Life's Natural Rhythms

A Conversation with Jim White

by Justin Cober-Lake


“You can write a story about what a bad person I am.”

I wasn’t expecting that sort of start to our conversation. When I had seen Jim White in concert a few months earlier, he seemed very warm and inviting, and—despite having the flu—spent plenty of time after the show talking to fans. Hardly a bad person, he was referring to the fact that he had kept his phone line tied up for 30 minutes while I tried call him. He says he’s ordinarily very punctual, and with his life he’d have to be. He has a movie coming out called Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus and an accompanying soundtrack to promote. He’s also just back from Europe after touring to support 2004’s magnificent Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See. And he’s recently moved to Athens, Georgia, where he’s looking for a house and working on a novel and two albums. Oh, and his hometown was hit by two hurricanes.

How were his family and the town of Pensacola recovering from the hurricane? “I left,” he laughs, which he does often during our conversation, but he’s more concerned with his old neighbors than with himself. “Probably half the town after the hurricane had tarps on their roofs… Pensacola is in the poorest county in Florida. The poor counties have a harder time rebuilding because they just don’t have the resources.” But he doesn’t dwell on it: “The good news is that the people who did survive it, their property values went up a lot.” White’s ex-wife took advantage of the time, having wanted to move for a while. “She had our six-year-old daughter with her [in Athens], and I felt it incumbent upon me to follow because my kid’s kind of like my life.”

That final phrase could ring hollow, but it this case, it’s believable. In concert in Charlottesville, Virginia, White repeatedly referred to his daughter and even thanked an audience member for bringing a child along, because it made him feel better about being there. The performance that night wasn’t an easy one. After making a frantic drive from Washington, D.C., White discovered an electrical problem in his stage setup. He’s begun performing solo with loop pedals, so when the power died, he was stuck.

“I don’t really practice solo songs, you know, just me playing with my guitar. So that Portland show [when his equipment failed the first time] I just sat and talked for an hour and felt really guilty about not giving people the show they wanted.”

He shouldn’t have felt guilty—he’s a natural storyteller, and maybe the only performer I’ve seen who’s as interesting between songs as he is during them. The night I saw him, though, was saved when the manager of the venue managed to track down the broken part after business hours. Several people did White a favor that night and then tried to refuse his money when he wanted to pay them.

Of course, White is primarily a musician, and that night, pedals fixed, he showed his skills. His music charms by inviting an audience in, and even with the line of equipment at the front of the stage, he transformed the room from a hip city venue into something more like a campfire. This atmosphere isn’t created by chance; White carefully crafts his songs using a multitude of effects, including layered guitars, overlapping vocals, processed voices, and ambient noise (hence the challenge of live re-creation). Like any great performer, part of his trick is to make it look and sound easy. On a first listen, you hear only simple folk music on his albums. Each successive listen reveals surprising levels of orchestration and arrangement, all performed and captured with precision.

When we talked about this recording process, White revealed hints of why: “When I work on my albums, I always tell the record company, ‘After everything’s recorded, I want to go home and I want to sit with this in my studio with my hundred-odd instruments and I want to disappear into the music and see what happens.’ And that’s how the albums that I do, the songs that I work on, end up having a distinctive quality, because I do get lost in them and I couldn’t do it with a bunch of other musicians around me. I have to do it in the privacy of my own studio, and that’s the thing that I think is intimate in my music, if there is anything.”

The high value White puts on that emotional nearness also comes through on the film’s soundtrack, on which such artists as the Handsome Family and 16 Horsepower—as well as more regional musicians like Johnny Dowd and Lee Sexton—perform direct, powerful songs that don’t demand but nevertheless reward an open reception. Although Searching for the Wrong-Eyed is about the South (or at least a particular version of the South steeped in intense religiosity and deceptively simple, heartfelt yet not maudlin music), many of the artists who perform in the movie aren’t exactly Southern. I asked White how he picked them.

“Oh, it was easy. I just called the filmmakers up and said, ‘What people do you want?’ ” For the most part, he let director Andrew Douglas and screenwriter Steve Haisman choose, but adds, “At a certain point I felt like the film was real heavy on the alienated-Southern-male perspective… so I pushed real hard for them to put Melissa Swingle in there from Trailer Bride, and I think I was well-advised to do that. It added a really nice, beautiful feminine moment to the film.” Swingle (now one half of the Moaners) performs “Amazing Grace” on the saw, and it’s a goose-bump moment.

As integral as the music is to White’s work, it’s only a part of the whole Southern culture he examines. At the root of that culture lies a certain brand of Christianity that’s colored White’s life, saving him at one point from a potential life of drug addiction but also bringing in its own set of problems.

