“I had a big ‘Keep Out’ sign around me for a few years.”
That is how John Paul White describes the isolation that began in 2012 as he ended his fast-rising, Grammy-winning duo, The Civil Wars, to spend more time with his family.
After several years of happily being a husband and father of four kids, the sign gradually came down. From his devotion to Muscle Shoals to the records made on his Single Lock Records label, White has led the recent revival in Alabama music. His own words and melodies started flowing again and the release of his new album, Beulah (August 2016), and small shows were a test. Did he want to play music again? Did anyone still care about him or what he wanted to say?
The Southern Rambler interviewed White in February on the Cayamo music cruise.
TSR: You have played a big part in reviving Muscle Shoals and developing the new generation of Alabama musicians. You could have gone anywhere. Why did you stay home?
JPW: I grew up in the Shoals and never left. Most people have to go and sow their oats and see the world to realize what an amazing place this is, but I did that through touring. It made me appreciate what we have at home — the food, culture, fashion, arts and people. There are all walks of life in our tiny community and it is a strange anomaly and melting pot. We take it for granted, but the more I travel, the more I appreciate how special it is. Being from Alabama is such a huge part of who we are that it is hard to separate the two. Sometimes people apologize for where they are from, but I wasn’t raised that way.
TSR: How do you explain the music coming out of Muscle Shoals?
JPW: Memphis, Macon, New Orleans, Chicago, Kansas City, Muscle Shoals. In cities like this that have great music, it often comes from poverty and lack of education. People don’t know any better, in a good way. They don’t have anything in their way, there is a short line between their heart and their mouth. They don’t have preconceived notions of what music should or shouldn’t be, it just comes out as it is. It is not a coincidence that the best music in the world comes from the most rural places such as the Mississippi Delta and the Appalachian Mountains.
I recently did Transatlantic Sessions with Jerry Douglas and Celtic musicians and it felt like home. They can trace the genealogy of country and bluegrass from there. Talk to anyone from Scotland and they will convince you everything came from there. There is a reverence and respect for artists. I feel like we have that in Alabama and that people understand how important music is here.
The Swampers from Muscle Shoals are the finest people on earth and we are all standing on their shoulders. They are our heroes and mentors and almost like our parents. They never left and taught us through example what we should do. My generation emerged when we could no longer rest on the laurels of their accomplishments.
The Drive-By Truckers left and went to Athens because they were in the no man’s land of the the ‘80s and ‘90s; there wasn’t a lot of support and it was all about the past. It was conservative and constrictive and you couldn’t keep a bar or club open, so there was nowhere to play. I love “Mustang Sally” and “Land of 1,000 Dances” and have played them a million times, but the Shoals wasn’t built on artists, it was built on musicians and studios. When the studio culture went away, people wanted to stay in L.A. or New York.
My generation of artists and songwriters aren’t dependent on the studio culture and we grew up watching songwriters like Donnie Fritz and Mac McAnally. We wanted to cut out the middle-man and be the creators and get our voices heard in a new way. There is a brother-and-sisterhood in the Shoals with zero competition. Little studios are popping up and everyone trades work and plays or engineers on each other’s sessions. Word is getting out and we are starting to attract transients who are moving to Muscle Shoals but I am not sure how happy I am about it. We will never boom, but right now it is as good as it can be.
TSR: Single Lock Records recorded St. Paul and the Broken Bones’ first album, Half the City, when they were barely a band. How did that happen?
JPW: We were lucky that Browan Lollar, who plays lead guitar, is from Tuscumbia and he called Ben Tanner when he met Paul and said, “I don’t know what this is yet, but you have to hear this.” No one knew about them and they had only played a couple of shows. It was luck and right place at right time. We worried about Paul’s voice because he is 150 percent but didn’t know how to use his voice. He had never toured and they started doing it every night. They had the goods and the stars aligned. Ben is a great producer and knows how to work with young bands and how to push or let them be and capture who they are. It has been fun to watch them grow.
TSR: You seem comfortable and even enjoying yourself playing for an audience again. Was it hard to take down the “Keep Out” sign?
JPW: It was terrifying and I took it away a little at a time with lots of baby steps. I wanted to release my record on my label because I was also able to control how to roll it out and how quickly to do it. After a few years of being silent, the last thing I wanted to do was come roaring out of the woodwork and say, “I am back, buy my record,” which is what would have happened if I was on another label. I am finally ready for a more traditional rollout and more promotion to start firing on all cylinders.
TSR: What did you learn in two years away from music?
JPW: I learned the birth of “no.” I stole it from a Pearl Jam documentary where they had said “yes” too long. Now I have one golden rule: “Does it make me happy?” What makes me happy is what makes my family happy. Is it good for my past and future? I am very particular about what I do and don’t do and I know it will cost me record sales. I want to keep my overhead low and do things like Cayamo and Transatlantic Sessions and play in small rooms and be a Wainwright on stage 50 years from now. That is my dream.
TSR: Is caring about the audience new?
JPW: No. I got cynical at some point when the crowds kept getting bigger and I got more detached. I couldn’t go out and meet everyone because there were 2,000 or more people and I started drifting from the people buying tickets and albums. It is tough to make it in the music business because people don’t buy records the way they used to. Getting out again helped me understand that people still care about music in this download culture. It renewed my faith in mankind and the crowds rejuvenated me.
TSR: The Secret Sisters, also from Muscle Shoals, are coming out of their own dark time in music with a new album. They said you helped get them through. Have they done the same for you?
JPW: I love the Secret Sisters and they were there for me when I needed them. Coming out of my hiatus in the fall two years ago, I decided to do four shows and if I enjoyed them I would do more. If I hated them, that would be the end. It was just me and them and a bass player. I was nervous and scared and everything felt clumsy and awkward like I had never done it before. But they saved me. I kept doing it, not for the playing on stage, but for talking to people after the shows. That surprised me, but I should have known that would be the case. I didn’t care about what anyone thought until I wrote those songs, but after that I wanted to connect with people. All of the songs were new and deep, dark and sad. No one knew a word of them but every night I felt the bond got stronger with the audience. As long as that is the case, I will keep doing it. When I start losing people, it is time to go home.
TSR: Did the time away change your songwriting?
JPW: No. I was fortunate that I was unfortunate early on. I had a long stretch of writing songs for Nashville but got burned out because the songs I wrote didn’t fit Nashville and I didn’t enjoy it. As soon as I started writing songs solely for me, I started getting cuts and that led to me doing the artist thing because I kept going farther. I have been writing to please myself for a long time. That part is still exciting. I have to pray that there are people out there that like the things I like because when you write to please other people, it is a downward spiral.
TSR: Does it feel good to write lines like, “you are the rock in the ocean I break against” from “I Hate the Way You Love Me?”
JPW: I know when a line is right or wrong and when I get to the end of a song, it is done. I tweak as I go and I can’t move from the first verse to the chorus unless it is 100 percent. I need to be proud of every single word. It is a pet peeve when someone mails in the second verse. They have a great hook and the chorus but they don’t try on the second verse. That is the opportunity to lose someone or watch them waver. I want to have a hook in you from the moment I start until the moment I finish.
TSR: You mentioned your bucket list in your show. What is left?
JPW: I am done. That sounds dark, but I have accomplished so much more than I ever set out to do. I want to do this until I don’t want to do it. I want to see my kids grow up and my grandkids. But there are no dreams I have to do before I die.
I can’t preach from a soapbox and tell anyone they should do things the way I did them. To get here I went through a lot of good and bad. That is what experience is and getting older and realizing what doesn’t matter. I know lots of things not to do. That is the only wisdom I have.