Tony Brown on Jim Lauderdale: An Interview from the New Documentary, “The King of Broken Hearts”

Conducted by Jeremy Dylan for “The King of Broken Hearts” at Tony Brown Entertainment on June 10, 2011. For more information on the documentary and how you can support its completion, see our other post here or go directly to the fundraising page at IndieGoGo.

Tony BrownDo you remember the first time you encountered Jim Lauderdale’s music?

The first time I remember encountering Lauderdale was in Austin at South by Southwest. That’s before I’d produced any big hits or anything. I was just an A&R guy and there were stars in my eyes. I was going from bar to bar, hearing different acts, and being as I was in the country music industry, someone said ‘You should go see this guy Jim Lauderdale.’ So I went and saw Jim.

I was raised in the church, but I did go to a lot of country shows. In the old days, the band would play the act on the stage… ‘Ernest Tubb!’ They’d play ‘Da dunna du daaaah… Ladies and Gentlemen!’ Then at the end of the show, they’d play him off the stage. And when I saw Jim, that’s what he did. And if you see Jim today, he’s pretty much frozen in time. Stills wears the Manuel suits, still has the cool, swept-back hair and everything. But in a way, I was just going ‘Wow.’ He looked like a star to me.

And to this day, I still don’t realize why he is not a mainstream country star. He writes hit songs for big artists like George Strait and Patty Loveless, but he makes records that are real Americana, left of center. And when he plays, he still is that same guy. Like Ernest Tubb or Cal Smith, all those classic dudes. He still lives in that world and that’s kind of cool, that he still carries that torch for that traditional country music.

My first impression of him was that he was just like a cartoon character. I think he had on a rust colored suit with wagon wheels, like Porter Wagoner. Today, he still wears the Manuel suits, but the colors are much more toned down. They’re more adult, civilian looking. But I’ll never forget that first time. He just looked like what I thought a country star should look like. And his voice reminded me of Buck Owens and Lefty Frizell.

He’s still the same guy he was back then and there’s times I’ve wondered if he’s disappointed he never became a big star. But he is a big star – he’s Jim Lauderdale. Everybody in town knows him. If the Americana Awards need a host, they get Jim Lauderdale. He’s funny as hell, he’s cool looking and he knows everybody. He knows Mark Knopfler, he knows Marty Stuart, he knows Merle Haggard, he knows George Jones, he knows Rodney Crowell, he knew Harlan Howard. So you just get him.

I think he is a star. I was thinking, I’ve met several people in my life – Joe Ely being one, Guy Clark being one and Jim being another – they don’t have a chip on their shoulders because they didn’t become as big as Garth Brooks. They just enjoy being the person they are. They have major fanbases – hell, I’m a fan of Jim Lauderdale’s! I’ll take a bullet for him. I’ll take his songs, too.

Pure Country coverHow did you end up cutting ‘Where The Sidewalk Ends’ and ‘The King of Broken Hearts’ for the Pure Country album?

I worked at MCA for 25 years. Started out as Vice President of A&R, ended up President. Along the way, Jimmy Bowen – who was producing George Strait – left to go to Capitol Records. So I got the opportunity to produce George Strait.

It just so happened that album was Pure Country, for the movie. George was already an established country star – and so I got the opportunity to do this movie soundtrack for this movie. And they already had songs that had been written for the movie – written into the script, like the JD Souther song ‘Last In Love.’ But then we had to find some songs that George would cut that could go on to be hits.

We got to the end and there were two songs left to do. I remember the music supervisor and the head of Warner Brothers pictures kept pitching these two songs to George, saying ‘You need to do these. Some up tempo things.’ But I’d just got a copy of Planet of Love, Jim’s album with ‘Where The Sidewalk Ends’ and ‘The King of Broken Hearts.’ And I thought ‘Man, these are perfect! George will love this.’

So I played them for George the day before the last session. And this was my first George Strait record. I was still a little deer in the headlights. He was bigger than life for me – and there were the movie guys there from LA. I was still feeling my way.

So I’m playing these two songs for George and George says ‘I love them! I wanna cut those today!’

