Jim Lauderdale Tells the Story Behind His Unearthed 1979 Album With Roland White

Scott Simontacchi
Jim Lauderdale

This coming Friday (Aug. 3) will see the release a two very different projects from Americana stalwart Jim Lauderdale. It's not the first time he has released a pair of records on the same day – but this situation is a little different. The previously unreleased Jim Lauderdale and Roland White album pairs him with one of the members of the Bluegrass Hall of Fame – and has been sitting in the vaults for close to 40 years. Lauderdale sets the time machine back to 1979 to discuss the release.

"I had just gotten out of college in North Carolina, and I came to Nashville and gave myself a certain amount of time to get things going. I had two goals of people to be around: one was George Jones, which didn't transpire, and Roland White. I was such a big fan of his records. There was something about Roland that just got to me in a great way. I introduced myself to him at one of his shows at The Station Inn. He was really kind to me, and he took me under his wing. I started hanging out with him, and going to his gigs and sitting in. I had done a demo of three songs, and then, as I was about to leave Nashville after about five months, Roland said 'Hey, why don't we do an album?' That was really overwhelming to me. I had this great luck of that happening. We recorded it in the basement of Earl Scruggs' house, which was also a surreal experience for me, as I had begun as a banjo player. I was a huge fan of Earl Scruggs. It was very awe-inspiring to meet him and for him to come down and look in on us. He would bring us coffee every day on a silver tray – with china cups. It was all so unbelievable to me. The musicians we had were terrific – Gene Wooten, Terry Smith, Johnny Warren, and Stan Brown. Roland then said 'We need some lead guitar on some of these songs. Let's get Marty Stuart.'"

As it turned out Lauderdale was already a fan of the then-teenaged prodigy after seeing him with Lester Flatt. "I was really blown away by his talent. As Roland said, 'Marty isn't just a picker. He's a superpicker.' All of these people, I had so much admiration for," Lauderdale says, lamenting the fact that he couldn't get a bluegrass label interested in the album after it was finished. 

"I was really pleased with the record. I was disappointed to get the response that I did from the bluegrass labels I had sent it to at that time. I gave up a little too easy, perhaps. There was positive response to the record, but they said 'We're only putting out things by people who are working in the bluegrass world,' and I wasn't."

When Lauderdale began to make noise as a singer-songwriter in the 1990s, he and White thought about releasing the record. Alas, there was only one problem.

"Roland and I realize that none of us had the mastered tapes, and we couldn't track it down," he says, allowing that White's wife found the masters, and with some production added in by the masterful Randy Kohrs, the time is now for the music to be heard. "It means a lot to me to have that record come out now – after almost forty years," he says.

Also on Friday, Lauderdale will unveil Time Flies, a disc that he says happened very organically – thanks to an offer too good to pass up.

"It began when I was approached by Blackbird Studios to come in with some reasonably priced studio time, with blocks of time that they have for their program called The Blackbird Academy. That's a school for young engineers, which really appealed to me – partly because of the price, and also because it gives me a chance to be around these students and the process they were going through. I laid down about five songs the first time, all of which were recent co-writes that I had done with Mando Saenz. He's really a fine writer, and we had this roll of late-night writing sessions. Then, I had a chance to go back in and lay down some more tracks. Out of that batch, one of the songs with Mondo was "Time Flies," and then out of the second batch was a song that I had written with my friend, Odie Blackmon, called 'Where The Cars Go By Fast.' I enlisted Lillie Mae Rische to sing harmonies with me, which I loved."

Lauderdale was satisfied with the direction he was going in – when the phone rang again. "Then, I got another chance to go back to Blackbird, and these guys weren't available that I had used before, and I got a new batch of guys from Marty Stuart's Fabulous Superlatives – Kenny Vaughan and Chris Scruggs. During this process, Jay Weaver, who was playing bass, he was so helpful as I was writing songs in the studio, that I asked him to co-produce the record with me. He suggested Chris, whom I was only familiar with through his traditional country work. When they came in, I think the first one we recorded was 'It Blows My Mind.' A different sound started taking shape, which really intrigued me. We continued that for several more sessions, and I wrote these songs around the sound that was being created. The reason this record sounds so different for me is these musicians, and the inspiration they bring to me to write these songs."

Time Flies takes Lauderdale on several different musical directions, even adding a dash of ragtime-ish sounds on "Slow As Molasses." He says he was definitely trying to reach back to an earlier era on the cut.

"Interestingly enough, that was a tune where I already had the melody," he confesses. "Conceptually, that was an older melody – one that I was saving for an acoustic early-country music sounding record, going back to the Jimmie Rodgers days. But, when I was in there with those guys, I just had an instinct that it was the right time for the song. Sure enough, they just really brought it during the tracking session. Then, because of those guys and the way they laid down the music, the lyrics came out for me on that one."

Both releases will no doubt find attention from his fans, who have followed his natural journey from country to bluegrass to Americana and back again. In Lauderdale's world, just what exactly is Americana?

"It's an umbrella term that encompasses all of these different styles of American roots music, like bluegrass, folk or country – even jazz if you think about it. Jazz is an American musical form. Any kind of rootsy music, as long as it has that basis, and is the bedrock style of the record. That, to me, is the definition."

He laughs when recalling that his earliest recorded output was also difficult to define, but played a huge role in his development as a tunesmith, where he penned hits for George Strait, Patty Loveless, and Mark Chesnutt.

"Interestingly enough, my first release – not the first one I actually recorded – was for Epic Records. That was a very Bakersfield-sounding record stylistically, but at the time it was too country for country. Dwight Yoakam was probably the main traditionalist at that time that was getting played in that sound. The label decided not to release the record, even though Pete Anderson felt there were several hits on the record. That was unfortunate. The next record that got released, (1991's) Planet of Love, was sonically and material-wise too out there for its time. There was a fellow at the label that asked me 'I thought you said you were making a country record?' So that record really didn't get the push I felt it deserved, but I'm glad that the label gave me the chance to make it. It really opened a lot of doors for me – especially as a songwriter. Eight of the ten songs were recorded by other people, and that allowed me to have a career and make a living."