One of the most immediately notable things about the ever-prolific Jim Lauderdale's Headed for the Hills is who's not listed on the cover: lyricist Robert Hunter. Hunter does not perform on the set, but he co-wrote every song. If you are incredulous in wondering why Hunter should receive a billing credit, the answer is simple: there is an elegance and beauty to this album that would never have existed without him. Lauderdale is a fine songwriter, but he does not possess the romantic historical classicism and formalism that Hunter does. In fact, with the possible exception of Bob Dylan, no one in American roots music does. On first listen, what grips the listener is how much of a piece these songs are. They feel like a song cycle of life slices from the rural edges of American life. Rich with guitars, fiddles, harmony vocals, mandolins, and a distinct lack of drums, this is back porch, Saturday night music, played among friends while observing the passing day, the surrounding terrain, legends, and the places in the heart that are not easily given over to conversation. Hunter is a master at communicating the interconnectedness of all three; he has the ability to make the commonplace epic, which he does with Lauderdale's stunning, out-of-antiquity melodies. But this is a stretch for Hunter too; there is no slow California stroll in his approach because Lauderdale's melodies are rooted in the urgency of rural and mountain music from the Civil War as well as modern bluegrass and antiquated American folk songs derived from Anglo-Celtic balladry. Lauderdale understands tradition in a way few modern songwriters do -- he's not interested in taming it for the sake of palatability, or taking away its weird, unsettling alien power. There are a boatload of guests on this set, including instrumentalists Darrell Scott, Tim O'Brien, Donna the Buffalo, and David Rawlings, as well as singers Buddy Miller, Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris, and Allison Moorer. While there are at least three core bands on these sessions, almost all the songs feel like they were recorded in a single session with the exception of the closer, "Upside Down," with Donna the Buffalo providing their own quirky brand of accompaniment. While there are no throwaway tracks, standouts include "Paint and Glass," "Headed for the Hills," "Tales From the Sad Hotel," "High Timberline," and "Joanne."
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek