Jim Lauderdale on What Makes Texas Unique and the Future of Americana

Scott Simontacchi

If you don't know Jim Lauderdale by name, you surely know his music. Over the past 20 years, he's penned some huge country hits for artists like George Strait and Mark Chesnutt. He's collaborated with Ralph Stanley and Buddy Miller. Plus, he's established a successful solo career, acted as host of Nashville's weekly Americana radio show Music City Roots and the Americana Music Awards, and ramped up his national touring schedule.

In other words, Jim Lauderdale is a busy man.

When he was presented with the coveted WagonMaster Award for his achievements within the genre at the Americana Awards in September, it was easy to see just how much the honor meant to him. It was truly a full-circle moment.

"It was one of the greatest experiences of my life," he told Wide Open Country. "It was especially moving for me to have George Strait there presenting and to get to sing 'King of Broken Hearts' with him. That was one of my biggest breaks as a songwriter when he recorded it back in 1992, it really changed things for me. And to be there at the Ryman Auditorium, which is a really special place to perform in... it was just a really magical evening."

Just a few days after the awards, Lauderdale released his 28th album, This Changes Everything. The record was a result of an idea that first emerged in the early 2000s, when his backing band was based out of Austin, to honor the state of Texas through a collection of songs.

"My original concept for doing a record in Texas was to do songs that I had either co-written with Texas songwriters or that had some connection to Texas. I went back into my catalog and started discovering all of these songs. I thought, 'I can't believe I never recorded that song.'"

It finally came together through a twist of fate that left Lauderdale in a rare situation. He and his band were left with 24 hours to kill and plenty of inspiration.

"Our warm-up gig was at the Continental Club, one of my favorite places. The next day, we had a show at New Braunfels and they had some devastating weather the day before. The gig had to be cancelled because some of the roads were flooded out. I thought, 'I'm here in Texas and we have a day off and I know the band is available.' Luckily, Arlyn Studios was available, so we went in and laid down the bulk of the album that day."

The record features contributions and co-writes from Bruce Robison, Hayes Carll, Asleep at the Wheel's Floyd Domino, Sunny Sweeney, Brennen Leigh and many other talented Texans. It's a testament to the talent and country music legacy that the state holds dear.

"[Texas] is just such a natural place with a great sound that's been cultivated through so many of its native sons," says Lauderdale. "It's home to so many great singer-songwriters and pickers. Artists can make their careers by just constantly touring across the state. I don't think there's any other place else like that."

Many of those Texas-based artists have found support from Americana radio stations. The growth and impact of the genre has been evident for Lauderdale. Not only has he worked tirelessly in the genre himself, but he's seen the next generation break through because of its accessibility.

"I have always been really pleased and encouraged how Americana radio was one of the few places that you could hear country music that wasn't necessarily in the mainstream," he explains. "There's certainly a place for that, and it's doing just fine, but that leaves so many other deserving artists who need a home."

Aside from bringing new artists to the forefront, Lauderdale says Americana radio is one of the few places left that the legends are being properly showcased.

"It's hearing some of the heritage acts like Hank Williams Sr., Loretta Lynn, Buck Owens or Willie. It's a place where you can hear a new Willie Nelson record, whereas you wouldn't hear that on the mainstream radio. I was really happy several years ago when Johnny Cash was still alive and he was making records, because that was still a place where you could hear him. Up until Merle Haggard died, you could hear him or Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell. You could hear Guy Clark's newest release. People need to hear that and they want to hear that."

Lauderdale fondly recalled a few shows he got to do with the Hag before his passing, and noted his happiness over getting to sing on one of Willie Nelson's records. These days, it seems hard for him to find time to get it all done. He keeps a busy touring schedule, which he admits can sometimes be draining.

"The traveling part gets more and more difficult," he says. "I'll get to a town sometimes and just think, 'You know, I don't think I can do it. I'm just too wiped out tonight. I didn't get enough sleep and I traveled too far.' But then I just enjoy the shows so much. When you finally get there and are able to hit the stage, it reminds me of why I'm doing it to begin with."

Even when carrying a full plate, he takes time to savor the little joys in performing. "I really enjoy the interaction and finding new things in the song, new notes or phrasing and discovering new things. A constant challenge is I've got to come up with some other album now that continues the thread of what I was doing in this particular style or sound and try to take it up a notch."

It's a challenge, but not one that Lauderdale is shying away from. In fact, he's already got a bluegrass record in the can (look for it early next year) and is working on a new country album. It's still in its first stages, but he hopes he can fully bring it to life sometime next year.

"When I do a record, they come together pretty quickly once I get the studio time booked," he says. "It's nerve-wracking to be forced to get everything at that time under that pressure, but that seems to be one of the ways I get it done."

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Jim Lauderdale on What Makes Texas Unique and the Future of Americana