Uncle Jim's Band 

Jim Lauderdale's latest collaborative album proves that Robert Hunter's lyrics work just as wel outside the context of The Grateful Dead

Jim Lauderdale's latest collaborative album proves that Robert Hunter's lyrics work just as wel outside the context of The Grateful Dead

Jim Lauderdale

Headed for the Hills (Sugar Hill)

Playing May 12 at

the Station Inn

Unlike most successful Nashville songwriters who learn early on that variety and adaptability are key, Jim Lauderdale is a stylist. Whether he's writing a honky-tonker or a bluegrass tune, he likes to stretch a word or two over several bars while quickly snapping off the rest of the line.

This device gives Lauderdale's songs their flavor, and it works particularly well for country singers, gives them an opportunity to add drama or color to a lyric. Think of how animated a laid-back guy like George Strait sounds when singing "I Really Shouldn't Be Doing This." Stretching out the word "dooooing" gives the line a devilish feel that reflects the mind-set of someone who knows he's breaking the rules, but loves the moment nonetheless.

This elastic quality is common to Lauderdale's prodigious body of recordings as well, and emphasizing the lurching rhythms of his tunes gives his vocal work a sound of its own, too. In recent years, though, Lauderdale's creative restlessness has found him turning constantly to new collaborators, which forces him to break out of any formulas he consciously or unconsciously might have developed. On his new Headed for the Hills, he co-writes each song with Robert Hunter, the California lyricist best known for co-writing with The Grateful Dead, including such classics as "Truckin'," "Dark Star" and "Touch of Grey."

It's Lauderdale's fourth collaborative effort in five years, following two albums with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys (1999's I Feel Like Singing Today and 2002's Lost in the Lonesome Pines) and last year's Wait 'Til Spring with the jam band Donna the Buffalo. These albums moved Lauderdale in new directions. Although he's always been influenced by bluegrass, the albums with Stanley took him deeper into a mountain sound than he'd ever ventured, while working with Donna the Buffalo opened up his sound, giving his tunes a funky looseness different from the concise arrangements he usually employs.

Headed for the Hills, however, is the first album where Lauderdale turns over the writing of lyrics to someone else. The move speaks of his respect for Hunter's work—something that isn't evident on the surface, because Lauderdale's music sounds so different from the Dead's open-ended, ensemble jams. But this record reveals the influence that Hunter's writing has had on Lauderdale, for it sounds remarkably similar to Lauderdale's previous solo work. Had Hunter's role been hidden, Headed for the Hills could easily have passed for an album Lauderdale composed on his own.

Sure, it features some strange departures: The cartoonish Trashcan Tomcat and the epic Civil War narrative Sandy Ford aren't like any songs Lauderdale has written. But considering his experimental nature, it would be easy to imagine Lauderdale taking on such ideas and, stylistically, they fit his approach. Hunter uses the same kind of allegorical mysticism and impish wordplay that makes Lauderdale's writing so elusive yet so rich.

Ultimately, though, the album proves that Hunter's lyrics can work well outside the context of The Grateful Dead. The point's been made before. Bob Dylan has co-written with Hunter, including the song "Silvio," one of Dylan's best-known songs from the '80s. But the Californian's work has always been synonymous with one band. Lauderdale proves that needn't be the case. n


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