On 3 August Jim Lauderdale will mark his return to the Yep Roc label by simultaneously releasing two records. Time Flies is a new studio album. The other, Jim Lauderdale and Roland White, while also new, is a collection of bluegrass recordings Lauderdale made soon after hitting Nashville in 1979. Recorded in the basement of Earl and Louise Scruggs’ home, the original master tapes were lost and only recently discovered. During the intervening years Lauderdale has written songs for himself and many others that have reached into every nook and cranny of Americana and frequently beyond. Time Flies is not only Lauderdale’s 30th studio album, it is also a perfect example of his skill across so many musical genres.
That Lauderdale is no slouch is clear with so many albums to his credit. Just looking at his more recent releases there is country (I’m A Song), soul (Soul Searching) and in last year’s London Southern recorded with Nick Lowe’s band, he looks at early 1960s US soul through a UK perspective. Going further back, Lauderdale has delved into bluegrass and folk roots with Robert Hunter and recorded with the great Ralph Stanley. Time Flies gives the listener a taste of all these Lauderdale delicacies at one sitting.
Jim Lauderdale has been described as “the songwriter’s songwriter”. If slightly glib, that at least puts in no doubt the priority Lauderdale attaches to the art of writing and arranging. Musical genre becomes a very secondary issue which is a welcome respite in these days of marketing and labelling. Jim Lauderdale puts the artist’s craft front and centre of everything. Throughout his career, as far as I can see, he has not wavered from this genuine aim.
Time Flies opens with its title track. The opening bars are like settling into familiar surroundings, comfortable and reassuring yet every bit as attractive as they felt first time round. Lauderdale almost croons about the passage of time, and what might have happened but didn’t. There are no regrets though, “you can’t turn nothing back until curtain call”.
‘The Road Is A River’ has more than a ring of early solo Knopfler with its pacy rhythm, lowered vocals then intricate guitar solo. It’s no copy, but just a dip towards that very polished production. Moving further towards rock is ‘It Blows My Mind’ with its powerful riff that forms the song’s spine. Lauderdale drawls majestically and the whole effect has an almost stadium feel.
Pulling back from rock to a more rockabilly feel comes Lauderdale’s first single from the album, ‘Wearing Out Your Cool’. A relentless bass line powers this song dueling with a sax that weaves in and out as Lauderdale wrestles with what was once cool but now looks a bit past it.
‘While You’re Hoping’ has a good time jazzy speakeasy kind of sound. Lauderdale skips through the song as if it came from the The Great American Songbook. Related but heading towards almost easy listening is ‘Wild on Me Fast’, a jaunty hop that highlights some clever imagery, “20 days out at sea/anchor wants to drop/ if my eyes play tricks on me/I don’t want it to stop/it’s getting wild on me fast”. ‘Slow as Molasses’ has a similarly offbeat theme of slowness, being overtaken by a caterpillar or snail as examples.
Lauderdale particularly excels when he goes back to his Country roots. ‘Where The Cars Go By Fast’ is the record’s best. It could be Cash, such is the effortless control Lauderdale has of this song that flies by. Nothing is missed or sounds out of place; this is old time C&W at its best.
A slower example of that enduring “proper” C&W is the record’s closing track, ‘If The World’s Still Here Tomorrow’. Lauderdale gives full vent to his voice in a song of the deepest sincerity. The pedal steel only adds to the song’s poignancy. It feels like the last dance on a Saturday night somewhere way off the beaten track. After that the lights go up and it’s time to go home and back to reality.
Time does indeed fly. On Time Flies Jim Lauderdale shows why he deserves his position as ‘the songwriter’s songwriter’ commanding a vast sweep of Americana, country and far beyond. It’s not yet August but I’m willing to bet we’ll see this in the year-end best-of’s.