On ‘Hope’ Jim Lauderdale Continually Sets The Americana Standard (ALBUM REVIEW)

We’ve rarely heard singer/songwriter Jim Lauderdale so pensive and empathetic as he is on Hope. Lauderdale reaches deep for his love of ‘70s country-rock to deliver one big musical message themed on “we shall overcome.” This is as direct as any pandemic-related album, with Lauderdale presaging better days ahead, timely as we are beginning to shake off our stay-at-home states and enjoy a regular summer.

Lauderdale can tap the best musicians in Music City as he does here with guitarist Chris Scruggs, Kenny Vaughan, and Russ Pahl along with a core band of Craig Smith, Will Van Horn, Micah Hulscher, Jay Weaver, Dave Racine, Pat Hubert, and Wes Anglois. Sibling harmonies are from Lillie Mae and Frank Rische.  Longtime collaborator Jay Weaver produced.  Rather remarkably, Hope is the 34th album for the prolific two-time Grammy-award winner. Interestingly, the album was recorded at Nashville’s famed Blackbird Studios with most of it engineered by Blackbird Academy students.

The titles say just about all you need to know with the single and upbeat opening track “The Opportunity to Help Somebody Through It” sets the tone. Lauderdale pays tribute to the frontline healthcare workers in “Brave One.”  “Don’t You Dream Anymore?” urges us to not dwell on the present but to set bigger goals once the pandemic cloud lifts. The gentle, country ballad “The Brighter Side of Lonely” gives comfort. He sequences the tunes so that by the end of the album the mood becomes almost celebratory with “Here’s to Hoping,” imbued by the sax and clarinet of Jim Hoke, and the rousing closer “Joyful Noise.” 

Russ Pahl’s pedal steel on “Sister Horizon” conjures up a sound reminiscent of The Grateful Dead acoustic period of the early ‘70s. Of course, we know that Lauderdale is linked to that band through his longtime association with Dead songwriter, the late Robert Hunter. The two wrote over a hundred songs together over two decades. In fact, the album has one of the last songs they co-wrote, “Memory,” completed just in time for Hunter to hear it before he passed in 2019. The lyric “long” seems suspended for minutes and “the long way home we walked before” is reflective of a long-term relationship. Like many Lauderdale gems, this one will linger in your head for days on end. 

The wistful “Mushrooms Are Growing After the Rain” came to Lauderdale while he was out walking, laying down the melody on his phone before he even got home. It’s as hopeful as any tune here, signaling better times are coming. The meditative “Breathe Real Slow” is inspired by Lauderdale’s training in qigong (a form of tai chi). After a series of ballad and mid-tempo songs, it gets uncharacteristically loud as the spiraling guitar riffs and the swelling chorus of “We Fade In We Fade Out” begin to approach arena rock, an oddity for him but a changeup here and there is welcome for an album that might otherwise sink into too much same mood and same tempo. “It’s Almost More Than All the Joy” returns to the resilient theme, with a song inspired by an email exchange with writer Holly Gleason, based on her description of the many losses gripping the planet during the height of the pandemic. 

Another changeup and Lauderdale’s best vocal comes on the contemplative “When Searching For Answers,” sandwiched between the previous and “Here’s to Hoping.” Craig Smith’s guitar and Micah Hulscher’s electric piano give it a late-night jazz club feel. The chugging “Joyful Noise” uplifts, driven by the pulsating rhythm section, Pahl and Smith’s guitars, and the sibling harmonies.

Leave it to Lauderdale, one of this generation’s top songwriters, to perfectly capture the many emotions of our pandemic-induced collective state of mind and take us to the other side smiling.

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