"My dream was to be a bluegrass banjo player," Lauderdale said recently from his record label's Nashville office. "I kind of hit my peak when I was 18 or 19. I started picking up my acoustic guitar and that served me better to sing and write."
The switch in directions has served Lauderdale well.
The North Carolina native has just released his 10th and 11th albums on May 8, with a year filled with touring and more albums to come.
DualTone Records, Lauderdale's label, released "The Hummingbirds," an acoustic collection of traditional country music, alongside "Lost in the Lonesome Pines," a collaboration between Lauderdale and Ralph Stanley, a bluegrass veteran. Both projects find Lauderdale at his best.
"I still feel like I'm finding my voice," Lauderdale said. "I think I'm so fortunate to be with this label ... I landed here at DualTone last year. They get what I do and let me do what I do ..."
Doing things his own way is a lifestyle for Lauderdale.
Upon his graduation from the North Carolina School of the Arts, he relocated to Los Angeles by way of short stints in Nashville and New York. Once on the West Coast, he befriended the likes of Lucinda Williams, Pete Anderson and Dwight Yoakum, who were also in search of music careers.
Anderson produced Lauderdale's 1989 debut album, which was never released. In 1991, Rodney Crowell and John Leventhal co-produced Lauderdale's "Planet of Love" album. By the next year, two of its songs had been recorded by George Strait for his multi-platinum "Pure Country" soundtrack.
Lauderdale thought he was on his way.
He landed a record deal with Atlantic in Los Angeles and recorded "Pretty Close To The Truth" and "Every Second Counts."
The truth was, according to Lauderdale, that it was Los Angeles's idea of country, but not what Nashville wanted.
"They were pretty singer-songwriter, eclectic records," Lauderdale said of the Atlantic projects. "It was perceived in the industry as being country, but the country branch of Atlantic Records didn't want to be involved in Nashville, so nothing really happened with those records."
His next album, "Persimmons," was an independent project.
"It was about as raw as I could get in using country instrumentation," he said.
Lauderdale next signed a major label deal with RCA Nashville.
"Out of respect for the country genre, I thought I'll make a straight-ahead country record," he said.
RCA Nashville released "Whispers."
"(RCA) couldn't get me on the radio," Lauderdale said. "I figured if anybody could, RCA could, and they wanted to."
He made one more album for RCA, "Onward Through It All," before moving on.
Despite the disappointment at the lack of commercial success, a gem came out of his days with RCA.
"One good thing was that I got to work with Ralph Stanley on (Whispers')," Lauderdale said. "I wrote a song with the Clinch Mountain Boys (Stanley's band) and that evolved into me doing the duet record with him (later)."
Lauderdale's first duet record with Stanley, "I Feel Like Singing Today" was nominated for a Grammy and was reissued by DualTone on April 9.
Through the roller coaster of his own record career, Lauderdale's prolific songwriting has resulted in cuts by numerous country artists, including Vince Gill, George Strait, Patty Loveless, Mark Chesnutt, the Dixie Chicks and Shelby Lynne.
"I always wanted to have a hit song of my own, but I don't think that's going to happen," he said, without regret in his voice.
Lauderdale seemingly has found his path and it is a busy one.
"I had a lot of trepidations about portraying him," Lauderdale said about the role. "It was surreal to play George ... When I first heard his voice as a teenager, it really changed my life around. I started collecting his records and he had a direct influence on my writing later ... One night, while the show was running in Nashville, George and his wife, Nancy, invited me out to dinner. I could barely say anything because I was sort of shy around him.
"One of my goals is to get a George Jones cut and sing with him," Lauderdale said.
For now, Lauderdale is pursuing another goal: getting the word out about his two latest projects.
He celebrated his record release party May 8 in Nashville and now heads out on a small tour with Junior Brown.
"I'm hoping to hit most of the country by the fall (of this year)," he said, "and then I will hopefully do a duet album with Buddy Miller."
Lauderdale fans can rejoice. There certainly is more to come.
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