Along with Buddy Miller, Jim Lauderdale dominates the Americana scene.
Apparently, Lauderdale can sing anything and moves comfortably between the worlds of country and bluegrass music. I've lost track of how many bluegrass albums he has recorded since first singing with Ralph Stanley on a 1997 recording, but I believe "Reason and Rhyme" is his sixth such outing. It also marks the third time he's collaborated across an album with Robert Hunter, lyricist with the Grateful Dead.
As always, Lauderdale has delivered a completely listenable album, one that features more hits than misses. Make no mistake, I appreciate Lauderdale as a vocalist and writer, and enjoy his bluegrass excursions- including this one- as much as I appreciate his more conventional recordings. True, Lauderdale's music is 'grass-with-a-twist' as the promo folks call it, and one shouldn't judge it by the same criteria as one might an album from Larry Sparks, The Lost & Found, or even The Grascals.
However, "Reason and Rhyme" is less satisfying than "Bluegrass", "The Bluegrass Diaries", and "Could We Get Any Closer?"
On "Reason and Rhyme" the pieces seem not to fit quite as well as they should, and the album may have benefited from additional time and distance. By any count, this is Lauderdale's eleventh album in ten years and such a pace has possibly led to a gradual diminishing set of returns. For every exceptional song on "Reason and Rhyme"- such as Not Let You Go, a tale of backwoods Acadian life- there is a tune that could be better.
Some of the songs appear underdeveloped, perhaps written over too many takeout menus and fortune cookies. How else does one excuse the moon/June couplets of Doin' It On My Own? Don't Give a Hang, after a fine start, seems assembled from unrelated scribbles pulled from a songwriter's notebook. As well, the vocal harmonies are not as prominent as one expects in the finest of bluegrass recordings.
Still, for an artist who has inadvertently shaken patina from bluegrass, "Reason and Rhyme" has more than a few enjoyable moments. Cruel Wind and Rain, while treading well-worn bluegrass ground, starts the album in impressive fashion with Tim Crouch's fiddle propelling the song from the kickoff. Tiger & the Monkey provides allegorical lessons of war and conflict while Janis Jones is a spirited piece celebrating days of yore. Jack Dempsey's Crown is another song that holds up to repeated listening.
Lauderdale is in strong voice throughout and he sings with an affable swagger. The musicianship is quite impressive, and producer Randy Kohrs' resonator guitar work adds interest.
"Reason and Rhyme" is imperfect. There is no doubting Lauderdale's enthusiasm and love for bluegrass music. Brief at 35 minutes, "Reason and Rhyme" is a satisfactory if flawed bluegrass outing from one of roots music's strongest voices, Jim Lauderdale.