Review: Jim Lauderdale, Reason & Rhyme

Well, this is a bit different than the usual tear-it-up fare. Before being given this CD, I didn’t know much about Jim Lauderdale, but lo and behold, he’s a major Nashville songwriter, a performer who has shared the stage with both Ralph Stanley and Elvis Costello (among many others), a backup singer on countless recordings, and a bluegrass/ roots musician with a strong orientation towards the Grateful Dead. Not only has he performed in a collaborative which reimagines and performs classic Dead albums, he’s released three albums with the lyricist Robert Hunter, who wrote the words to so many of the songs for which the Grateful Dead are famous.

The most recent of these collaborations with Robert Hunter is Reason and Rhyme, which is, as you might imagine, not your typical bluegrass album, despite the presence of Randy Kohrs, Mike Compton, Clay Hess and Scott Vestal. There’s not a cabin on a mountain to be found here; many of the songs have the kind of dreamy, free-associating lyrics that we might expect from the guy who wrote “Terrapin Station” and “Dark Star.” Really, I’ve listened to “Tiger and the Monkey” quite a few times now and I’m not sure if it’s metaphor, narrative or stoner humor. On the other hand, “Not Let You Go” is one of the best stories I’ve heard in a bluegrass song in quite a while; it’s got history, murder, exile, secrets and hints of unspoken things, all in a minor-key melody that evokes the swamps where the song takes place. “Jack Dempsey’s Crown” sent me to Wikipedia to learn more about Jack Dempsey; the song is fictional but feels true to life, and it’s so refreshing to hear a slow, fun bluegrass romp that isn’t a pile of old-home-place cliches.

“Jack Dempsey’s Crown”

Besides the lyrics, another unique aspect of this album is Lauderdale’s laconic phrasing; he sort of hangs out behind the beat, while the band pushes forward. Imagine Willie Nelson on a slow day with the Johnson Mountain Boys as his backup band, and you’ll get a feel for the interesting tension between the laid-back country vocal stylings and the pulsing bluegrass band underneath. That tension is not found on every song, but it’s a distinguishing feature of this CD, which is vocally and lyrically just more interesting than most new bluegrass. Lauderdale clearly reveres the old American folk and country styles, but he brings a sensibility of jam bands and arcane Americana to the mix.

Sugar Hill Records

Neal Loevinger

Neal Loevinger is a hospital chaplain who loves things that start with the letter B, like bluegrass, bourbon, bikes and books. He is the proud father of two kids who may yet learn to appreciate bluegrass like he does.

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