Later this month the new documentary film Jim Lauderdale: The King of Broken Hearts is officially launched at a screening in Nashville ( Bongo After Hours Theatre on Monday 15th Sept) prior to the Americana Music Festival. The film traces the career arc of the country music singer/songwriter who has been rejected by record labels, had his songs recorded by some of country music’s biggest names and collaborated with everyone from Emmylou Harris and Elvis Costello to Ralph Stanley, John Oates and Buddy Miller to name just a few. Focusing firmly on his music the documentary is essential viewing for any fan of Americana music, the magic and craft of songwriting or the myriad of successes and pitfalls the music industry can throw at a musician.
Before he heads over to Nashville we were lucky enough to grab Australian director Jeremy Dylan to talk about the making of the film, his other projects and his thoughts on the local Australian Americana scene.
What was your initial inspiration for wanting to film a documentary on Jim Lauderdale?
I was finishing up my previous film Benjamin Sinddlegrass and the Cauldron of Penguins and was looking for my next project. The spark was struck by a conversation Jim and I had at the Beatles museum in Liverpool. We were looking at the all these artefacts and recreations of their early years, and Jim started telling me about the struggles and challenges he’d faced through his early career, and how seeing the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show was really an epiphany for him that set him down the path of making music.
I realised that Jim’s story had real cinematic potential – and that even if I screwed it up, the soundtrack would be amazing.
What was Jim’s reaction to a documentary when you first pitched it to him?
A few months after our Liverpool conversation (we’re now in Christmas 2010), I yanked various interview and performance clips of Jim off YouTube and cut them into a 15 minute sizzle reel that gave a broad idea of how the eventual film would be structured. I emailed it off to Jim, with a note asking him for his blessing to make the film. He wrote back “Ok, your funeral” or words to that effect – and we were off to the races.
What’s your personal connection to Jim’s music?
Like many people out there, I first got to know Jim’s songs through other artists’ recordings of them. The first time I saw Jim play, in Tamworth when I was eleven years old, I remember thinking after each song “Hey, it’s that Gary Allan song!” or “He wrote that Dixie Chicks song? That George Strait song?”
To me, Jim’s music is magical for three reasons:
First is the way in which his melodies can slide between country, soul and rock in the space of a single line.
The second is sense of humour, the sly turn of phrase in a song like ‘Don’t Make Me Come Over There and Love You’ or ‘We Really Shouldn’t Be Doing This’. Ketch Secor compares him to Mark Twain in the doc, and I get what he means.
Thirdly, Jim’s songs are so emotionally rich in heartache and self-doubt and self-recrimination. A song like ‘You Don’t Seem to Miss Me’ has so much space between each lyric where you can fill in the details with your own romantic paranoia. He knows what words not to use. He also is a remarkably un-vengeful writer. There are no “bitch done me wrong” songs in the Lauderdale Canon. In songs like ‘Why Do I Love You?’ and ‘Right Where You Want Me’ he’s soulfully helpless and in ‘Pretty Close to the Truth’ and ‘I’m A Song’, he’s doubting his only worth and accomplishment.
Did you encounter any difficulties with the film’s production?
The one difficulty I expected to face turned out to be non-existent – namely, no one said to me “Why should I spend my time talking to some Australian guy who’s barely old enough to buy a beer here”. Everyone I approached said yes. The doesn’t mean everyone I wanted ended up in the film – Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams were on tour both times I was shooting, so they couldn’t be interviewed. But everyone from Buddy Miller to Elvis Costello to John Oates were immediate “Yes”s. The universal response was “Thank god someone is finally telling Jim’s story”.
The biggest problem with making the film was that I live in Australia and not a single person on camera in the film does. So that meant I had to make two trips to the US, once alone in 2011, then with my producer Chris Kamen in 2012. Since I was financing most of the film out of my wages (aside from the 11k we raised via Jim’s generous fans on IndieGoGo), we had to pack a lot of shooting into very short spaces of time, with the busy schedules of many people meaning we didn’t know who were interviewing and where until the day before – or day of in Elvis’s case. We were sharing hotel rooms, hiring camera crews over Twitter, missing flights (this one wasn’t our fault – long story) and trying to enjoy the experience while it was happening. We went from Sydney to LA to Nashville to Franklin to Nashville to Asheville to Wilkesboro to Durham to Nashville to LA to Joshua Tree to Pioneertown to Nashville back to Oz in the space of four weeks.
Then came a very involved and unexpectedly time-consuming rights clearing process. Because we had a lot of songs in the film, and not much money in the budget compared to a studio film, we had to work out a lot of deals and do a lot of negotiating with the various companies involved in order to be able to release the film, which we’re finally doing on September 15!
After following, filming and getting to know Jim as a person and an artist is there a genuine friendship that comes from that experience?
