Jim Lauderdale's conservatory experience inspires career in Americana music

Jim Lauderdale is one of the most respected singer-songwriters of our time. His songs have been recorded by artists such as George Strait, Elvis Costello, Vince Gill, Ralph Stanley and many more. He’s traveled and recorded with the likes of George Jones and Willie Nelson, and played Americana music long before it was called that.

A respected and prolific solo artist, Lauderdale (Drama ’79) will soon release two new albums on North Carolina-based label Yep Rock, including an album recorded shortly after his graduation that was thought to be lost. The winner of multiple Grammy Awards and a Wagonmaster Award from the American Music Association, Lauderdale is also the host of a weekly Sirius XM show with Buddy Miller, and is the co-host of weekly PBS series Music City Roots.

Music City Roots

Jim Lauderdale performs "This Changes Everything" on Music City Roots.

Both of your parents were singers. Can you tell us a little bit about musical influences during your childhood?

I grew up both North Carolina and South Carolina. My dad was an Associate Reformed Presbyterian minister and my mom was a choir director and chorus teacher. Around the house as a kid my folks played Broadway show albums, Jazz vocalists and the radio. Mom played piano and she and Dad were great singers. When I was six, the Beatles came on Ed Sullivan and my older sister started getting their records and that began the expansion of our record catalog to other rock and soul acts on the radio during that great era of music. 

I became really interested in bluegrass and started playing banjo at 15. I had less time to play it at UNCSA and had taken up guitar by then and started writing songs.

What led you to attend UNCSA?

During the summers of my last three years of high school I worked at The Flat Rock Playhouse as an assistant maintenance man and in their snack bar, so I watched all the shows and learned a lot. In high school at Carolina Friends School, I was in school productions and in an improv mime troupe. I heard about UNCSA my senior year and on the way to my audition I had a car wreck! Luckily no one was hurt, my car wobbled on to campus and I made it in time.

We were allowed to read the comments about our auditions later and one of the teachers said, “very wooden performance, but he had a car accident coming in, so that was probably why …”  Well, maybe, maybe not… but I can honestly say I improved a lot in the four years there.

Do you recall a memorable UNCSA performance?  

There were so many memorable performances during my time there that I got to see and also be a part of. As a freshman, I looked up to the upper class' talent, and then as my class moved up, I was inspired by and looked up to the talent of the rising classes. It kept you on your toes to do your best.  

Some of the challenging roles for me were First Voice in “Under Milkwood,” The Father in “The Father” and Benedick in “Much Ado About Nothing.” The most fun was Crook Finger Jake in “Three Penny Opera,” where I learned I had a fondness for comic character roles. I also enjoyed  being part of the Rubble Mime Company and I enjoyed mime so much that I almost pursued it after graduation.  

My education, training and time at school were definitely influences on my career. For one thing, the exposure to students in the other conservatories was extraordinary. I was surrounded by creative people giving their all. There aren't too many places like that.

Jim Lauderdale

My education, training and time at school were definitely influences on my career. For one thing, the exposure to students in the other conservatories was extraordinary. I was surrounded by creative people giving their all. There aren't too many places like that. 

Where did you go after graduation?

After a brief stay in Nashville after graduation, I moved up to New York, where I began performing more musically and writing more and more. Although I had received such great training at school, I lacked the confidence to audition for non-musical roles. I landed parts Off Broadway in “Cotton Patch Gospel” and regionally for “Pump Boys And Dinettes” and “Diamond Studs,” playing Jesse James opposite future recording artist Shawn Colvin. These shows were what became called musicians theatre, a newer form of musical theatre where the actors were also the musicians onstage.  

I was able to combine the stagecraft I had learned at school with my love for playing and singing country, bluegrass, blues and rock. I was extremely grateful for those jobs, but as time went on my resolve strengthened to record and tour with my own music. Eventually after several more years, that finally happened. 

Tell us about your biggest musical influences.

Some of my biggest musical influences are The Beatles, Ralph Stanley, George Jones, Gram Parsons, Otis Redding, Keith Richards, Robert Hunter, Jerry Garcia, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Robert Johnson, Doc Watson, Elvis Presley, Elvis Costello … there are a lot of them. 

You've had a successful career writing songs for many country music singers. Who have you been able to work and record with?

I've been very fortunate that people have recorded my songs. George Strait has done the most… 14, including “King of Broken Hearts,” “Twang” and “Where The Sidewalk Ends.” Patty Loveless has recorded several, as well as Vince Gill, Solomon Burke, Elvis Costello, Ralph Stanley, Lucinda Williams, Old Crowe Medicine Show, Dave Edmunds, Buddy Miller, LeeAnne Womack, Blake Shelton, String Cheese Incident, Donna The Buffalo and others. 

It has been a great experience as a harmony singer to record and travel with Lucinda Williams, Ralph Stanley, Elvis Costello, Donna The Buffalo and on record with Dwight Yoakum, George Jones and Willie Nelson.

One important thing I learned at UNCSA was to listen to who you are performing with. Come in when it's your time and enhance what the other person is doing.  

Describe your music today. What you are currently working on?

My music today has evolved from bluegrass to a mixture of country, soul, blues, folk and rock—what today is called ‘Americana.’ But actually, that's what I was doing back at school, mixing it up when I was playing on campus or at clubs in town.  

I've re-signed with a North Carolina based label, Yep Roc, and have two albums coming out August 3. One is a record I recorded with one of my bluegrass heroes, Roland White. I did it in October of '79, in Nashville after I graduated. The record didn't come out back then and the tape was lost, but Roland recently found it. So what would have been my first record will be my 30th. And the 31st is all new songs and is different sonically than my past work. It's called “Time Flies.” It sure does.  

by Erin Street

July 18, 2018