Forever on the Outside

Jim Lauderdale calls them "recording-artist horror stories," and he can reel off a litany of them based on his own experiences as a singer/songwriter who's steeped in raw honky-tonk as well as blues, rock, soul, bluegrass, and R&B. "The longer I'm in the business, the more I realize there are so many big and little things that can go wrong and prevent your record from doing well," says the 39-year-old Lauderdale during a phone interview just before he takes off on a U.S. tour, opening for Mary Chapin Carpenter. "I've definitely had my bouts of frustration and depression over it all, but I'm pretty philosophical about it," he continues, laughing slightly. "As the Nietzsche saying goes: All of these false starts and hardships and the lessons I've been learning have actually strengthened me."

If that's the case, he should be a strong man by now, for Jim Lauderdale has watched several fine albums -- beginning with 1991's brilliant Reprise disc Planet of Love -- fade into a special part of oblivion where Nashville keeps its more, um, challenging artists. After that '91 set failed to break him, Reprise sent Lauderdale packing. A deal was worked up with Atlantic, where he cut the two finest albums of his career -- 1994's Pretty Close to the Truth, and Every Second Counts from '95. Both were commercial flops, and Lauderdale was again dropped. And in a way, it seemed from the start that Lauderdale's future was gloomy: His debut album, a 1988 recording for CBS with Dwight Yoakam guitarslinger Pete Anderson, was deemed unsuitable for the ears of country fans and was shelved.

"That was very sad," Lauderdale sighs. "Pete felt like we had eight smash hits on it and these guys at CBS didn't hear any singles, so it's just sitting there. It was just one of those horror stories where the guy that signs you to the deal, who is your champion and your cheerleader, got transferred to the Los Angeles branch of the label just as I was turning in the album. And the old guard in Nashville just didn't get it. Hopefully someday it'll come out." Lauderdale lets loose another laugh: "All those guys are gone now."

Lauderdale's problem, at least in the eyes and ears of that old guard, is that he isn't what you'd call an easily classified artist. Able to shift effortlessly from raw, tear-stained honky-tonkers such as "The King of Broken Hearts" to the soul-tinged "Always on the Outside," from the swaggering pseudorockabilly of "It's Time When It's Time" to an aching ballad like "Nobody's Perfect," Lauderdale has never conformed to the expectations of country-music executives and radio programmers. Even the Adult Alternative Album format, which was designed in theory to provide airspace for genre-bending songwriters like Lauderdale, has turned a deaf ear to him.

"I've always consciously wanted each record to be different, to be kind of experimental and stretch the boundaries," Lauderdale explains, although he knows that adventurousness has a price. "When I wrote 'Always on the Outside' with Nick Lowe [from Every Second Counts], that's the way I was feeling. It was like, well, the country market perceives me as being too left of center -- too rock -- and the Triple-A radio crowd sometimes would just write me off as being a country guy, so they wouldn't play me. So I felt like I was always on the outside of everything, that I didn't have any kind of niche anywhere. But we turned it into a love song. I didn't want to be too self-pitying or anything."

Rather than wallowing in self-pity, Lauderdale is simply doing what he's always done. For his most recent release, last year's Persimmons, Lauderdale assembled an eclectic set of rockers and weepers that he produced in bare-bones fashion with Tim Coats. The album was released as a one-off deal with the indie label Upstart, a branch of the Rounder distribution tree. "It's something I've been working on in bits and pieces over the last few years," he says. "It doesn't fall very neatly into any category, but I really loved the songs and wanted to get the album made. I didn't want to get tied up in a five-album deal with Upstart, so they let me do a one-album deal with them."

Although it takes a few steps away from the bold, rock- and soul-infused arrangements of Every Second Counts, Persimmons is nevertheless a stunning showcase of Lauderdale's effective vocals (think Buck Owens meets Gram Parsons) and evocative songwriting. The fifteen songs chronicle his diverse influences, which span the gamut from searing hard rock ("Jupiter's Rising") to smoldering ballads ("Nobody's Perfect"), and classic country-and-western ("Some Things Are Too Good to Last," a gorgeous duet with Emmylou Harris).

Some of those influences were acquired while he was growing up a minister's son in Statesville, North Carolina. Lauderdale was playing drums by age eleven, then moved to blues harmonica, banjo, and acoustic guitar. By the time he arrived in New York in the early Eighties, where a thriving country scene was developing that would produce the likes of Shawn Colvin and Lauderdale's ace guitarist Buddy Miller, Lauderdale had assimilated everything from country and blues to bluegrass and rock. "I'd hear somebody who would really catch my attention and I would go there," he explains. "The first time I heard the Beatles, it changed my life, just like the first time I heard Ralph Stanley and Muddy Waters and Flatt and Scruggs. I used to play along with John Lee Hooker records, too. When you hear somebody that knocks your socks off, it's hard to get away from it."

It was during his time in New York that Lauderdale's vision snapped into focus. "There was a little community of writers and pickers up there for a few years that was just great," he recalls. "During that time I was doing straight-ahead country and some bluegrass stuff, and in my few attempts to get a country deal I felt like I was beating my head against a wall. So I started experimenting with different things and said, 'Screw it, I'll just do what I want.' I had been raised on a lot of other types of music, so I started to explore them."

The demos he cut in New York have never been released, but anyone lucky enough to hear them will find that Lauderdale's artistry is startlingly complete. (And someone should really tell George Jones about "Honky-Tonk Haze." It's a natural for him.) By the time Lauderdale had relocated to Los Angeles in the late Eighties, where another underground honky-tonk network had developed, Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle had already hipped Nashville to the sales potential of tough, uncompromising country. A move to Music City was imminent, if somewhat reluctantly done. "I had made a few trips there over the years," Lauderdale says, "but I was always afraid to move there. I figured that I was already struggling, and if I moved there and nothing happened, it was just going to devastate me. I went out to L.A. instead, but over the last few years I've been spending more and more time in Nashville doing demos and building up my song catalogue. And because I'm on the road so much, I wound up living there by default."

With the Upstart disc out of the way, Lauderdale has been busy preparing his next album, his first for RCA and his fourth shot at major-label success. Lauderdale is optimistic. "It's almost like a concept album," he says of the as-yet-untitled affair, which is slated for an early 1998 release and will include a guest shot by bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley and songs co-written by Lauderdale and honky-tonk songwriting legend Harlan Howard. "I'm making a country album that I can hear on the radio and that I would want to hear on the radio. Some of the songs I think will be hits and others are more classic-sounding. Some of it's going to be stretching the boundaries a little bit as far as what we think is or isn't country. I think it's going to fit somewhere, because it seems that people are looking for something a little bit different."

Jim Lauderdale performs Friday, April 25, with headliner Mary Chapin Carpenter at the Sunrise Musical Theatre, 5555 95th Ave, Sunrise; 954-741-7300. Tickets cost $18, $25, and $29. Showtime is 8:00 p.m.