Headed for the Hills
Attention Grateful Dead fans: famed Dead lyricist Robert Hunter co-wrote all the songs on Grammy winning Nashville singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale’s latest collection of country songs. They’ve worked together before, including on the overwritten, clunky track “Trust (Guiding Star)” from 1999’s Onward Through It All. But here the collaboration proves much more auspicious, adding a surreal sensibility to Lauderdale’s homespun sound.
Hunter isn’t the only special guest contributor on Headed for the Hills. Emmylou Harris, Allison Moorer, Gillian Welch and Buddy Miller all add vocal harmonies. Veteran session players like Bucky Baxter and Tim O’Brien also come along for the ride.
There’s nothing terribly clever or artistic about Hunter’s lyrics on these tunes, but in Lauderdale’s hands they become like old friends. “I knew when I saw you/that my looking was through,” he sings on “Looking Elsewhere.” “Brought you my heart/and I hope it’ll do.”
Occasionally things sound a little forced, as on the album’s title track. “Once I had a fiddle/once I had a bow/there’s nothing on the griddle/but I paid back all I owe,” Lauderdale sings in a sometimes strained vocal.
Lauderdale and Hunter also give us a bluegrass-style Civil War tune called “Sandy Ford (Barbara Lee).” And they introduce us to colorful characters in narratives like “Trashcan Tomcat” and “Crazy Peg and Darby Doyle.”
Still, most of the album’s highlights come in the second half. “Tales From the Sad Hotel,” “Joanne” and “Leaving Mobile” are simple but satisfying. Moorer joins Lauderdale for the sweet country ballad “Head for the Sun.” The set closer “Upside Down” — the only song here with drums — is a collaboration with roots jam band Donna the Buffalo, with whom Lauderdale recorded the recent album Wait Til Spring.
It’s “I’ll Sing Again,” though, that really speaks to why this record works. “I heard the Memphis train speak to the moon/whipped out my fountain pen, wrote down the tune,” Lauderdale sings. “Don’t care if it’s been sung I don’t know when/such a good ole tune I’ll sing again.”
As these new “ole” tunes show, sometimes familiarity and simplicity can be virtues. Strange as it may seem, Hunter and Lauderdale go together like bread and butter, and Headed for the Hills is as rewarding as a cool breeze on a summer day in the country.
Jim Lauderdale: www.jimlauderdale.com