I Will Wait For You: Jim Lauderdale Remembers Robert Hunter
Photo by Jay Blakesberg
One of Robert Hunter’s closest collaborators reflects on their unexpected, later-in-life friendship.
It’s hard to find the right things to say about someone who said things so profoundly, differently and meaningfully, at a level higher than we had ever heard. We all share a love, reverence and gratitude for him. Our feelings have grown deeper in these recent weeks. We share a lot in our experience of hearing those words that live and move in those songs, which are a part of us. There have been some very heartfelt and eloquent things said by many close to him that have been a balm for the loss we have felt. And all of us are feeling some of the same things.
When they came out, American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead were my first Grateful Dead albums and touchstones. They opened a lot of doors that lead to a different world. The other ones have played along the journey as well. And they all fit together. And fit us. We share that love for him, and the words that came from him and wove into the magic that changed our lives. Even though we are all different, we have a common bond.
I’m thankful to my friend Rob Bleetstein for connecting me with Robert about 22 years ago, when it was a fantasy to get to write with him. I was about to make a record with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. I knew Robert and Jerry loved the Stanley Brothers. This pipe dream was a long shot, but worth a try. To my astonishment, he sent a lyric—a love song to his wife Maureen called “Joy Joy Joy.” He also suggested putting a melody to “I Will Wait for You,” from his collection Box of Rain. Luckily, Robert and Ralph liked them. From there, we wrote a lot of songs—in different styles— and it all seems unreal that it ever happened.
After we wrote the first two songs, Robert made a sort of pilgrimage to Nashville for several weeks. I’d go over to where he was staying and we’d chat for awhile, a melody would come to me and I’d put it down on a cassette, and leave it with him or he’d give me a lyric to take away. When I’d go back over the next day, he’d always have something terrific. We put together quite a batch, and I made a record out of the ones he picked called Headed for the Hills. Maureen flew over to join him and take him home and, boy, were they glad to see each other! It was incredibly sweet to see them together. When it was time, I made a pilgrimage to see him on his home turf. He would come over to where I was and we picked up where we left off. And we ended up writing an electric record called Patchwork River. Then, a few years later, came a couple of bluegrass records, a blues-rock record and an acoustic record. His creativity was mind-blowing. Robert and Jerry had set the bar as high as you can go. And, us writers and pickers have a great example and inspiration to aspire to and reach for. We may never make it, but we can still strive along the way.
When Robert was in town a few years ago, he, Maureen and their daughter Kate came to the Grand Ole Opry. We did “Headed for the Hills” and Jesse McReynolds sat in on mandolin. Looking over at Robert, he was confident and strong, like he belonged there. And he sure did.
He was a very private man, but I don’t think he would mind me sharing a few things about what he was like. He seemed to have a photographic memory and an encyclopedic knowledge of literature and songs from days gone by. He was definitely the smartest man I ever met. He was always reading and listening to different things. Once, I commented on a print on the wall that Maureen had done and wondered if I could use it for the cover of a record of our new songs I had just finished with The North Mississippi Allstars called Black Roses, and he matter-offactly said, “I already used that as the cover of the version of Rilke’s The Duino Elegies that I translated from German.” What! As brilliant as he was, he was down to earth—both feet on the ground.
A few years ago, Buddy Miller and I had Robert on our radio show. It meant a lot to both of us. Buddy had been a rabid fan since he was a teenager and saw tons of shows. I had never seen Buddy tear up before, but he was overwhelmed by having him there. When Robert saw Buddy begin to cry, he said, “I can’t do this now if you’re crying.”
It was a challenge to try to act nonchalant around such a heavyweight that you adore and idolize. He didn’t want you to gush and make a fuss over him.
One of my happiest memories was New Year’s Eve several years ago; we were thick into a new one called “Tall Eyes,” and Maureen and Kate came in and told us the new year had come about 10 minutes earlier. That was joy!
An important thing I want people who cared about him to know was how much he loved his family. I can’t say that enough. They had a love that was really inspiring and moving. He had several close calls with his health as the years went by and I think it was his love for his family—and theirs for him—that brought him back to this world and kept him here longer. We can honor him by respecting his family and lifting them up in our hearts. As the years went on there was a deeper contentment and peace about him. And that was due to the love they had for each other. It was really beautiful to see.
The last time I saw him, he was playing as I walked up and he said he was practicing his guitar for hours a day. He wanted to tour and he wanted to be at his best. He would take Maureen and Kate with him.
Part of us is gone. Part of him is more present than ever before in our lives. Even if you never met him in person, you did know part of him. He spoke to you and said more in different ways than maybe anyone you ever met. His words transcend and resonate, and live and help us along the way. It’s good for the heart to know that he lived a beautiful love song.
Jim Lauderdale is an award-winning country, bluegrass and roots singer-songwriter. He’s co-written six albums with Robert Hunter and featured the lyricist’s work on several other LPs.
This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more subscribe below.