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Interview: Roots Masters Jim Lauderdale And Luther Dickinson

The pair discuss their new project, the differences between Nashville and Memphis and what they've got on the horizon

By Jim Hynes

 

The day before their performance at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in San Francisco, Jim Lauderdale and Luther Dickinson discussed, among other things, both of their efforts in making Lauderdale’s recent double disc, Soul Searching.


 

Jim Lauderdale, Lincoln Center Out of Doors
Jim Lauderdale. Photo Credit: George Kopp

 

EM: Before we start, tell me about Hardly Strictly Bluegrass? You usually make this event, right?

JL: First of all, it’s huge. There are six or maybe even seven stages by now and it’s by far the biggest crowd I’ve ever played for. I think the Hellman Trust has two years left so it’s a wonderful event for the people of San Francisco, held in Golden Gate Park. Some artists like Emmylou, Steve Earle, the Mekons and others have been here every year since the beginning. I’ve played here with my bluegrass band, with Buddy Miller, with Ralph Stanley, and one year with Elvis Costello when I was in his band…But this will be great. I am all about eclecticism in my approach to music just like this is.

 

EM: You’re playing in Buddy Miller’s Cavalcade of Stars tomorrow. How does that work? It looks like it’s booked for the entire afternoon.

JL: Buddy, of course, has gathered a bunch of folks like Larry Campbell, Teresa Williams, Scott Miller, Tony Joe White and several others as well as unannounced guests. But I’m really excited because my set will be a complete departure from what I usually do here. Cody and Luther are flying up from LA and I’ve got Dominic Davis and Ian Fitchuk, who played on the Nashville record, as well as Colin Linden joining us to play all new material from this record. Usually I put some more well-known tunes into my set but this is a chance to play the new material with a full band.

LD: Yes, Cody and I will be playing with the Word in LA but we were able to fit this in and it will be great to back Jim at this festival. And, we get to hang with Buddy for a bit too. That’s hard to beat.

 

EM: Okay, let’s talk about Soul Searching. How and when did you get the idea for this project and tell us how it evolved.

JL: I’d worked with Spooner Oldham, David Hood and Cody and Luther on Black Roses, which I wrote with Robert Hunter. We did those sessions at Luther and Cody’s Zebra Ranch in Mississippi and we did it really quickly. I went back there to add two more unfinished tracks later so we had the start of another record. But, interestingly enough, we finished the Nashville record first. I had some time booked at RCA Studio A, the one they almost tore down but thankfully it was saved at the last minute. I didn’t have any material ready but that’s often the case; I won’t really know what I’m doing until I get there. Well, just coincidentally about a week before I ran into Luther in a park in Nashville. That’s when I found out he was moving to Nashville. I asked him what he was doing next Tuesday and said I might give a call later in the week. Sure enough, we started talking about players and Dominic and Ian were available as well as this bass player I hadn’t worked with but heard good things about, James Haggerty. So when we went in there I had seven songs ready to go. Later we finished more stuff at The House of Blues in Nashville, where I’ve often worked. And after we finished, Luther kept prodding me to finish what we had started in Mississippi.

LD: Jim called it “The R&B Project.” I just kept saying we need to go to Royal to finish this. I really wanted Jim to work with Boo Mitchell because Boo has a group of musicians and you just get the whole package with the horns and background singers. Jim is such a good singer and the songs are so good, you can put anything with it and I was really anxious to have him work with Boo to hear what it would sound like.

luther dickinson, north mississippi allstars
Luther Dickinson, Photo Credit: Mike Kerr

 

EM: Jim, how did you find working with Luther and Cody Dickinson? I’ve heard so many good things about them from many artists I’ve spoken to.

JL: Cody and Luther are super easy to work with and such fantastic players. The guys at Royal respect them so much it’s real comfortable. I feel a real kinship with them and know we’ll be working together again.

 

EM: Luther, you’ve worked with tons of artists. What does Jim bring to the process that makes him different?

LD: Watching him create is really amazing. He often writes on the spot. He includes everybody in the creative process and he is so good-natured. It’s funny that Jim used the word “comfortable.” The studio is never comfortable. You’re on your toes wanting to move forward and careful not to make a mistake. It’s exciting but it is really fragile too. Working with Jim is a real experience of seeing how human creativity works. Some artists come in with everything prepared. With Jim, he usually has just a few ideas and then he creates as the session goes along. I’ve done some of my best guitar work playing with Jim and I credit that to the attitude and the creative vibe that Jim brings.