“Drugs and religion are both opiates,” he explains.

These opiates, he believes, are necessary because of the history of the South’s population. Using Richard Grant’s American Nomads as a point of departure, White continues, “The people who landed in the South [to settle it] were the disenfranchised Scotch-Irish mostly, and they were a rough, clannish, fighting, feuding, murderous bunch of people who came and always lived on the edge, the farthest frontier from real civilization. Those were the people who really populated the South—the backwaters and strange places like where the film goes.”

“I think if you take people who were genetically bred to live in Scotland where it’s cold and rainy all the time and you put them in this crucible of Southern heat and humidity and poverty, I think there’s a kind of madness that comes over people, and I think Flannery O’Connor and Faulkner and up to modern day people all talk about that in their work. White Southerners are strangely displaced. If you look at them just within a lifetime, they belong here, but if you look at them over a thousand years, they’re displaced. And because of that, they have sort of an ache, and that ache has to be medicated by God and drugs and love and sex and it creates, I think, a more virulent appetite for existence. Because of that, displaced people always fight harder than people who are settled into their lives.” When White was eight years old, he was attacked by a Saint Bernard, and the veterinarian determined the attack was caused by canine dementia, which descends upon cold-weather dogs when they’re taken to hot places. White finds it to be “the same with people.”

White has always been influenced by the great Southern writers: “I had read Faulkner and felt compelled by what he was saying, but there are two writers that just knocked me dead—two Southern writers. That would be Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor, and when I read them I felt like I finally knew what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. Prior to that I was just casting hither and yon to figure out a framework for my ideas. If you grow up in the South, a lot of times you don’t want to be reminded of it; you just want to get as far the hell away from it as you can. So that’s in the movie. You run away, and as you get further and further away, the beauty of what you left behind becomes more apparent. You can’t see that beauty until you’re far away.”

White has had plenty of experience of his own with that kind of displacement, having lived in more places than are worth recounting, and he’s never quite become a Southerner himself. “If I go to a gas station in Beulah, Alabama, and I ask them which is the best way to get to Arab, Alabama, after I leave, they’ll talk about that strange Yankee guy that came here. Even if I use all the proper inflections and dialects, there’s something that’s not South about me. I used to think, Oh, it’s just a matter of immersing myself, but it’s not. It’s intrinsic and you can’t really force it to happen… the more you pretend to be something, the less you are that thing. I pretended to be a Southerner for a long time, and it’s never fooled anybody except me. Now I just understand that I’m a fraud and I’ll always be a fraud.

“You reach a certain age, you want to have a feeling of home. You want to have a feeling of home surrounding you, embracing you, so you have to make peace with the things that worry you about [your location] and just say, ‘I will accept those things in exchange for the good that I will get out of it.’”

Naturally, your identity becomes defined by where you settle, but for the permanently displaced, whether itinerant musicians or an entire culture, this identity can limit personal and artistic discovery. The way out, White suggests, is to continually lose yourself. “There are tremendous stakes in losing yourself: You lose your identity, you disappear. That’s something in our culture; identity is tantamount to salvation. If you lose your identity, you’re lost, and that’s a really interesting proposition.” To illustrate, White tells of a time he was riding with his friend Diego, and Diego mentioned the darkness and morbidity that White’s thoughts had been stuck in. White quoted Faulkner, saying, “Between grief and nothing, I’ll take nothing.” Diego “laughed like hell”, finally explaining, “Oh no no no, the prospect of nothing is much more interesting.”

White says, “I was so grateful to him for saying that, because I had fallen in love with my sorrow, and he told me that there’s something much more out there. Western people have a way of fixating on their sorrows, and on their singular sorrows. If you look at other places, you see a much more communal notion of what sorrow is. Go over to the Indian Ocean right now.”

But losing yourself isn’t only about escaping self-centered sorrow. It reveals the tangles of music and faith and physical love. White says, “Part of sexuality is disappearing, losing yourself in another person or in an experience, and that’s not that much different from the ecstatic experience of God, whether you experience it in a church or on your own, on a mountaintop.”

Perhaps no music reveals this so clearly as the blues, where musicians frequently performed lusty numbers alongside gospel-based pieces. Robert Johnson sold his soul; others saved theirs; Son House walked the line. “I think that [blues music] is really honest,” White says. “It doesn’t try to in any way intellectually resolve itself, and that’s really good, because you can talk yourself out of anything if you find enough words. I admire the fact that it’s not reconciled, that it’s free-floating. Much of the truth of life is that many things are irreconcilable.”

