Jim Lauderdale has written hits for such country-music glitterati as George Strait, Patty Loveless, and George Jones but never for himself. It’s not that he hasn’t tried. The night before we talked, I listened to his Planet of Love. Every track on that CD is a little masterpiece, shined to perfection by producers Rodney Crowell and John Leventhal. Planet, says Lauderdale, got no radio play but spawned eight hit covers for other country stars. He’s not bitter. “I was always so grateful whenever somebody recorded one of my songs,” he says by phone. And that spells paycheck. “I’ve never taken that for granted.”
Born in North Carolina, Lauderdale is 55 now. An L.A.-based country rocker at the time he made Planet of Love, he moved to Nashville years ago. The crafting of reliably heart-achy country songs with lines such as, “I was pouring whiskey in an empty heart when I met Jesus in a bar” has earned him a cult following. Lauderdale’s also in demand as a backup singer. He’s recorded with Elvis Costello and toured as a band member of his band.
So, what’s he doing onstage with Hot Tuna Blues (Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Cassady) and blues harpist Charlie Musselwhite? “So far, we’ve been doing some songs that I wrote with [Grateful Dead lyricist] Robert Hunter. Probably by the time we get to San Diego, I will have written some new songs, and we might do one or two of those.” Lauderdale leaves Nashville occasionally for the Joshua Tree–like embrace of Pioneertown. He says he loves to hunker down at Jim Austin’s Rimrock Ranch up there and write songs. Otherwise, he doesn’t visit the West Coast often. “I’ve only played in San Diego once or twice,” he says. “It’s a treat for me to come back to the area.”
JIM LAUDERDALE: Belly Up Tavern, Tuesday, March 8, 8 p.m. 858-481-8140. $30, $32.