GrassRoots at 30: The country soul of Jim Lauderdale
After making his GrassRoots debut in 1999, Jim Lauderdale quickly became a favorite of festival-goers, who flocked to his Grandstand sets to hear his powerful blend of country, soul, and bluegrass influences. He immediately found kindred spirits in Donna the Buffalo, who become his backing band at the festival and recorded the album “Wait ’Til Spring” with him in 2003.
A native of North Carolina who now lives in Nashville, Lauderdale is one of the most prolific artists in the Americana genre – he’ll be releasing his 35th (!) album on August 26 and has even more in the works. Along the way, he has won two Grammy Awards and seen his songs recorded by George Strait, Lee Ann Womack, Patty Loveless, Vince Gill, Blake Shelton, and other big country stars, which has afforded him the means to pursue his own projects.
Lauderdale will perform at the 2022 GrassRoots Festival at 6 p.m. Friday, July 22, where he’ll once again perform on the Grandstand stage with Donna the Buffalo. In a phone interview last week from his home in Nashville, he talked about his return to GrassRoots, his recent recording projects, and how he decides what to wear on stage.
Q: You’ve played GrassRoots almost every year since 1999. What does it mean to you to have been part of the festival for more than 20 years, and how has it influenced what you do, musically and otherwise?
JL: It means a lot to me. It springs from Donna the Buffalo – I've got such a love for them, and I just have this real bond with them, and I always want to keep that going for as long as I live. I want any chance I can get to play with them.
And hopefully, we'll be doing some things together. Jeb and I got together a few months ago and threw some ideas around song-wise and I hope that we can keep doing that. During the lockdown, it took me a really long time to get back into the swing of things – I wish that I would have written with Jeb more during that time. As you know, Jeb and Tara now are the only original members left in Donna the Buffalo, though David (McCracken) has been around for a while now on the keyboards, and I just love them very much and it's just always a joy to play with them
It's just a real highlight for me to get to play with them at GrassRoots. There's just something really magical about it. And we never know where it's gonna go, but I just know it’s always gonna be a transcendent experience for me.
And I really love to connect with the crowd when I'm on stage – it's such a great audience. So it just makes for a really special time.
Q: Anything else you like about GrassRoots?
JL: I had never been to a festival that had so much musical diversity, with so many different styles from other countries. And it is really so enjoyable and so inspiring to get to see that and hear that. And I really appreciate that they have such an open-minded booking policy and that they try to go for their wish list of artists, too – I just think that's great.
Q: Can you talk about your new album, “Game Changer,” coming out this fall? The first single, “That Kind Of Life (That Kind Of Day),” is pretty hardcore classic country!
JL: Yeah, that's what this album is. I kind of go in different cycles, and so I'm returning back to this kind of traditional country sound for this record. I'm really happy with it. I had started it several years ago, and then when the lockdown came along, I did another album, “Hope,” where I finally kind of started getting back into the swing of things. I wanted to write something and gather some other songs that fit to be kind of an uplifting thing during everything. Robert Hunter’s wife Maureen did a beautiful painting that I used as the cover. And then the last song that Robert heard that we wrote together, I had recorded that before COVID and sent that to him, and he and his wife really liked it. It's called “Memory,” and it's about those people that have gone on, and those people that we loved that aren't with us anymore, but how their memory can get us through.
Q: This new album will be your 35th since 1991, which is a pretty insane pace! Have you always been such a prolific songwriter from the start, or is this something that you fell into or got get better at as you went along?
JL: I had that desire when I started writing, I guess, when I was 18, or 19, and to make records, but I waited and waited. And finally, my first record came out when I was maybe 34, so it seemed like it took forever. And I just, there was part of me that felt like I needed to catch up with some of my peers – Marty Stuart, Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam, people like that. And once I started making records, I went through the ups and downs of being on a major label or having major label deals. And then after that, I just started doing independent records.
I feel like that's my job in a lot of ways is to make records, so I still have a bunch of things recorded already and things I need to finish that are recorded. And then there are different other ways I want to go recording-wise and stylistically, so as hard or nerve-wracking as the process of making them is sometimes, I still really enjoy doing it at the end of the day. And I feel like I need to do it, too. So hopefully, I'll be able to keep doing that for a while.
Q: You've kind of been lucky along the way that in fact that many people have covered your songs.
JL: That is what has allowed me to do this, really, because I feel like as far as touring, I'm still not at the place where I'm like to be. I do a lot of things – some bluegrass band shows and some with my electric band out of Nashville, and occasionally some things with the North Mississippi Allstars, and then, of course, when I get to, with Donna the Buffalo. I guess that is kind of a goal in my mind, just to be able to tour more. I do tour quite a bit, but I guess we all have those things in our minds that we feel should be should be different or whatever. So, I guess that's part of the process, too. You kind of have these goals sometimes even if you might already be doing alright, you still feel like there's something you need to achieve.
So the cuts I had covered by country artists kept me going through the years, but that's kind of run out. But it has been such a huge help because I put everything back into my recording career and was always making records.
Q: I guess you’ve also put some money back into your wardrobe because you're known for wearing fancy suits onstage at GrassRoots!
JL: Depending on the heat, I have to alter what I wear – no pun intended – because if it's too hot, it’s just too much to wear a whole Manuel suit, or even the shirt and pants. So sometimes I just wear jeans but with nice Western shirts that Janet Aspley, a lady from England, makes and sells through her company called Dandy and Rose. She’s just an excellent shirt maker, and I supplement my Manuel wardrobe with them.
To learn more, visit: https://www.jimlauderdalemusic.com/
If You Go
Who: Jim Lauderdale with Donna the Buffalo
When: 6 p.m. Friday, July 22
Where: Grandstand Stage