Jim Lauderdale at FitzGerald’s, July 2002

Daily Herald Music Critic

The owners of FitzGerald’s music room in Berwyn had plenty to crow about this year at its annual American Music Festival: expanded bathrooms (much needed), maximum air conditioning (a relief), a new beer garden (nice touch) and the first-ever appearance by Jim Lauderdale and his band on its stage.

Anyone who took in a show at the club over its past 21 years might wonder why it took so long. e naturally fits the wealth of national talent the club introduced to Chicago area audiences over the decades. Just as the club’s sturdy wooded bar, mounted deer heads and ancient band instruments that decorate its walls evoke the tradition and simplicity of earlier times, so too do the performers.

These are roots musicians squeezed out of more commercialized outfits due to their niche appeal of peculiar attitude, yet at clubs like FitzGerald’s they’re stars for practicing what is these days an outsider art: playing music with no pretense that just happens to sound best live.

Jumping onto the tented outdoor stage Thursday night and dressed in a lavender and yellow rhinestone shirt and pants set, Lauderdale broke the mold, bridging the gap between the dreamy, country rock of Gram Parsons and the wise-cracking aloofness of David Letterman.

The meant a 75-minute set binding corny jokes with some of the best hard country songs that have come out of Nashville in ten years. Which also happens to be how long Lauderdale has been making records. Known outside Nashville more as a songwriter of hits for the Dixie Chicks, George Jones and others, the is appreciated within industry circles as a new traditionalist who recorded tow albums with bluegrass great Ralph Stanley before the success of the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack made it fashionable.

Lauderdale’s own music has exactly what modern day country lacks: killer melodies, a rocking backbeat and lyrics more complex than cereal box copy. Rounding out his five-man band, Lauderdale sang songs he wrote in collaboration with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter (“Rollin’ the Dice”). Plus, it’s not often you’ll hear country songs about celebrating the early Spring (“Hummingbird”) or sabotaging a relationship to beat getting dumped (“I’m Only Happy When I’m Moving”).

The charm of songs with titles like “Don’t Make Me Come Over There and Love You” were accentuated by Lauderdale’s bright voice (he’s long been Lucinda Williams’ harmony partner). His set included hallmarks of country’s past: shuffles, trucking songs, ballads, western swing. But, as his one song tribute to Jones and Parsons alludes (“King of Broken Hearts”), his lineage is tied to the music’s mavericks with no patience for softening the blow.

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