Headed for the Hills
First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2004, Volume 11, #9
Written by John Metzger
Robert Hunter may be the most underappreciated lyricist in America. Although his knack for spinning yarns about life and love easily equals that of Bob Dylan — who, incidentally, has performed several of his songs — Hunter’s general avoidance of the limelight has relegated him to the status of a well-kept secret. Some of that has changed since the untimely death of Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, largely because mainstream critics have fallen all over themselves in an attempt to find something nice to say about a band that they long despised and misunderstood. Yet, in the grand scheme of things, Hunter remains a relatively unknown commodity, despite his contributions to a variety of other artists over the course of the past decade.
Like Hunter, singer/songwriter Jim Lauderdale also has struggled for attention in the increasingly homogenous and superficially glossy, pop-oriented market for country music. There’s little doubt that artists such as George Strait, Kathy Mattea, and Vince Gill have had more success with his songs than he has, but rather than peddling something with which he isn’t comfortable in an attempt to fit inside the industry’s pre-defined box, Lauderdale has opted to broaden his scope and work outside the system. The world is better for it, too, particularly since his previous outing Wait ’Til Spring, recorded with jam band favorites Donna the Buffalo, injected his wonderful gift of song writing into a community that desperately needed it — even if the final package was a little less than perfect. Just a few years earlier, he had been dabbling in hardcore bluegrass with Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys.
Is it any surprise, then, that the restless Lauderdale and prolific Hunter would one day collaborate on an entire collection of songs — rather than the smattering of tunes that have popped up here and there over the years — or that the union would prove to be such a towering success? Indeed, after listening to Headed for the Hills, one can only wonder why this pairing took so long to come to fruition considering that the lyrics, melodies, and arrangements concocted by the duo and co-producer Tim Coats seem so perfectly suited to one another. Augmented by an all-star cast that includes Emmylou Harris, Tim O’Brien, Allison Moorer, Bucky Baxter, Gillian Welch, Buddy Miller, and a host of others, Lauderdale deftly navigates the venerable terrain, coloring Hunter’s lyrics with a gentle bluegrass strum and a dusky country twang as he skips from the blues-based title track to the playful lilt of Trashcan Tomcat, from the gospel-hued harmonies that shade Looking Elsewhere to the soaring elegance of Tales from the Sad Hotel. The cover of the album features an old automobile with a license plate that reads "JLRH1," offering hope that additional material will be forthcoming, but even if a sequel never appears, Headed for the Hills will stand as a rich and rewarding slice of Americana, one that features some of the most relaxed, accessible, and consistently affecting interpretations of Hunter’s material since the days of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.
Headed for the Hills is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2004 The Music Box