrack.

On his own recordings, Lauderdale freely follows his muse. Equally at home in bluegrass, rock n’ roll, folk and blues, he’s an artist steeped in country’s hallowed past as well as its most progressive innovations. For his newest album, London Southern, Lauderdale combines his deep love for vintage soul and R&B with classic 60s pop.

He gets smart assistance from Neil Brockbank, a producer-engineer best known for his lengthy collaboration with British pop legend Nick Lowe. Lauderdale also enlisted the latter’s touring band to back him in the studio. This stellar crew proves an inspired choice to bring the material to life—the musicianship is first-rate, the energy crisp and alive.

A tinkling piano and walking bass line pulse through the soulful plea “Sweet Time,” a marriage between a Ray Price shuffle and the Fats Domino hit “Blueberry Hill.” The satin-smooth “I Love You More” comes across as vintage pre-rock orchestral pop, a quiet storm of shimmering strings and yearning vocals. As a singer, Lauderdale’s crackly but light voice has deepened and grown more assured with age. The lyrics to “If I Can’t Resist” feel simple—the song’s narrator is a besotted wannabe Romeo begging his prospective lover for a kiss and “amore.” Singing against a sultry bossa nova beat, Lauderdale aches with desire. “My world is in your hands,” he confesses, his emotions laid bare.

Lauderdale also knows his history. He evinces a deep penchant for vintage soul and rhythm and blues, evoking legends such as Marvin Gaye and Wilson Pickett on the steamy slow-burn “Different Kind of Groove Some Time.” Tooting horns and jazzy guitar licks punctuate “You Came to Get Me,” a dollop of breezy and effortless pop. The vocal owes a debt to Irish icon Van Morrison.

Lauderdale sounds equally effective on “What Have You Got to Lose,” an upbeat gospel-influenced number that harks back to the call-and-response harmonies of the Staple Singers. By extension, “Don’t Shut Me Down” gets infused with the classic Bakersfield Sound, right down to the chicken-pickin’ Fender guitars. It serves as a mighty homage to Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, the style’s most famous pioneers.

“We’ve only got so much time here,” Lauderdale sings on the song of the same name. “Life’s going by like a race/And I hope I’m not too late.” In terms of his output, the prolific Lauderdale need not worry. London Southern makes for a fine entry in a well-spent career that shows no sign of letting up.

–Chrissie Dickinson