Staying true to honest open-ended experience remains a continuing concern for White. He’s acutely aware of the self-consciousness of performance: “Jean-Paul Sartre said, ‘Consciousness is always consciousness of,’ and as long as it’s ‘consciousness of’, you’re separate from it.” White and his colleagues are “interested in old music forms that are not really conscious of what they’re doing. The old banjo player, Lee Sexton, he’s been playing those songs since he was a child…. The ladies in the restaurant [who sing “Knoxville Girl” in the movie]—they’ve been singing those songs since they were little girls sitting on their front porch. They were just existing in a musical way, with us watching. That’s quite different from any music today.” White insists on the beauty of the “communal spirit of music” that allows artists from the Southern or African traditions to lose their worry about performance and just “disappear into this beautiful vibration.”

But if this communal aspect is so important, why does he perform solo with his loop machine?

“It’s an unhappy compromise…. As long as I’m standing on stage, to me it’s already a done deal; it’s already about consciousness. So whether I’m there with a loop pedal or with a five-piece band, it’s already a subject/object relationship. I’m standing on the stage, the audience is down there. If they can disappear that’s good—I never do.

“What you see up there is representation rather than the real thing. It’s like the word dog as compared to a dog. When I go up and do my show, whether it be with my loop pedals or a band, it’s always the word dog as far as I’m concerned.”

While the economic realities of touring keep White from losing himself like the musicians he admires, White claims it’s still possible when he finds himself singing along with his daughter. When he drives his daughter to school, a long route with plenty of traffic lights, he wants the lights to be green, but she wants them red. As they approach a light, they’ll both break into song, him singing, “Green green green green” and her singing “red red red red.” As White explains, “There’s absolutely no consciousness of it being a musical presentation. We are just blending together in life’s natural rhythms, which is what music should be”—a joyful image, which returned to me later when some junior-high kids put on an impromptu square-dancing performance beneath my office window.

Hints of that same spirit of unlikely partners unifying under the sway of “life’s natural rhythms” arise in White’s touring experiences. He says that European audiences receive him better than American ones. White says, “The people in the South don’t want to know me because I’m talking about the idiot child the keep locked in the closet. The northern people don’t want to know me because they’ve been inured by a million incarnations of Southern stereotyping, but when you get over to Europe, they’re really fascinated by the paradoxes of America.” Without necessarily knowing it, European audiences respond to something familiar in the show, rediscovering their past as they leave their own world. Of the song “Knoxville Girl”, White explains, “I was doing some ancillary research and found that song dates back to England in the 16th century.”

That sort of paradox—echoing White’s earlier call to lose yourself to find yourself - applies to contemporary life generally. White has a song “If Jesus Drove a Motor Home” that explores the ties between geography and our values. The implicit argument maintains that if we tie our sense of self too closely to the soil (whether we’re Southern farmers, Scotch-Irish colonists, or English audience members), we end up disrupting the natural rhythms available to us. It is renunciation of location, and the self that resides there, that enables us to live freely and peaceably. White sings:

“Now if we all drove motor homes,
Well maybe in the end,
With no country to die for,
We could just be friends.
One world as our highway.
Ain’t no yours or my way.
We’d be cool wherever we roam—
if Jesus drove a motor home”.

White isn’t the pessimist you’d expect about these times: “The great thing about a capitalist culture is that it teaches you to be forever dissatisfied with what you have. So we’re going to be patriotic and then the capitalist culture will insist after a while that patriotism is boring and you need to move onto something new and then they have to find something new. And it’s hyperpatriotism, which is too extreme for some people, or it’s going to be the swing to the other way. And that’s one of the few redeeming features of the capitalism that we have right now.” I hear the smile: “As far as I’m concerned—I’m not an expert or anything.”

Considering these views, White’s hardly a politico as a performer. He’s mostly concerned with exploring his region, describing the world around him—which he seems to have grown to love—and the people who make up his life. Despite describing himself as “distant” and “detached”, White actually places his greatest values on other people and his relationships with them.

“I had these terrific teachers in school, and they inspired me so much, and if I could be an inspiration to somebody else, that’s going to make me really happy…. You gotta serve some purpose here, you know. I wandered in the wilderness for a long time, just looking at myself in the mirror and wondering who that was, and I feel like I know how it is now, and I feel like I can be of service to those other people who are trying to sort those things out.”

He’s still balancing the seriousness with the laughter in him, even if it’s hard to tell which is winning out with his closing words: “You keep thinking and you’ll be fine. Either that or you’ll go crazy.”

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