Nashville singer-songwriter Jason White is not a household name. A few years back, though, in 2001, Tim McGraw’s cover of one of his tunes, “Red Ragtop”, riled a few households with a verse about abortion (“We were young and wild / We decided not to have a child / So we did what we did / And we tried to forget”), and the song was banned on some country radio stations. Maybe you remember this brouhaha and maybe you don’t. Either way, I don’t quote the above lyrics to fan the flames (well, embers at this point) of controversy; rather, it’s done as a means of showing that White is a storyteller willing to tackle difficult and unconventional subjects. He showed great facility on his debut album, 2001’s Shades of Gray, and on his sophomore release, Tonight’s Top Story, (an apropos title for a storyteller, no?) he proves that his keen storyteller’s eye and ear are no fluke.
Tonight’s Top Story is brimming with interesting, vivid characters. There’s the gun-toting disgruntled employee of the opener “Slow News Day”, the doped-out sad sack of “Trust Fund Junkie” (“Hey mom and dad / Please don’t cut me off now / ... I swear I’ll get clean somehow”) who ends up dead in a botched robbery attempt, the suicidal lesbian redeemed by love and the dog who saves its owner’s life following a harrowing car wreck (both in “Blackberry Winter”). Granted, these examples make Tonight’s Top Story sound gruesome and bleak, but White, with the help of his backing band - guitarist Jack Silverman, drummer Rick Lonow and multi-horn-instrumentalist Jim Hoke - and producer Viktor Krauss (Alison’s bro, he also plays bass and keyboards on the album) keep the album from being a mopefest. “Slow News Day” is almost adult-contemporary-hip-hop (whatever the hell that might be) and is so slick and clean-sounding you could practically eat off it. A funky bassline pins down the dark “Fat City Saturday Night”, while White lets loose with a fuzzed out, bluesy guitar solo. It makes you wish the album was a little more scuffed-up sounding - after all, shouldn’t gritty topics be paired with a gritty sound? More often than not, though, White keeps his tunes firmly ensconced in the inoffensive pop-rock continuum. A hint of twang colors the otherwise-bland ode to his daughter “For Melissa” (though, speaking as a non-father, who am I to say? The jaunty lyrics of “Highwayman” - the title character kidnaps the queen at knifepoint for his own - are paired with a lullaby. To these ears, it’s a shame that White’s razor-sharp lyrics are hamstrung by (comparatively) toothless music.
It’s no surprise, then, that Tonight’s Top Story‘s top story is the track that strikes the best balance between word and music. “Woman of the World” doesn’t involve guns, violence or suicide, but tells of a young man’s infatuation with a woman who’s got a severe case of wanderlust; it’s your typical boy-meets-girl-loses-girl-gets-girl-back-loses-her-yet-again story. (White sings with a Dylan-esque world-weary resignation (recognition?) that “I got a postcard in the mail today / The fifth one since she flew away / A picture of some hotel in Japan / I think I finally understand / ...She was never mine / She was a woman of the world”; it will just about break your heart.) There’s some horns echoing the song’s sentiments, but it’s not as overproduced as some of the other cuts; the tune unfolds at a charming, natural pace.
Jason White, with Tonight’s Top Story proves he’s got songwriting down cold; the next step is to find the right sound to match his literate, albeit often dark, lyrics. This guy’s words deserve better than run-of-the-mill.