There are many ways to combat stress. Some people jog. Others do yoga. Jim Lauderdale does Tai Chi. And one engaging afternoon on the phone to Jim is enough to suggest it works pretty damn well.
The 62-year-old singer-songwriter from Troutman, North Carolina has such a calming presence that his aura should be bottled and sold to burnt out stockbrokers. But Lauderdale is no slowpoke. Twenty-eight years into his recording career, he’s already released 32 records and has so many plates spinning at once that it’s nigh impossible to keep up.
What’s even more remarkable is that from 1991’s Planet Of Love right up to this year’s From Another World, there’s not a dud in the bunch. Lauderdale is a phenomenon and it’s not even close to hyperbole to suggest that he’s probably the best songwriter in a city that’s lousy with them.
We caught Jim at a rare moment at home in Nashville when he wasn’t touring or recording to chat about his new record, his love of Tai Chi and his enviable wardrobe of custom-made suits.
Where are you at the moment, Jim?
I’m in Nashville, Tennessee. Where are you from?
I’m from Dublin.
I thought I recognised the accent. I love Dublin. I’ve always enjoyed visiting there.
There’s definitely a musical connection between Ireland and the south, especially the similarities between Irish traditional folk and bluegrass.
Oh absolutely. And bluegrass is one of the great roots of my music development. I still write and record bluegrass when I can. It’s a big part of me.
Like a comfort zone?
Definitely. It’s something that’s so ingrained in me from my youth that it feels really familiar.
What always connects bluegrass to Irish trad for me is the communal feel to it.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s the jamming part of it, like without amplification, late at night. It’s a real way of communicating and bonding and sharing a musical love.
I’ve been listening to the new record almost constantly since I got my hands on it. You’ve released 32 records since 1991 and, to quote your publicist, you’ve “knocked it out of the park every time”. This is a rare example of a publicist who doesn’t exaggerate. How have you stayed so consistent across 32 records in 28 years?
I honestly don’t know. A huge part of it, for me, is to have these wonderful people to collaborate with. Sometimes I’ve shot for the moon and got to work with some of my absolute heroes. That was really inspiring for me. It really kicked things up a notch. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that I’ve been that fortunate.
Do any collaborations really stand out for you?
A few of them. Elvis Costello, George Jones, Ralph Stanley, Robert Hunter. I got to sing a lot with Lucinda Williams. I’ve got a lot of residual inspiration by osmosis, just by being so close to her.
Do you still get as excited about writing and recording as you did back in the beginning?
Oh yes. There’s a lot that has changed and I’ve done it a lot but it’s always exciting. At times it’s nerve-wracking and it’s challenging. I’m never sure what’s going to fly until we get in there and I see whether the other musicians like it or not or how it goes down on tape.
As a matter of fact, I was just in the studio last week with a lot of the same musicians who were on Time Flies. I had six or seven songs which were in contention for the last record but didn’t fit. We laid down six more and I’m really excited about that. Last month I went to North Carolina and recorded a bluegrass record with some North Carolina bluegrass musicians. And I have some other projects that are in the can as well. I don’t know when all these will come out, but I like to keep that process going.
When I’m not on the road, I need to keep creating so that if I get super busy on the road then I still have things to release. I didn’t have my first release until 1991 and I’d been trying for so long to get something going. I guess I was 34 by the time my first record actually came out. I think all that waiting instilled this thing in me that I needed to catch up. Stops and starts and ups and down made me more determined. I still feel that.
I did a soul record in Memphis that’s not quite finished. The first song on that is called ‘Will’. It’s about the will to go on and the will to make things happen. Over time, my will gets challenged and gets stronger.
Is there a sense that after working so hard to get your first break, you’re afraid to stop in case it goes away again?
Yes. Yes. I was so elated that it was finally happening but the release got delayed and it didn’t get the rollout that it should have. Commercially, things didn’t happen for me with that record but then eight of the ten songs on it got recorded by other people, so that started a good thing for me in terms of other people recording my songs.
That allowed me to have a living and to put that money into other recordings. I have to be challenged and thankfully there’s never a shortage of opportunities to be challenged.
With so many projects on the go at the same time, is it hard to find time to tour?
No, I just have to squeeze these other things in. When I’m not on the road, I just have to use that time to record and write. I write a lot on the road but because of the forward motion, it’s harder to finish things.
Do you still enjoy touring?
I do. It’s really a transcendent magic that happens and I really cherish that.
It’s hard to describe. The music all comes together and everything just feels right with the world for however long the show lasts. Be it 45 minutes or three hours, that’s what makes it all worthwhile.
