While James Brown may still be "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business," singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale holds the less-publicized and heretofore uncrowned title of "Busiest Man in Americana Music." It often seems the 47-year-old needs a guitar in his hand in order to breathe.
Part of what keeps Lauderdale busy is an endless supply of collaborative projects. He's provided vocals for recordings by Buddy Miller, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Lucinda Williams, Dwight Yoakum and San Diego's own Americana chanteuse Eve Selis, but his first true, long-playing partnership came with the 1999 release of I Feel Like Singing Today, a Grammy-nominated collaboration with bluegrass legends Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys.
Singing Today went so well that in 2002 the group recorded a sequel, Lost in the Lonesome Pines. That album was also nominated for a Grammy, and it won. The same year, Lauderdale was named Entertainer of the Year by the Americana Music Association. Now comes Headed for the Hills, which sets Lauderdale's melodies to the lyrics of Robert Hunter, who co-wrote such Grateful Dead classics as "Truckin'," "Uncle John's Band," "Casey Jones" and "Sugar Magnolia."
The Busiest Man in Americana Music grew up in North Carolina, just down the road from the boyhood home of Earl Scruggs, before moving to Nashville in the late-'70s with aspirations of becoming a bluegrass performer. Thanks to his ability to write a good song, the city's most reputed industry has paid his bills. Lauderdale's songs have been covered by Sweethearts of the Rodeo, George Strait, Mark Chestnutt, Patty Loveless, Kathy Mattea and The Dixie Chicks.
But after a decade of recording his own brand of country, Lauderdale returned to bluegrass. It brought him to Ralph Stanley, which, in turn, brought him to Hunter. Lauderdale first became familiar with Hunter while attending a boarding school between Chapel Hill and Durham called Carolina Friends.
"I was renting a room from a teacher," Lauderdale recalls, "and he had American Beauty and Workingman's Dead. The Dead came to Duke that year and I got to see them, and I just couldn't get enough of those records."
When Lauderdale began work on his first album with Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, he thought of Robert Hunter. "I knew that he and Jerry Garcia were big Stanley Brothers fans," he says. "And I just thought, I'll try to get a hold of Robert Hunter, tell him I'm working on this record and see if he'll send me some lyrics.
"I thought, Hey, this is so crazy that it just might work."
It did. Hunter sent lyrics for a song named "Joy, Joy, Joy." Lauderdale wrote the melody, sent the tune back to Hunter on cassette, and received the lyrics to "I Will Wait For You" in return. Both songs wound up on Singing Today, and the result was pleasing enough to both men that Hunter traveled to Nashville for a visit.
"I'd never met him," Lauderdale says, "and he decided to make a trip because so many of his influences musically had come out of Nashville years earlier. He's a real authority on old bluegrass, current bluegrass and old country music, so I would go to where he was staying and sit down and talk to him.
"I started coming up with these melodies, and then I'd tape them-while we were sitting there-and I'd come up with one to three melodies at a shot. And then I'd go away for a day or two. When I would come back, Robert would have a whole lyric finished. So we got about 34 tunes written in the six weeks he was there."
At some point during that month and a half, the obvious struck-that Lauderdale should put this collaboration on an album. Thirteen songs were chosen, then recorded with a supporting cast of Americana stalwarts, including Darrell Scott, Tim O'Brien, Buddy Miller, David Rawlings, Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris and Allison Moorer, most of whom, like Lauderdale, are Nashville residents.
"That is one of the luxuries of living there," Lauderdale says. "I mean, there's just so many good pickers. I think sometimes people get a negative view of Nashville because they don't like the current state of commercial country music, but [the city] is rich with all sorts of people."
With four collaborations in the past five years, might another partnership with Hunter be in the works? What will become of the 20-odd songs that have yet to be released?
"There's some other winners in that batch," Lauderdale says.
Jim Lauderdale plays with Mary Chapin Carpenter at Humphrey's by the Bay, 7:30 p.m. on June 16. $45. 619-523-1010.