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Cover Story: John Paul White

| June 1, 2019

John Paul White

It’s a morsel of time-tested wisdom — initially put forward by Mahatma Gandhi — that just becomes more relevant with each passing day:  “Be the change that you want to see in the world.” As in, stop kvetching about Donald Trump and all his horrific misdeeds and get involved with the grassroots groundswell of fighting back, via every climate-change-concerned organization. And if you’re British prime minister Theresa May, humbled by several failed attempts to enact your bumbling Brexit legislation? No whining. No tears. Just walk away. But if you’re classy ex-Civil Wars crooner John Paul White, you could hide in the barstool shadows and snipe potshots at the current sorry state of country music until closing time. Or you could shut the hell up and do something about it. Like he boldly did with his latest second solo set, the retro-minded The Hurting Kind.

Dogmatically, the Muscle Shoals-born artist (who boomeranged back to nearby Florence where he, his wife and three kids currently reside) went in search of Nashville’s streamlined “countrypolitan” sound; a plusher, more orchestrated take on traditional C&W, whose practitioners included Jim Reeves, Eddy Arnold, and Chet Atkins — a clean sonic approach from the cleaner late ‘60s, early ’70s. “I was looking for that sound everywhere, trying to find it, wanting to hear it in a modern setting, and I’d worn out all my old records,” recalls the Grammy winner. “I was singing it around the house, playing it on my guitar and thinking, ‘This is what is pleasing you. This is what is in your veins right now. This is something you should follow.’ And we had some time where I could use my publishing company’s Rolodex and find some of these songwriters; sit down with ‘em and ask ‘em about all these stories. And I just soaked it all up.”

But what began as a simple fact-finding mission soon turned into something more — full-blown collaborations with some countrypolitan greats, who were not only still alive, but more than eager to work with a respectful younger musician like White. And dressy dinner-jacketed material resulted, like “The Good Old Days,” “Yesterday’s Love” (with Little Mae), and “This Isn’t Gonna End Well” (with LeAnn Womack).  The legendary Bill Anderson was only the first of many to take White’s call.

IE: So Bill Anderson is still out there? Amazing.

JPW: Just getting to sit down with these guys was amazing. I got to ask Bill about Roger Miller, and other guys about Marty Robbins and people like that. And I just soaked it all up. And then I wanted to see what kind of songs I might end up writing with these guys. But everything that was coming out of it? Not only did I love the songs, but I also loved the whole theme of it, and it was spurring other songs in me that I wrote alone, so eventually there were themes from all the songs that made the record make a lot of sense to me. I just didn’t want to make a record that was ‘raw,’ or ‘organic’ — all those touchstone words that we use a lot. I wanted to make an adult record, a nicely arranged record. So that’s what I did. And Bill was one of the first ones I called because I knew that he was still out there, still getting cuts and having hits. And I had friends who had written with him who spoke very highly of him.

IE: So, Bill was cool, then?

JPW: I don’t know exactly how old he is, maybe in his eighties. But when he walked into the studio and was bouncing off the walls —he was so happy just to back be in his element again. We wrote a couple of songs for my album, and then one of his called “Dead to You,” and as soon as I told him the title, he said, ‘Whoa! Are we gonna kill somebody off? That’s great!’ So I knew I’d met a kindred spirit.

IE: What do you learn from a guy with so much history? And does he have any secrets or tricks?

JPW: You know what? He doesn’t. He’s a writer just like I am, albeit one that’s more experienced and renowned as a songwriter than me. But he comes at it the same way that I do, and most other songwriters do — conjure something out of thin air and whittle it here and there. But the lyrics just pop out of him.

IE: Where did you go for these sessions?

JPW: Bill lives up in Nashville, and he writes for Sony. So they’ve got that building, and there are four or five floors of cubicles, and there’s a room there that’s called The Bill Anderson Room. They have a Willie Nelson Room, a Bobby Braddock Room, but we wrote in the actual Bill Anderson Room. And that didn’t faze him at all. He kind of rolled his eyes a little bit at first. BUT I knew he was proud of that room. But what was surreal was that some asshole next door kept playing this huge thumping drum loop over again, while we were trying to write. He didn’t care. But I wanted to scream at the guy next door, ‘Do you have any idea the legend you’re disturbing right now?’

IE: And then you tracked down Bobby Braddock, who also played keyboard for the late, great Marty Robbins?

JPW: Braddock is one of my favorite songwriters, and he told me a lot of Marty Robbins stories — most of which I can’t repeat. But there ’s one that I can repeat — Braddock said that Marty would always say, “I don’t like any singers who don’t like the sound of their own voice. Because then he’s just not compelling, and I’m not gonna believe anything coming out of his mouth.” Then one day Marty said, out of the blue, “Hey, Bobby – you’ve got a good voice, a good commercial singing voice. We should make a record with you behind the microphone one of these days.” But Bobby said he hemmed and hawed, saying he didn’t know if he would ever be worthy of his own album. And Marty said, “Okay,” walked away, and never mentioned the idea again. Bobby said he learned his lesson — next time anyone asked him to sing, he jumped at the chance.

IE: Who else did you meet with after that?

JPW: I got to write a song with Whitey Shaeffer, who wrote: “That’s The Way Love Goes,” and he wrote, “Oceanfront Property” for Geoge Strait. It goes on and on. But Whitey hadn’t written a song in ten years – he just kept running into brick walls in Nashville because Music Row didn’t want the kind of songs he was writing. So he just stopped writing. And his wife, it turned out, she had come to one of my shows. And we’d met afterward, and she’d said, “I’m gonna convince Whitey to write a song with you — I’m gonna make him do it.” So she did! I went to his house, and we wrote a song that didn’t end up on the record called “I’m Never Gonna Fall in Love Again.” But it’ll get out there in the world at some point. It’s a love song, it’s the only song we wrote, and then he passed away. And I actually got to go sing it at his memorial. It was really hard, with all those serious songwriters sitting there. But it was quite the honor.

IE: Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders recently said, “Within the next ten to twenty years, all of your childhood idols will be dead. So I’m out looking for new blood.” Ghoulish, but true, right?

JPW: Well, you know what? That’s exactly what Bill and Bobby and those guys are doing, too. They love writing with new blood; they love new ideas and new perspectives. They don’t want to be stuck in the past. So it took a little convincing on my part to get them to go there [with me] because they still want to have hit cuts on The Row, but I was like, “Hey — you can do that tomorrow. Let’s write an old country song. You know — for the good times.”

John Paul White play Lincoln Hall, Chicago, on July 25.

-Tom Lanham

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