Devil in the Details
For songwriter Jim White, finding hidden blessings in times of catastrophe is nothing new. A charming backwater intellect who is as comfortable discussing Carl Jung's collective unconscious as he is Alfred Hitchcock, Hurricane Earl or Jefferson Davis ("the mad scientist who got a $60,000 grant from MIT to record information from ballerinas, orgasms and outer space," he says in a lazy drawl), White possesses many innate gifts -- especially the one for gab. At 44, his life reads like a twisted redneck version of Candide, a bittersweet roller coaster of human folly whose cracked Southern narrator maintains that, no matter how bad things get, we still live in the best of all possible worlds. Take, for example, that industrial accident circa 1984 in his hometown of Pensacola, Florida: During the first day at a job assembling chaise lounges, White absentmindedly placed his left hand (the fretting one that, as a guitarist, he'd grown rather fond of using) into the whirling blades of a table saw.
"There's been some confusion about that," he says matter-of-factly. "I didn't chop my fingers off, I chopped them up. They still work. Two of 'em are pretty mangled -- the ring finger in particular got split in half all the way from the knuckle up. It's a dado saw is what it was -- two saws with rippers in between 'em. And you know what? It was the best thing that ever happened to me as a musician. I was a facile guitarist -- what I'd call 'chord happy.' I had to start thinking in ways for my pickin' hand to make the music interesting. If you talk to good blues guitar players, they'll tell you that the music, quote, unquote, is in the pickin' hand."
Sifting through White's colorful past reveals as many silver linings as it does bruise-colored clouds. He's tasted the ambrosia -- both chemical and carnal -- that comes with a lucrative stint on the European modeling circuit, gracing glossies such as Italian and French Vogue. But he's also scrounged for food in New York City dumpsters. He's been a devout Pentecostal Christian and a back-slidden agnostic and suffered his share of chronic depression and nervous breakdowns. Born into a middle-class military family as Mike Pratt, the last of five kids, he found an even less distinctive name with which to rechristen himself in his early twenties. His checkered resumé -- if he ever bothered to draft one -- would include stretches as a professional surfer, a drug dealer, a cab driver, a student filmmaker (NYU thesis: The Beautiful World, 56 minutes), and a sound designer for Miramax's 1995 production Halloween VI: The Curse of Michael Myers.
Now, with two critically acclaimed albums on Luaka Bop, 1997's The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted Wrong-Eyed Jesus! and the recently released No Such Place, White finds himself the music industry's unlikeliest "hick-hop" sensation, the details of which speak to the virtues of both serendipity and dumb luck.
"I sent a gift, a cassette, to a friend of mine who was a closet musician," White says. "And his girlfriend gave it to [producer] Daniel Lanois's manager [Melanie Ciccone, Madonna's sister], and she called me and said, 'I want to help you get a record deal,' and I thought it was a joke." At Ciccone's urging, White sent another tape to Luaka Bop -- "without a return address, phone number or anything" -- and soon found himself face to face with label head David Byrne, inking a contract. "They had to talk David into it," White says in sharp contrast to several reports that the '80s Renaissance Man, who normally reserves roster space for obscure Latin/world artists, immediately recognized White's unique, Americana-based genius. "All [Byrne] could hear was a guy with a bad tape recorder," White says, chuckling to think of his homemade efforts: fragmented, genre-mixing concoctions of jazz and bluegrass. "I didn't go to a studio and cut a demo tape. I had a hobby of recording songs for twenty years, which was intended to stay a hobby. I was signed to a major label off of a tape recording done in my room beating on pots and pans and singing into a Pepsi bottle."
At first the record execs didn't now what to make of their new acquisition -- a raw talent, then 39, who'd never once performed live. "When I made Wrong-Eyed Jesus!, it was really funny, because there's k.d. lang's bass player [David Pilch] comin' in, and I'm supposed to tell him what to do. And I've never been in a band, much less told a musician what to do. There's Ralph Carney, who plays in Tom Waits's band, and I'm supposed to tell him what to do? Bill Elm [Friends of Dean Martinez], Victoria Williams. I feel bad for all of those musicians who've been fighting like hell for ten years to get signed. And I send a tape with no return address on it. There's a little magic in that, you understand. And you can't force magic to happen. A woman in a cab once told me, 'You cannot force opportunity; you can only be prepared when it presents itself.'"
Prepared White certainly was. An impressive unveiling, Wrong-Eyed delves into back-porch laments from a swampy world that recalls Flannery O'Connor at a gathering of snake-handlers. An exceptional writer himself, White structured the album around a tall-but-true tale (fully included in the album's liner notes) about the redemptive consequences of an adolescent hitchhiking incident gone horrifically wrong. Strewn with gothic lullabies ("Still Waters"), junkyard-driven curiosities ("When Jesus Gets a Brand New Name") and gutsy hoedowns ("Wordmule"), the work's most defining piece is a slow, embraceable nightmare called "A Perfect Day to Chase Tornados."
Though the disc was critically lauded as an alt-country "sad-core" masterpiece (something the songwriter quickly amends to "mumble-core"), sales were modest, and White found himself being chased by bill collectors rather than anyone bearing royalties. "I was on eight or nine best-albums-of-the-year lists -- major cities like Boston, Los Angeles, New York, London -- and I swear to God, I couldn't buy food for my family. I was desperately poor."
