Whenever I approach the music of Jim Lauderdale I find myself reconsidering that question that we’ve all mulled over at one time or anther: Just what is bluegrass, anyway?
It’s the instruments, I guess, though it’s not just that—the Punch Brothers look like a bluegrass band, for example, but they aren’t. It also has something to do with content, though there are so many great folk/singer-songwriter songs that have found their way beautifully into a bluegrass setting, such as Kate Wolf’s “Across the Great Divide,” or Gillian Welch’s “Winter’s Come and Gone.” I suppose structure has something to do with it, but again, there are lots of exceptions to any rules we might suggest.
But the thing that jars with Lauderdale isn’t those things—he’s got the right instruments, and tends to stick to the right structures—but rather his approach to the music. He just doesn’t come at the music from the same place that so many others do. The suit is a tipoff. Always in a Nudie-inspired suit, Lauderdale is a musician who comes to bluegrass via Nashville rather than Roanoke, and he comes seeking the bluster of the music rather than the humility.
That may sound unkind, though certainly not any less kind than some of the things I’ve heard him say from stage about other, less famous musicians. So, assuming that he can take it, I’d say this: he is a musician that seems to be forever on the lookout for the latest bandwagon, or the next good set of coattails, to hitch a ride on. He’s certainly found a lot of them in the last while. He recorded with the jam band Donna and the Buffalo when they were at their peak. He recorded with Ralph Stanley, and gushed over “Dr. Ralph” much as a used car salesman gushes over a client. Live, it was just uncomfortable. And on Carolina Moonrise he’s working once again with Robert Hunter, the lyricist for the Grateful Dead, presumably for the audience that the association with Hunter can bring more than his writing.
The bands Lauderdale brings together for his recording projects are the best money can buy, and that’s exactly how he gets them. Does it matter? I think it does when he pulls the focus from so many other more deserving musicians. It rankles that he has been nominated for three Best Bluegrass Album Grammies and has won two. When Steve Martin chose to tour and then record with the Steep Canyon Rangers, he exhibited a graciousness and a level of care for the music that Lauderdale appears unfamiliar with.
In any event, this latest effort continues in the same vein as his previous work. The band is only A-list, with Josh Williams notably on guitar, Tim Crouch on fiddle, and Scott Vestal on banjo. As a result, the quality of the musicianship is as good as it gets. Aaron Ramsey’s mandolin is radiant throughout; Josh Williams is, well, Josh Williams … perfect. The production, as well, is spotless.
What the album lacks is an overall sincerity. In Lauderdale’s country records, such as Country Super Hits Vol. 1 he’s more at home, vocally and thematically, with the camp and swagger of country music. His vocal swoops, his torch and twang, are matched by the lap steel, the electric runs, and the Nashville feel. Critics have noted that in songs like “I Met Jesus in a Bar” he approaches parody, and I think that’s true, and I don’t doubt that it’s a conscious effort.
But he does that on this new album as well, and it’s less welcome. “Troublemaker” has a vocal and a theme that Hank Williams would find comfortable, though the musical setting is bluegrass. Elsewhere, he sings of outlaws (“Cole Bernier”) or presents new country music thinly veiled as bluegrass (“On the Level”). These kinds of things are what niggle, prompting thoughts on what makes this material different from what we find from other bluegrass musicians. Other songs work better, such as “Happiness” and “I Won’t Let it Show”—it would be wrong to suggest that there aren’t some fine moments on this album, again thanks largely, if not entirely, to the band that Lauderdale has assembled.
But the best bluegrass musicians don’t wear the music like a costume, though that’s what it can feel like Lauderdale is doing. Worse, it seems that it’s a costume that he puts on when he’s in the mood for a Grammy—he’s never won for any of his more abundant country recordings—and this project lacks the honesty, sincerity, and the close personal themes that so many of us prize as a core feature of bluegrass music.