Lauderdale Brings Laughs to Bluegrass

Quick! Name the funniest song in bluegrass music.

Nothing? OK, name any funny song in bluegrass music.

Titles don’t exactly leap to mind, do they?

The fact is that while bluegrass performers are often funny on stage, they all tend to sing about disease, dislocation, depression and death. In bluegrass, the accent is decidedly on “blue.”

But now comes Jim Lauderdale with a fresh breath of lyrical whimsy called “She’s Looking at Me.” The prolific singer, songwriter and actor, usually a bluegrass traditionalist, wrote the piece for his just-released album with Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys, Lost in the Lonesome Pines. He and Stanley’s group gave their first public performance of the song May 24 at Stanley’s 32nd annual Memorial Bluegrass Festival in Coeburn, Va. And the crowd loved it — in a properly restrained way, of course.

The gimmick on which “She’s Looking at Me” is built is that each member of the band thinks this particularly hot babe in the audience is making eye contact specifically with him — and says so. It remains for Stanley — the self-described “old rat at the barn” — to set all the young bucks straight: She’s really looking at him. Given that Stanley’s current showstopper is the toxically morose “Oh, Death,” this rollicking change of pace couldn’t be more welcome.

Although the elder Stanley gets the laughs, Lauderdale says he wrote the song to showcase his son, Ralph II, the lead singer of The Clinch Mountain Boys. “I wanted something he could be featured in,” Lauderdale explains, “because I love his voice so much.”

On May 25, a Saturday afternoon, the group sang the song again to a crowd organizers say may have been the biggest in the festival’s history. Stanley’s growing fame, spurred by his two recent Grammy wins, appears to be paying off at the box office. The 75-year-old patriarch set the mood in his puckish introduction of Lauderdale. “We’ve worked together a long time,” he intoned. “There’s nothing in the world I wouldn’t do for him, and there’s nothing in the world he wouldn’t do for me. So we go through life doing nothing for each other.” Swept up in the hilarity of the moment, the audience shifted appreciatively in its lawn chairs.