When the Americana Music Festival hits Nashville Sept. 12-17, Jim Lauderdale will become one of the most recognized faces in Music City. Not only is Lauderdale the long-running host of the Americana Music Awards, but he's the primary brand ambassador. More importantly to fans, he's an artist whose wide ranging explorations fully embody Americana Music. AXS caught up with Jim Lauderdale by phone to get his take on the festival's growth, favorite memories from the past, and his new British invasion-inspired album London Southern.
AXS: We're talking today because the 18th Americana Music Festival is approaching and you've been very involved from the outset. How did you connect with it?
Jim Lauderdale: In 2002, I started hosting the Awards show. This whole thing has really grown, in such a good way. The amount of radio stations has grown, the awareness of the genre has grown. There are so many great artists that appeal to a wide range of people. When we first got to The Ryman with the Awards show, it was a healthy size, but the last few years it's been sold out.
AXS: Has it surprised you that we've gone from a genre that really didn't have a definition to Americana artists like Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell who are topping even the rock and country charts?
JL: I never could have predicted that. It's really satisfying because both of those artists you mentioned are so good. It's great to have people be really successful who are great talents. It doesn't happen all the time. It doesn't always happen in other genres. There are super talented people who don't get a break. But it's working for those guys and they're paving the way for other artists to be who you are and not worry about trends. They're individuals. They sound like themselves. It's great to know that reaches people.
AXS: And not just great artists, but great people. You go to Americanafest and the artists are hanging out in the crowd watching the shows.
JL: So many of these artists are fans of each other. I think any kind of music is slightly competitive, but I've never really sensed that in Americana. I mean everyone wants to do well on their own, but I don't think it's at the expense of other people. I don't think there's the same kind of pressure to “succeed” as there are in more commercial styles. It's such a grassroots thing for these artists. It's really tough out there and if we're lucky we get to make a living doing it.
AXS: As someone who has been there since the beginning, do you have any favorite Americanafest memories?
JL: Well, for me a favorite memory was last year when George Strait gave me an award and I got to sing harmony on a song I wrote called “King of Broken Hearts.” That was so meaningful to be on stage at the Ryman and hear him sing it. Also, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band did “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” for the finale last year and I got to be onstage with everyone. That album was a really influential record for me. So for me, no pun intended, it came around full circle.
Getting to see Robert Plant and the Band of Joy. He came to my Showcase that night and spoke to me. Led Zeppelin was my first concert so it meant a lot. Seeing Buddy Miller up there every year as bandleader. We've known each other since 1980 and he's come so far since then. It's been overwhelming to see some of my friends who have done so well. When I get to introduce these artists and shake their hands, it makes me think of the first time I heard them so many years ago.
AXS: The Award you received was the Wagonmaster Award, which was named after Porter Wagoner. Was he a big influence for you?
JL: Yeah, we were going to give Porter the original Wagonmaster Award but he passed away just before the show. But we had a presentation and his daughter accepted. Buddy and Emmylou (Harris) and I sang. One of my good friends who later passed away, Chris Gaffney, was participating. He was one of my all-time favorite writers and singers. I makes me teary-eyed to think about all these people every year that we lose. It makes you want to appreciate everyone while they're still here.
AXS: The Merle Haggard tribute last year was really special.
JL: Oh gosh! To have Bob Weir there to do that last year was so great. You were asking about my favorite memories. Presenting Robert Hunter with his Lifetime Achievement Award was really meaningful because I'm such a big fan of his and was lucky enough to get to write with him. It was just magic.
AXS: Staying with influences, let's talk about your new album London Southern, which is an interesting concept, being an album of Americana songs filtered through the lens of the British Invasion.
JL: That description hits the nail on the head. When I saw The Beatles on their first Ed Sullivan appearance, I was six. And it was such a pivotal moment for me as a kid. It opened my mind and heart and soul to music. It was so monumental to the world, so life changing to so many people. The Beatles, and several of the bands of that time, were important to me, even through the psychedelic period. So I thought it would be neat to go to England and record.
But the catalyst for that was Nick Lowe, who I got to open for back in '94 and '95. I've always been a fan of his. So Nick was in town touring with Wilco and I talked to his engineer Neil Brockbank and he thought it would work if I came over. I'd never done something like that before, going overseas to record.
AXS: It's a very circular record because The Beatles influenced you but their early stuff was influenced by American bands like Chuck Berry.
JL: Absolutely! I had that in my mind. That was kind of the intention, and then the songs took over. I only had one song ready when I went over, “We've Only Got So Much Time.” So I wrote a batch when I got there before and even during tracking. I tend to do that, I write just before I go in. Like this Tuesday, I'll start recording at Royal Studios in Memphis with The North Mississippi Allstars and some of the Royal Studio musicians. And I've started some things but it won't all come together until I get there. It's terrifying in a way, but exciting at the same time. Go in with a clean slate and see what happens.
AXS: You're an artist who likes to stay busy. In addition to your touring and recording, you host a radio show, you host Music City Roots, you write for other artists. When do you sleep?
JL: Well, I haven't got enough of it lately! But I really love what I do. There's something about music that is energizing. Sometimes at Music City Roots, I'll be so tired when I get there and then I hear some band or artist that's like a siren. It's the same in the Americana Festival. Everyone's hitting it so hard, the attendees and the performers. Everyone's out late and up early. But music has this great energy to keep you going!
Jim Lauderdale will host the Americana Music Awards at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium on Sept. 13 as well as performing on Sept. 15 at 3rd and Lindsley.