So I went and played them for someone else and I said ‘Hey, I’ve just played these two songs for George and he loves them. I want to play them for the guys from the motion picture company.’

And they said ‘What’s the name of them?’

I said ‘Where the Sidewalk Ends’ and ‘The King of Broken Hearts.’

They said ‘They’ve heard those. They’ve passed on those.’

I said ‘Really? You’re kidding me.’

They said ‘Nah, they’ve already heard those songs.’

I said ‘Well George loves them. And I do too.’

Make a long story short, we cut those songs. And both those songs ended up being, to me, almost centerpieces in the film. I mean, ‘Where The Sidewalk Ends’ is in that movie five or six times. I always thought that George Jones should cut ‘The King of Broken Hearts’. But if he wasn’t going to, George Strait should.

To this day, Jim Lauderdale gives me credit for putting him on the map. Those two songs, I guess, really made Jim’s music visible, because that album went on to sell six million records. My first George Strait record. Up until then, he’d only sold a million.

After [that], George would always say ‘You got any Lauderdale tunes?’

I think I’ve done eighteen albums on George – we just finished the eighteenth – and this new album is the first one I think I’ve done that doesn’t have a Jim Lauderdale tune on it. The last album had two, and both of them were singles. One was the title cut, ‘Twang.’

You go looking, when you produce an artist that doesn’t write very much, for certain writers because you know they’re going to give you those songs. So Jim has always been a go-to guy for George Strait. If I don’t go to him, George will say ‘Did Lauderdale have anything?’

And Lauderdale’s demos are so good; I pretty much just copy them note for note. All his demos – the harmonies, the guitars, the intros… He cuts them like they’re records.

Jim gives me credit for giving him part of his career. I sure as hell give him credit for giving me a lot of mine.

So that’s an artist who doesn’t write much. But you cut one of Jim’s songs for an artist who does write a lot of their own material – Vince Gill.

I had played in a band with Vince – the Cherry Bombs. We played for Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell. I got him signed to RCA Records when I was at RCA. Emory Gordy produced him.

Then I left RCA to go to MCA and left Vince at RCA. When I heard he was leaving RCA, I signed him to MCA. The reason I got him was because RCA did not want him writing all his own songs. My sales pitch was ‘Vince, you come with me and I’ll listen to every damn song you got.’ So that’s what we did, over the majority of the twelve or thirteen records we did together. Most of the songs were his songs, or co-writes.

But there are certain songwriters Vince Gill would go to for outside songs. He’d go to Rodney Crowell, he’d go to Guy Clark. He’d go to Jim Lauderdale.

It’s partly because Lauderdale has that tenor voice like Vince and he draws from the same Bakersfield, West Coast country sound that Vince does. So they’re sort of cut from the same cloth, plus Vince plays that great twang guitar.

We were always pitched outside tunes, and I knew we probably wouldn’t consider 90% of those songs, but I knew if anybody had a shot at getting on a Vince Gill record, it was Jim. And he did with ‘Sparkle.’

To go back to George Strait: I’m curious as to how much of an idea of the overall album you have when you’re looking for songs.

George just started writing songs on this last album, so up ’til now he’s never really done his own songs. So we were always dependent on outside material. When I would put together an album of songs with him, we’d put it together like a show. Jimmy Bowen taught me that you make an album like a show. You have the opener and a closer, and in the middle, you scatter some interesting songs – some interesting and meaty, some real fun and entertaining.

Jim’s songs, they’ve always got a real unique flavor. When I look at a Jim Lauderdale tune, I’m usually thinking they have a shot at being a single. Even if they’re kind of quirky. We had a song called ‘Don’t Make Me Come Over There And Love You.’ Nobody else but Jim would’ve wrote that song and nobody but George could record it.

But then, Jim also writes stuff like ‘The King of Broken Hearts,’ which is one of the best country ballads ever written.

So Jim’s songs were always put in George’s records because they fit, and because we were looking for hits. Jim’s always capable of writing that uptempo hit that isn’t cheesy. He writes those cool, uptempo songs that are cool, but twangy.

Jim Lauderdale: The King of Broken Hearts at IndieGoGo | Follow the project on Facebook

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