I’d say we were friends before I made the film, which is part of the reason he trusted me to do it. I know Jim had been burned by other people who had started making projects like this about him, only for them to fall apart for various reasons. The fact that he was willing to give me carte blanche to go off and make this, with an understanding that it was my film about him and I would make the final decisions about what ended up in the film, is something I’ll always be very grateful for.
The experience of the film has definitely strengthened the trust between us – we have very honest and open conversations when we hang out. We have a lot in common in taste and world view, but he’s just a generous, funny and very honourable dude, so we’d probably be friends even without the professional and musical bond we’ve developed over the years.
Jim strikes me a really unique character in his experiences in the music industry, his work ethic, tai chi, optimism etc. yet there was little mention of family, relationships outside of music. Was that side of Jim off-limits?
Not out of any edict from Jim, but I certainly prioritised his musical career over other aspects of his life. Jim has a reputation as a bit of a lady killer, and there are some references to that in the film, but I didn’t want to get into any gossipy territory by exploring his romantic relationships. There is some very moving material we shot about his family, but most of it didn’t make the film because it really seemed out of place with the rest of the story we were telling. When you’ve got a whole persons life to choose from, you have to focus on one story and tell it, or your film becomes a mishmash of unrelated short films.
The film is really a story about a unique artist who has relentless pursued his musical path in the face of constant setbacks and rejection, and that has dominated his life. Jim has a lot of friends, but I’d say most of them are musicians – and many of them are in the film. So he has lots of relationships outside of music, they just happen largely to be with people who are also musicians.
Do you have plans for more film projects related to the Americana music scene?
Nothing firm at the moment. My next documentary project, which I start shooting literally the day after this comes out on DVD, is about an Aussie rock legend, not an Americana artist. But I have a deep and abiding love for Americana music, and if I discover another story that has as much cinematic potential as Jim’s within the genre, I would certainly explore the possibility. I’ve also really enjoyed delving into a lot of Americana records on my podcast My Favorite Album, where I have musicians join me for a chat about their favourite records of all time. I’ve got to chat about Gram Parsons with Jim, Lucinda Williams with Emma Swift, and I’ve got an upcoming episode with Doug Pettibone about Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball album.
I probably won’t make another feature documentary for a while after this next one wraps up. I’ve always intended to split my output between documentaries and fiction films, so when I have some time to myself again, I’m going to dive back into a screenplay I’ve been writing – which does have a musical element to it, if not an Americana one.
You’re involved in a range of things such as podcasting, music festivals, directing music videos and you’re a member of the recently formed Americana Music Association Australian Advisory Group. With an insight into a number of parts of the local scene, what’s your take on the Americana music community in Australia and how it can be strengthened?
I think we have an incredible bunch of Americana artists here in Oz – from Kasey Chambers to Wagons to Melody Pool to Courtney Barnett. It’s heartening to see that the genre is being embraced by inner city audiences in Sydney and Melbourne – Newtown Social Club has played host to many of them since it opened, for example. I think a big issue at the moment is getting the message out to Aussies about the term “Americana” – that it doesn’t mean music about America, but music derived from American roots styles like folk, blues and country. I think there are lots of fans who love Kasey, Ryan Adams, Old Crow Medicine Show and The Band, but don’t realise there is a genre that embraces all these artists and could help them discover up and coming artists they might enjoy. On the flip side, there are artists who feel like they are in a nether region between country, folk and rock, and don’t know there’s a genre – and an organisation – out there ready to embrace them and help talented performers find new opportunities to bring their music to an international audience.
Who are you looking forward to seeing at the Americana Music Festival in Nashville later this month?
I’ve been playing Tetris with my diary, trying to fit in as many gigs as possible around my activities launching the film release and shooting my new project.
Aside from my main man J-Lauds, who is doing a set at 3rd and Lindsley on Friday 19, I’m going to be heading to the Bluebird on Tuesday 16 to see some of my fellow countrypeople – including my mate Rob Draper and Melody Pool, who is extraordinary live. I’ll be at the awards on Wednesday 17, which should be the usual star studded extravaganza. Then on Thursday 18, it’s mayhem – Music City Roots, then Lee Ann Womack, one of the greatest vocalists in country music history, then two of my doco cast members – Buddy Miller (who I last saw play when I was thirteen years old) and Rodney Crowell. Then I’ll be ringing the night out with Paul Thorn, who I got to see when we had him on our CMC Rocks festival back in March, and is a total gas.
Then I’ll be over at the 5 Spot on Friday 19 in the evening, because Tim Carroll will be slinging fuzzy blues rock with Bones Hillman (late of our own Midnight Oil) on bass.
Jim Lauderdale: The King of Broken Hearts is available to pre-order now via digital download, rental and DVD ahead of the September 15th release.