On Headed for the Hills, Jim Lauderdale fulfills a personal goal: To record an entire album of songs written with one of his heroes, Robert Hunter.
"There's no one in the world who writes quite like Robert," Lauderdale says of the California-based lyricist best known for his collaborations with the late Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead. "He's a great storyteller, and he has a way of showing his roots in bluegrass and old-time folk music that has its own unique twist. His lyrics are so literate yet so accessible, and they make for these great, one-of-a-kind songs."
Lauderdale first contacted Hunter five years ago. Lauderdale had long considered asking the famed lyricist about co-writing together, and he figured the moment to introduce the idea had arrived. At the time, Lauderdale was preparing songs for his first duet project with Ralph Stanley. He knew Hunter, like Garcia, was a longtime devotee of the Stanley Brothers.
To Lauderdale's delight, Hunter accepted the invitation. Within one project, Lauderdale fulfilled two personal goals: tosing with Ralph Stanley and to write with Robert Hunter.Their first two co-writes -- "Joy Joy Joy" and "I Will Wait For You" -- anchored I Feel Like Singing Today, the first Jim Lauderdale/Ralph Stanley album. "Live, those two songs were real crowd favorites," the singer says.
Lauderdale put another of his first Hunter co-writes, "Trust (Guiding Star)," on his country album Onward Through It All.Then when Lauderdale, Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys re-convened for a second bluegrass album, the Grammy-winning Lost in the Lonesome Pines, they recorded two more Hunter/Lauderdale collaborations, ""Deep Well of Sadness"and "Oh Soul!"
"For those songs, Robert would send me lyrics, and I'd write the melodies and music," Lauderdale recalls. "His songs read like poems, they're so perfectly put together. It sounds like a cliché, but it's true. Just reading his words and the natural rhythm of the lyrics would inspire the music. There's just something magical about them."
Similarly inspired, Hunter decided to travel to Nashville, ultimately spending six weeks soaking up the town and writing with his newfound creative partner. "I'd go over and hang out with about every other day or so," Lauderdale explains."We'd talk for a while, then work on a song."
This time, the two men reversed their usual work process. "I'd put a melody down on tape, and Robert would write lyrics to it," Lauderdale says. "I'd leave him something, and the next time I came by, he'd have a finished song."
The two wrote a mind-boggling 34 songs during that period, many of which ended up on Headed for the Hills, Lauderdale's sixth album for Dualtone Records.
"Robert's such a gracious, down-to-earth person, but I hold him in such high regard that I still have a hard time believing that this is happening," Lauderdale says. "I liken it to working with George Jones or Ralph Stanley, two of my other heroes. In my opinion, he's in the Mount Rushmore of musical greats. He's contributed so much powerful music to his generation. So I hope this album goes a little way to helping more people realize what a great songwriter he is."
The proof is on the record: From the mystical Civil War story-song "Sandy Ford" (Barbara Lee) to the existential heartbreak of "Tales from the Sad Hotel," from the jaunty road tune "Leaving Mobile" to the mountain blues of the title cut, the new album illustrates the singular vision derived from the creative communion of these two visionary artists.
Produced with longtime co-producer Tim Coats, Headed for the Hills concentrates on acoustic arrangements the only time besides his two bluegrass albums that Lauderdale has worked without drums. The arrangements highlight the sharp ensemble play of the singer's hand picked backing band, which includes Bryan Sutton, Pat McGrath, Tim O'Brien, David Rawlings, Darrell Scott, Bucky Baxter and Byron House. Emmylou Harris, Allison Moorer, Gillian Welch and BuddyMiller add harmony vocals. The one song with drums is the closer, a Lauderdale/Hunter song that the singer recorded with the band Donna the Buffalo.