Will there be a time when you’re content to record more and tour less?
I have to adjust to whatever’s going on at the time. I’m a firm believer that you’ve got to make things happen for yourself. If you’re fortunate, you have people around you who can help realise those things, but you have to rely on yourself to create. I’m not in a position where I feel like it’s time to lay back. I have to work harder than ever and write more than ever.
Ralph Stanley kept touring until his late 80s until he couldn’t physically do it anymore. Bob Dylan, the Stones, Van Morrison, they’re all still out there doing it because they want to. They have to because of their inner love for what they’re doing.
I guess it’s different when it’s a compulsion rather than a need in a business sense.
Yes. It is a career and a vocation but it’s not about the money. Sometimes there’s little or no money involved. Some of my favourite musical experiences have been a benefit or just jamming or doing something impromptu. It’s about the music.
Are you someone who focuses your days on tour on the show or do you try and fill up your days in whatever city you’re in?
It’s all focused on the show. You fly out early in the morning, rest in the hotel, do the soundcheck, play the show and take off again early the next morning. You don’t have time to take things in. I do try to walk around a little bit to get a feel for where I’m at. The schedule doesn’t often allow for a lot of downtime.
It doesn’t sound like you get much downtime at all.
No, I don’t. But that’s ok.
Did I read correctly that you’re a Tai Chi master? That’s not something that generally goes hand in hand with country music.
Well now, I’m not a Tai Chi master, but I am a Tai Chi practitioner. When I started studying in San Francisco, my master – a gentleman who came over from China called George Xu – would bring over visiting grand masters and they were all in their late 60s and 70s. I was amazed at how strong, agile and healthy they were.
That was one of the motivating factors in me wanting to study Tai Chi. I just want to get stronger and stronger as I age. There’s quite a bit of stress in life. The business part of this work is pretty daunting, so any kind of exercise helps. It’s really a good thing for anybody to engage in any form of exercise. Tai Chi helps me a lot.
I went to China last March to study Xin Yi and finished learning the first part of the form that I’ve been working on for a few years, part of the Yang style. That form is in the video for my song ‘Listen’.
Had you been looking for something to fill that role in your life?
Yes, I had. When I was a kid, I never got to study karate. I had this attraction to martial arts. Bruce Lee was on the TV show The Green Hornet and there was a TV series Kung Fu. I was drawn to the calmness and efficient martial arts ability of the character on that show. Finally, when I was living out in Los Angeles, I started making the commute to George Xu’s camps and to his camps in China.
The other thing I really wanted to ask you about is your amazing suits and shirts. I’d read that you get them all specially made for you.
Pretty much all of my suits are made by Manuel and the whole look was created by Nudie Cohn, who Manuel worked for. Then Manuel went out on his own. When I moved to Los Angeles, I started playing at the Palomino Club and I met Manuel there. I went by his shop and saw a suit that I really liked but I couldn’t afford it. He let me take it on credit and that practice – which started in 1986 – continues to this day.
Manuel moved to Nashville eventually and I got something from his shop a few weeks ago. He’s such an artist. One of the reasons I moved to LA was because of my love for Gram Parsons. I knew Manuel had made things for Gram, so that was a real rite of passage for me to wear his stuff. I’m playing the Grand Ole Opry on Wednesday and I’ve never done the Opry without wearing one of Manuel’s suits.
I also met a woman in England a few years ago called Janet Aspley. She started making Western shirts with pearl snaps on them so I get shirts from her. They’re really magnificent. She has a company called Dandy & Rose. She’s got a PhD in Western Couture. She knows her stuff.
And there’s a woman who I met at a festival in Florida called Carol Dodd who makes shirts. She’s got a company called Shurtz. She’s doing some really nice things. Every once in a while, depending on the situation and the weather, I might not wear a suit and I’ll wear Janet or Carol’s shirts with Manuel’s pants. It’s a nice combination.
If the house is on fire and you can only grab one item of clothing, what would you take?
There’s a suit, you might find a picture of it online, I’m sitting on the hood of a car and wearing this bright suit with all this gold stitching and rhinestones on the coat and pants. I guess I’d take that. It was really expensive and it’s one that definitely stands out.
From Another World is out now on Yep Roc Records
Jim Lauderdale’s favourite products
Dr Bronner’s Pure Castile Peppemint Soap
I’ve been using this since I was 13
Desert Essence Tea Tree pads
Good for a quick face wash
Desert Essence Tea Tree Deodorant
I like tea tree stuff
After a shower and for shaving
I like hemp stuff