As the months of pandemic and lockdown drag on we all cling to the hope that things will get better. In that vein two-time Grammy Award winner Jim Lauderdale offers his 34th album, Hope. With its simple title, Hope, Lauderdale offers just that, plus joy, courage and perseverance. Both lyrically and sonically Hope empathises, comforts and encourages, all in Lauderdale’s deep rich country/ Americana of which he has been a master for many decades.
Few would dispute the many superb records that have been influenced in one way or another by the pandemic. Where Lauderdale stands out with Hope is the sweep of his perspective. In 13 songs he shines his light into dark places of despair and ahead as a beacon towards better times. He identifies real people, front-line workers for example, and in return listeners to Hope will identify with him.
Having written for so many names; George Strait, Patty Loveless, Lee Ann Womack, Blake Shelton and Elvis Costello to name a few, Lauderdale can command the best in the studio. With Jay Weaver he co-produced and recorded Hope in Nashville’s famed Blackbird Studios. Joining them were Chris Scruggs, Kenny Vaughan, Russ Pahl, Craig Smith, Will Van Horn, Micah Hulscher, Dave Racine, Pat Hubert and Wes L’Annglois. But he didn’t confine himself to these great names as several tracks were engineered by students of the Blackbird Academy. This was no favour, as Lauderdale put it, “I love the energy of working with such talented people just at the start of their careers. These kids are the future of our business.”
The torrent of emotions are matched by an equal spread of musical arrangement. Perhaps to set the album’s marker the opener is upbeat. A brisk, electric riff launches ’The Opportunity to Help Somebody Through It’. The soulful country sound emphasises a profound modesty that runs through this and many other songs on the album. “Some day somebody is gonna ask how did you do it/ All we can do is try”.
Lauderdale’s long perspective come across in ‘Sister Horizon’. To a slower, consoling country beat he looks back to better times but does not dwell there. His references to the sky and flowers give reassurance that whatever happens, nature is still there.
‘The Brighter Side of Lonely’ is a lovely example of how Lauderdale modulates his trademark ‘classic’ country voice to match a lyric that says hang in there, things will get better that oozes sincerity.
And that honesty is such a hallmark of Lauderdale who is willing to admit he struggled too. He cites tai-chi and qigong as being vital to his own wellbeing. Testament to his practice with its meditative pace and echoing guitar is the mantra-like ‘Breathe Real Slow’.
‘We Fade in We Fade Out’ recognises that there are many questions but few answers. And that’s ok. I don’t know how I wound up in this place/ Nobody knows where we’re going/ I don’t know the way but I want to believe that we’ll get to the gates that will open”. Layers of electric guitar and organ add to the seething uncertainty. This is powerful stuff.
Then there are the people. ‘Brave One’ is a tribute to those on the front line. ‘Brave one, stay on/ Brave one like you” is part anthem, part chant but either way the unstinting sacrifice of these heroes comes across.
Lauderdale co-wrote ‘Memory’ with the late Robert Hunter, best known for his work with the Grateful Dead. Although the pandemic was still to strike when Hunter died, ‘Memory’ sums up perfectly the feelings we have for those lost to the virus. As Lauderdale’s baritone vies with the pedal steel melancholy and sadness dominate but there is also a love that will never diminish. “Long live the sunset the rusty glimmer on the pine/ long live the days when I was yours and you were mine”.
As befits an album called ‘Hope’ we should end with two notes of optimism. ‘Here’s to Hoping’ skips along to surges of horns hailing better times. From getting by to ‘building back’ Lauderdale exudes positivity. ‘Joyful Noise’ is confident and happy. The pace steps up and Lauderdale bows out to a barrage of perfectly crafted country pop. “Stay and Sing”. Why not?
To Lauderdale’s credit he has always ploughed his own furrow with his own brand of country and roots. Hope deserves to feature among the best of what will no doubt become known as ‘the pandemic records’.