Meaning of success has evolved over time
John Paul White has won four Grammy Awards, played to sold-out arenas and had a No. 1 album on the Billboard charts.
On a recent fall day, however, he’s in paint-covered overalls as he works on his new Florence, Alabama, studio, which is adjacent to his home. Such is the day-to-day of a singer-songwriter and record-label owner (with two pals), who take his turn behind the wheel of his band’s van on the roads these days.
White walked away from the high-profile Civil Wars after two albums to live a quieter life near Muscle Shoals, where he grew up and learned music from legendary players who put their imprint on American music beginning in the 1960s.
“It’s a strange little anomaly, but what’s in the water now are the generations that came from that culture. We played in the same bars with (the older guys) and we stood on their shoulders,” White says. “They showed us that you can do it from here, that you don’t have to go to Nashville or L.A. or New York to make great music.”
White did work in Nashville for years as a songwriter before stepping into the spotlight with Joy Williams in the Civil Wars. But the call of home was stronger than those bright lights.
“My type of personality, and the music I was making and the way I wanted to create it, was best facilitated by the people who grew up eating the same things I did and goin’ to the same schools and experiencing the same cultural issues – good and bad,” he says. “We speak the same language, so it made the most sense to create with the people who speak the same language as I (do).”
He was content working with other artists for Single Lock Records, but the muse awoke three years after the final Civil Wars record.
“Songs started beatin’ their way out of my head,” White laughs. “I thought the only way I can get some peace is I write them down. And then the only way I can get some peace is if I sing them out loud. It wasn’t really an active decision-making process, I didn’t have a choice. I had to do that.”
White released “Beulah” in 2016. As a label executive (he chuckles at that description), he knows that artists don’t make money from albums, but make albums to sell tickets to shows, where they might (or probably won’t) make money. But his personal priorities have influenced his business principles.
“(The travel) is outweighed by playing the show and meeting people and seein’ the looks on their faces, making sure you are connecting with them and making them feel something,” he says. “At the end of the day, that’s the real reason I enjoy making music.
“And I didn’t know that until it was no longer part of my life. As long as that’s the case, I’ll make those drives and I’ll eat horrible gas station food. We’re becoming traveling minstrels again. And I’m perfectly fine with that.”
Sometimes, miles are more satisfying than the money.
John Paul White Q&A
White sings on “It Ain’t Over Yet” with Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash on Crowell’s “Close Ties” album
Bill Thompson: What was it like in the studio? At some point, did you think, “They can have anybody in the world, and they chose me?”
White: I was thinking that the entire time. I was terrified, I was in awe. I was so tight, you know, because I wanted to impress, I didn’t want to drop the ball, because, yes, they could call anyone and they would have stepped up to do that job. I don’t take that sort of responsibility lightly.
The crazy thing was I had never met Rodney, other than maybe, “Hey, how ya doin’?” in passing. But, obviously, I knew of him, and I realized later that he knew of me and was a fan. It was a suggestion by Kim Buie (of New West Records, Crowell’s label), who was producing the record. And he said, “I love his work, let’s do this.”
I walked in thinking I was singing a harmony part in the chorus. He played the track back for me and it’s gorgeous, so he gets to the chorus and I’m planning on singing harmony (laughs) and there’s no vocal. I said, “Rodney, I don’t want to be presumptuous, but it would be a whole lot easier to sing this harmony if there was a vocal here to sing with.” And he said, “Oh no, Hoss, you’re singin’ lead.” I didn’t have time to panic, so OK, hit record, here we go.
I had known Rosanne much more than Rodney, but it was another situation where her selfless, wonderful self reached out to me and said, “I’m a fan, I want to work together.”
I’m learning from this, I like it. And I want to do more of it as well. It’s such a cool, novel thing to call someone you respect and say, “Hey, I like what you do, let’s work together.” For most of my life, that had never entered my mind to do that. I wouldn’t have the … I don’t know, it just seemed like an alien concept and now I’m doin’ a lot of it. And 100 percent of the time, it’s been fruitful and enjoyable and something I want to continue doin’.
I’ve really been embracin’ it whereas I used to shy away from being in awkward situations like “Hey, let’s jam a song together at the end of the night.” I’d be like, “Nope. No. There has to be practicing. We need charts and I don’t know the words and, no.” But I’ve really taken to it, so I’m thinkin’ a lot about collaborative types of tours in the future, maybe even like the old Dick Clark Cavalcade of Stars. And it would be fun.
John Paul Whites sings “The Long Way Home”
Originally published in 2017.