You know the production process is the same set of principles that my father taught Cody and I. But, I also learned a really key thing from Buddy Miller: to get as much done live as you possibly can. I’ve produced records, like for Samantha Fish, where it was very important for me to get her vocals recorded live. Jim is so confident though. He wants to get the track laid down and then he comes back and overdubs his vocals. He wrote the horn charts, man. I know I’m listed as a producer but he and Boo did all the work the next couple of days laying in the horn charts and background vocals.

 

EM: That whole Memphis sound with those gorgeous horn charts and background vocalists is so captivating. How did you, or did you alter your songwriting process, knowing this was the musical accompaniment? Or, was it more the case of them arranging around your songs?

JL: When Royal was booked, it was during a really busy time for me. I took the redeye back from the West Coast and had nothing new prepared. So, I used the control room to write all day and we started with “There’s No End to the Sky,” the song I had written with Odie Blackman. We got some tracks done but I used the breaks at lunch and dinner to keep writing. Melodies come into my head during the day.

 

EM: Jim, describe the differences in the Nashville sessions versus the Memphis sessions both in the preparation and recording.

JL: The Memphis songwriting I would compare to working with Ralph Stanley. You have to stay within certain parameters. I wanted to write it so it fit into that style…As compared to the Nashville record, where I wasn’t trying to fit within any style. That was just whatever came out and I love that freedom.

JL: It’s funny, even though I didn’t have much material ready, I always know I can come up with something once I’m there but I was a little nervous, not having played with the Hodges, Alvin Youngblood Hart and the musicians that Boo Mitchell had assembled. But once I get through a song or two it usually works out and these guys were great.

 

EM: Luther, you had worked at Royal before, right? That’s why you were pushing Jim, I guess.

LD: Yeah, Cody introduced me to Boo and his team when he produced the movie about the Memphis sound, Take Me to the River. These special studios definitely have a way of inspiring you whether it’s here, our own place, or RCA Studio A in Nashville. Once it gets broken in enough it just has its own feel. We took the Word to Royal. Memphis is becoming the place for country funk and blue-eyed soul.

 

EM: Luther, Jim, you and your brother Cody are all producers. Does that create any conflicts?

LD: We complement each other well but have different styles. Making records for any of us at this point is very natural. Just put the artists in the right situation and let them blossom.

 

EM: Jim, aside from Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, will you have a band when you’re touring behind this project?

JL: I hope so. We do have a date in Memphis the day after Thanksgiving and there’s a Music City Roots date coming up in November where Luther and hopefully Cody will play. Jim Hoke will be joining us. Hopefully next spring and summer we can get some festival dates and I can hire some horn players.

 

EM: While we’re on the subject of Music City Roots, talk for a minute about your emcee roles.

JL: First of all Music City Roots has been very rewarding. It’s a “labor of love” because the producers and I don’t get paid at all but the people seem to really like it because we bring in so many diverse acts that they get to interact with. We’re heading into our sixth year now. Going back to this emcee role, it just happened accidentally. It wasn’t something I went after. They asked me to do the Awards Show at the Americana Conference that first year, and were happy with it even though I had no idea what I was doing. But, I guess I’ve gotten better at it and with Buddy and all, I have fun with it now. And, the best thing is that I get exposed to a lot more music than I would be otherwise. It’s a double-edged sword though and I worry a little about it because I always wonder if I’m taken seriously enough as a musician. But it’s kind of an interesting dilemma. When I started making my own records when I was in my thirties, I would purposely not listen to much other music because subconsciously I was afraid of picking up stuff. Now, I’ve actually gotten to the point in my life where I can listen to music for the sheer enjoyment of it. And, that’s how it should be.

 

EM: Jim, I know that you are coming solo to the Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre, PA on November 13. Will you be featuring these new songs in that show?

JL: Yes, most of my shows are solo to control expenses among other things. In that show, like any of them, I will be playing plenty of the new songs as well as all kinds of things I’ve done over the years. When I’m out on the road this analogy seems to fit. I feel like an old boxer whose getting the heck beat out of him. But I’m still out there slugging it out. Thanks, I’ll see you soon.

 

EM: Luther, apart from this project, you are involved in so many of them. I don’t know how you do it. You’re touring with the Word, North Mississippi Allstars and perhaps a dozen other configurations, let alone the studio work. Can you share with us some of your projects that are coming up?

LD: Sure, early next year I’ll have another solo record on New West and they’ll be a new Allstars record next year too. I just have to keep working and playing. That’s what it’s all about. We’ll see you down the road.

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