There's a strange problem plaguing country music these days, and it's not the perpetual lameness of country radio. The country purists—those twang nostalgists who are fueling the O, Brother phenomenon and packing hipster bars for bluegrass jams—are contributing to an irony that poses some troubling questions about the music's health. Claiming some kind of transcendent authenticity for bluegrass, or finding it bitterly telling that the Jayhawks, say, never get mainstream airplay, actually violates the spirit in which seminal country music was made. In this oversophisticated climate, it's easy to forget that slick pop—even the kind that has Nashville acts like Tim McGraw and the Dixie Chicks selling out stadiums—once helped make country music great.
For more than 10 years, the singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale has been walking the line between country pop and country grit in some provocative ways. Lauderdale is an alt-country pioneer who has worked with Lucinda Williams, but his songs have been covered by mainstream country stars like George Strait, Vince Gill, and those Chicks. Having spent his childhood in North Carolina, when Motown, funk, and psychedelia were on the pop charts (he's in his mid-40s), he began exploring country and bluegrass in his early teens; he worked in New York, Los Angeles, and Austin, Texas, before starting to release albums in the early '90s. He has a real and generous commitment to vintage forms of country. Last year he renovated early '60s "hard country" in the witty, moving The Other Sessions. He's appeared on an album by Charlie Louvin (of the brilliant '50s-'60s duet the Louvin Brothers) and on a collection of trucker songs, for which he was paired with the '60s-'70s country crooner Del Reeves. Most notably, perhaps, Lauderdale has collaborated on two ramrod-straight bluegrass albums (full of his superb original songs) with that ubiquitous icon of authenticity Ralph Stanley. Lost in the Lonesome Pines, their second album, was released in May, simultaneously with his 10th solo work, The Hummingbirds.
Given Lauderdale's attachment to older and grittier styles, it may seem strange that his solo albums buck the preconceptions of those connoisseurs who buy music that's supposed to be too good for country radio. The Hummingbirds offers some very pleasant listening that will disappoint anyone looking for mountain plangency, beery twang, or moody collage. There's nothing vintage or edgy about this carefully balanced postmodern confection, which piles up drums, pedal steel, "new-acoustic" strumming and picking, skirling fiddles, fat electric guitars, backup vocals, even keyboards. The production values, devised by Lauderdale and Tim Coats, would pose no problems for country radio if Nashville still understood slickness the way Chet Atkins did in producing Don Gibson, or Billy Sherrill in producing Tammy Wynette. The Hummingbirds makes the most tasteful possible use of all the latest developments, and it wants nothing if not to be extremely pretty. It's another of Lauderdale's mildly advanced forays into country-pop.
The pervasive mood of Hummingbirds is one of having come through rough emotional seas with optimism intact; it's a Lauderdale trademark. Amid wavering guitar tones on "I'm Happiest When I'm Moving" (the only breakup song on Hummingbirds), which build to an intense shimmer, sorrow mixes with self-assurance; poignancy is kept at bay, perhaps deliberately. "Midnight Will Become Day," a waltzing country-rock anthem to gratitude, slips around images of solar eclipse, gardens, stars. There's a gliding, cheek-to-cheek two-step, "I Know Better Now," about coming to terms with self-deception; the goofball hot-country line dance"There and Back Again" tells of a relationship's unexpected survival. The Rheinhardt-Grapelli jazz in "It's a Trap" may recall Sinatra's renditions of "The Tender Trap"—but what trap is Lauderdale warning us against? Just being self-indulgently neurotic, it seems.
That a genuinely contemplative mood bars many of these songs from ever becoming radio fare is perhaps less interesting than Lauderdale's overall project, on Hummingbirds and his earlier solo albums: He's giving new intelligence to the happy-go-lucky messages and undemanding sounds that have defined decades of carefully wrought country fluff. Maybe Hummingbirds, better than what's on the radio, represents the kind of more-or-less disposable country music that we need in a strange new century.
It isn't a damning suggestion. Lauderdale seems to be among the few roots artists who understand early hillbilly as an idiosyncratic form of slick pop. Go back to the O, Brother era, whose music has been so widely praised for being "honest," "true," "back to basics." The Carter Family may sound eternal and primitive now, but much of their repertoire came from 19th-century pop; much of the rest came from blues and ragtime, relatively new and often quite urbane forms in the 1920s. The Carters' singing and playing aren't really so stark. Listening to field recordings of nonprofessional rural musicians can make the Carters sound rich, warm, delicately textured—like the high-tech recording artists they actually were.
Nobody was supposed to bow down and worship the Carters' "Wildwood Flower" as something deeply and permanently authentic. You were supposed to just lean back, close your eyes, and say "nice."Hummingbirds' final track, " New Cascade," neatly dramatizes this unbroken connection between old-time and next-generation country. The piece is highly streamlined "newgrass," yet it features older, decidedly pre-bluegrass styles of fiddle and banjo playing from Tara Nevins and Richie Stearns, skilled exponents of Appalachian dance music. The song is advanced, the playing as archaic as it gets; such is the strength of the album's vision that potentially jarring extremes make for the easiest of listening.
Jim Lauderdale's admirable and perhaps somewhat tense position in today's country-music scene is made dramatically evident by his singing. He sounds great on the bluegrass albums, as well as in the semi-mimicry of post-war country that marks The Other Sessions; vocally he really is a roots and alt artist, naturally better suited to such projects than to The Hummingbirds, whose full-on gorgeousness can at times make his lead singing sound thin and strained. Yet on album after album he's tried to sing in ways reminiscent not only of the Über-stylist George Jones but also of country-soul crooners like Ronnie Millsap and Charlie Rich. His albums aren't demo records from a songwriter; they're complete personal expressions, and Lauderdale seems to want to show us everything he likes. That a guy who makes lush country-pop albums also plays bluegrass isn't the important thing to admire. The lucky thing about Jim Lauderdale—a thing worth banking some of country's troubled future on—is that a guy with the commitment to play bluegrass also loves what's truly country about pop.