White consequently broke up with his pregnant girlfriend and lived in a friend's trailer. But thanks to a publishing deal and the placement of a song in the Drew Barrymore movie Home Fries, White came into "a clump of money" that enabled him to pay off his manager and some outstanding student loans; more important, he reconciled with the mother (Lori) of his new daughter, Tiki Bird aka Willow Avalon Whitecrow Martin. With the help of a "loan lady" named Lenora Hebert ("Damned if she didn't pull off the biggest [paperwork] hustle. Saved me and my sweetie's life, basically," White says), the couple secured a little house on Pensacola's West side, a "mixed-race neighborhood with criminal-lookin' people riding around on their bicycles. You have to put a dog in front of your house and say he bites."
Always the optimist, White credits everyone who helped him during his darkest hours, including Dr. Alan Adkins, D.D.S., a childhood pal who provided a makeshift filling free of charge when the destitute musician broke a molar on a seven-layer burrito. "It's people doin' little things like that that make this world a better fuckin' place," White says. "Third Eye Blind, Madonna -- them fuckin' people ain't heroes. The people who are heroes are the schoolteacher who yesterday fixed my daughter's broken lip with love and kindness and patience. So I try to remember those people when it comes time to get the album out there in the world."
Four years in the delivery, No Such Place takes a decidedly cleaner and more commercial direction than its predecessor by blending occasional handclap tracks and sha-la-la backing tracks with dobro, banjo, lap steel, mandolin, mouth harp and -- gulp! -- turntablism. There's less demon purging and more atmospherics overall as White takes advantage of a disparate host of sound engineers and producers, including British trip-hoppers Morcheeba, Florida DJ Q-Burns, Abstract Message, Sohichiro Suzuki (World Standard, Yellow Magic Orchestra) and Sade co-founder Andrew Hale, recently of Sweetback. With songs about ghost towns, stolen Trans Ams and being handcuffed to a fence in Mississippi, the sophomore offering also boasts a bizarre tribute to Roger Miller ("King of the Road"), plus a Johnny Dowd-style murder ballad told from a feminine perspective ("The Wound That Never Heals").
The unholy union between liquor and the Infinite Being forges the album's funniest and most self-deprecating ditty, "God Was Drunk When He Made Me," though White can't be exactly sure just what the Almighty One was tossing back that fateful day. "It might've been the same thing my parents got drunk on when I was conceived. I suspect it was Mai Tais. Actually, there's an African religion which talks about a drunken god that makes misshapen people. So I'm happy to find out after the fact that some of these cockeyed theories that I'm just blowin' out my posterior porthole have some basis in the consciousness of the world."
If sacred cocktails with tiny umbrellas influenced the design of Place, then so did the man behind "Devil's Haircut," somebody to whom White has paid incidental homage. "Hey! You Going My Way???" features the lyrics: "Little hipster dufus with the guitar in a coffin/I been copping his licks about every so often." White calls them "a tongue-in-cheek reference to Beck," adding, "It's more [of a] goofy cool lament that I can't get a song on the radio. If I ever do something that fits with the main, I think it'll be an aberration rather than a function of intelligence."
Yet the album's single, "Ten Miles to Go on a Nine Mile Road," sounds exactly like the kind of song that could launch White onto the popular airwaves. It's disposably catchy and contains enough "power of love" to raise the spirits of even Oprah's weariest disciples. When both Letterman and Conan aired live performances of the tune last spring, White expanded his appearances into small family reunions. "My mother-in-law is my backup singer, with my sweetie's two aunts. They're five generations of Southern poverty that's real good hillbilly singin' -- some real nice three-part harmonies."
Despite his love for songcraft, however, White enjoys performing his music far less than he does creating it.
"I'm not really well cut out for this whole entertainer lifestyle," he says. "I don't glean any iota of satisfaction from being on the stage. You know, a lot of people really live to be up there -- to be seen, to pour their heart and soul and passion into it. For me, it's a job. And I go up there and I try to do it well, because people pay their money and they want to see something interesting. My heart isn't organized around being an entertainer."
Part of this struggle comes from what White calls "chronic fatigue touring syndrome," a side effect inherent in the fact that he's logged close to 60,000 miles in the last five months alone. "I start to feel like a sailor who gets off the boat and the ground starts to sway," he says. "You don't really make a living at it, either. The guy from 16 Horsepower [David Eugene Edwards] said that he worked out the math and it came out to about dishwashing wages. Think about it: I'm riding in a van 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for six to seven weeks at a time. Every second of every day, I am property of this so-called career. That's minimum wage there, buddy."
Voicing his concerns about the rising suicide rate among working bands, White joined a panel discussion at Austin's South By Southwest musical showcase a few years ago (organized by ex-Bad Livers bassist Mark Rubin) on mental health in the music industry. "Touring musicians frequently suffer from depression and start trying to self-medicate," he says. "My bandmembers are drunk every night -- and they're drunk for a reason. Imagine going to a different city every night, singing the same songs, answering the same questions, doing the same routine, but never ever having any consistent contact with any person except those six people who you ride around with in a clunker van with no air conditioning, who you don't feel like talking to 'cause you're around 'em too much. It's a weird, alienating lifestyle."
Fortunately, White has the literary bug, something to quiet his busy mind when he's not staring down highway lines or crowds of music-loving strangers. "I write a story for each album," he says. ("Blessings and Curses" -- though too expensive to include with the new release -- is available through a link at jimwhite.net.) He's also stretching his Jesus! concept into a feature-length script for UK filmmakers the Douglas Brothers. And other than participating in an upcoming tribute album for Kris Kristofferson (covering "Nobody Wins"), White keeps his shoulder to the wheel -- and his eye peeled for potential folk art along America's many super-slabs.
"Found objects really interest me," he says. "If I find a TV tray that's been run over, I might take a photograph that I found at the Salvation Army and just mount the photograph on it, and that'll be it. If you go and stare at it and try to consider the significance of it, you're fucked. It's just something nice to look at."
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