It’s 1991, and Jim Lauderdale is calling a friend long distance from a pay phone in the pool room of the Double Door bar in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The friend is Emmylou Harris, whose prominent harmony vocals grace a Lauderdale song called “The King Of Broken Hearts”. The song is on Lauderdale’s Planet Of Love album, released earlier in 1991 on Reprise Records, and was inspired by a story Lauderdale heard about how Gram Parsons, Emmylou’s late singing partner and musical soulmate, used to spin George Jones records for friends, cry real tears and say, “Listen to that. That’s the king of broken hearts.”
Lauderdale’s call is ostensibly to see whether Harris would be willing to appear in a video for “The King Of Broken Hearts”, but the conversation also involves some verbal hand-holding. Harris likes Lauderdale’s songs, believes in him at a time when he needs believers. Not long ago, she filled in for host Ralph Emery on The Nashville Network’s “Nashville Now” show, and she was allowed to select her guests. She chose Dwight Yoakam and Lauderdale. Jim sang a Buck Owens-style shuffle and the song about Gram and George, and his voice burst through tiny television speakers across America like he was something special.
Tonight he’s not so special. He’s unadvertised. He came in a van and he’ll play without a drummer. He’ll sing the same songs, only this time for an audience of six.
At least two in the crowd will always remember that evening. They’ll remember the way his voice sounded a lot like a steel guitar. They’ll remember the way he sang like he was doing something important and performed like he’d fooled himself into thinking this was a big deal. He fooled them, too.
By the end of the night, it was a big deal. For a couple of hours that weeknight, nowhere was anyone singing better. Nowhere did songs ache like “Some Things Are Too Good To Last” ached. Nowhere did anyone sing anything kinder or sadder than “Bless Her Heart”. Nowhere did the ghosts of Parsons, Otis Redding and Carter Stanley hang in the room like this. Nowhere did anyone evoke the mystery and myth of George Jones, or of country music itself, better than “The King Of Broken Hearts”.
That’s what it was like for those two in the audience. The other four in attendance were drinking, and drinking well.
As for whether Emmylou would appear in the video, she would. But the video was never made. The record company didn’t think the Parsons/Jones homage was a worthy single, and they instead pushed “Heaven’s Flame” and “Wake Up Screaming”, a couple of less difficult songs on Planet Of Love. And anyway, the whole record deal was about to expire. “They wouldn’t pay for a whole tour,” Lauderdale said to the two converts that night. “I’m kind of out here on my own.”
Soon after, Reprise drops Lauderdale, deeming Planet Of Love commercially unacceptable. Lauderdale is devastated. He’s been through this once already, having recorded a Pete Anderson-produced album for CBS that never came out. Anderson, who at the time had completed two Dwight Yoakam albums, said it was the best record he’d produced. But the CBS A&R guy was fired weeks before the album’s release date. Nobody else at the label got Lauderdale, and CBS dropped him.
As long as we’re laying it all out here, Lauderdale also made a bluegrass album with legendary mandolin player Roland White which never even came close to being released. Then came the Reprise record, with big-name talents Rodney Crowell and John Leventhal enlisted as producers. That didn’t work either. So it looks real, real bad. It looks like the end of a career.
And then, a year later, George Strait comes along. Strait is making a movie — the kind of movie that has to appeal to country fans and to the decidedly more broad national ticket-buying audience. The movie is called Pure Country, and Strait, who doesn’t write his own material, needs some good songs for it. Former Emmylou (and Elvis) backing band member Tony Brown is Strait’s producer, and he’s heard from someone or another about Jim Lauderdale and a song called “The King Of Broken Hearts”. Hell, the song sounds like a movie.
Around Nashville, they’ll tell you that Brown had to plead. He had to really beg George Strait to cut “The King Of Broken Hearts” and “Where The Sidewalk Ends” (the latter a Lauderdale/Leventhal co-write that also ended up on the Pure Country soundtrack). The songs were edgier and sharper than Strait’s usual loping, country/western half-trot.
All that groveling worked out well for Brown and Strait and Pure Country. It worked out well for Lauderdale, too. The movie and accompanying soundtrack made millions. “The King Of Broken Hearts”, a song that one year earlier had been deemed commercially unacceptable, became a hit.
“‘The King Of Broken Hearts’ happened before there was a germ of a thought of the whole alt.country movement,” says Buddy Miller, who began playing guitar with Lauderdale at clubs in New York City in 1980. “Before any of that, there was Jim Lauderdale alone in a room writing ‘The King Of Broken Hearts’. There was the whole Gram connection, both in the words and the performance and with Emmylou singing on it, and there was the deep country roots. There was this great, great song.”
The notion that Reprise could have released Lauderdale’s considerably more affecting Planet Of Love version of the song as a single back in 1991 is an interesting one. Maybe it would have fallen on deaf ears without the George Strait brand name attached to it. Or maybe it would have made Lauderdale a household name and gone down in music history as a classic performance that righted a stumbling genre of music and broke down doors for artists of consequence. Maybe it would have opened country radio to similarly minded artists such as Miller, Dale Watson, Joy Lynn White and Iris DeMent. Maybe Gram Parsons songs would blast from the tape decks of pickup trucks and George Jones wouldn’t have to drive his sport utility vehicle into a bridge to get a song on the radio.
All that aside, Strait’s success with the song, and with “Where The Sidewalk Ends”, put Lauderdale in demand as a songwriter. Planet Of Love became, in essence, a very expensive, critically acclaimed songwriting demo, with eight of its 10 cuts ultimately being recorded by other performers.