Jim White

TrackAlbum
Sleepy-TownWrong-Eyed Jesus
A Perfect Day To Chase TornadosWrong-Eyed Jesus
Still WatersWrong-Eyed Jesus
Handcuffed To A Fence In MississippiNo Such Place
Static On The RadioDrill A Hole In The Substrate...
A Town Called AmenTransnormal Skiperoo
Chase The Dark AwayWhere It Hits You
What Rocks Will Never KnowWhere It Hits You
Wordmule RevisitedTake It Like A Man
Sorrows ShineTake It Like A Man

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Contributor: Andrew Shields

“Some writers have a bunch of talent; I don’t know any writers who are without it. But a unique and exact way of looking at things, and finding the right context for expressing that way of looking, that’s something else. ‘The World According to Garp’ is of course the marvellous world according to John Irving. There is another world according to Flannery O’Connor, and others according to William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. There are worlds according to Cheever, Updike, Singer, Stanley Elkin, Ann Beattie, Cynthia Ozick, Donald Barthelme, Mary Robison, William Kittredge, Barry Hannah. Every great, or even every very good writer, makes the world over according to his own specifications.” Raymond Carver

 

Picture if you will…

We are in the deep south of the USA. An eerie mist is coming off the river which runs near us while cicadas cheep noisily as the evening sun goes slowly down. Somewhere nearby a travelling preacher is holding forth on the evils of sin and the dangers of damnation. Meanwhile, a woman hauls a body along the river’s bank, taking care not to be noticed by the few sleepy men drinking bottles of moonshine who are the only people still about at this unholy hour of the night. Outside of the nearest town a travelling tent show which features vaudeville acts, three-card tricksters and the few remaining old-time carnival hucksters, is folding up for the night. As they leave town they travel first through the respectable houses and churches which make up the centre of town. They also pass revivalist tents where hell-fire preachers and spiritual healers ply their trades. As they move further out, however, they enter a much seedier world of gun shops, liquor stores, strip clubs and low dives where acts of random violence are commonplace. The atmosphere all around us is a brooding one, heavy with the air of foreboding, in which is mingled a tinge of sin, regret, simmering violence and a deep longing for a much desired but elusive transcendence…

Welcome, that is, to the world of Jim White – a vision of the American South as it should have been, but probably never was …

 

With the release of his classic first album, The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted Wrong-Eyed Jesus, in 1997, Jim White virtually singlehandedly created a new style of alternative folk/country/americana music which some writers have categorised as ‘southern Gothic’. Musically, it was a product of White’s inspired fusion of a range of musical influences which went all the way from old-time bluegrass music through white gospel and on to much more contemporary styles such as hip-hop. At one point, indeed, White defined his own style as ‘hick-hop’. Lyrically, White also drew on a wide variety of sources, but the key influences on his work in that regard were southern authors like William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. From them both, he derived a predilection for writing in a heightened and extremely atmospheric style. His work also resembled theirs in its focus on characters whose idiosyncrasies and odd behaviour reflected the poverty and alienation which existed just below the surface of a decayed – and decaying – southern society. This was a world which was both steeped in Evangelical religion and in a history of social inequality and exploitation. Its seemingly dysfunctional character was also often traced by those earlier authors to the disruptive and potentially explosive legacies which had been left behind by slavery.

Jim White’s own personal background also played a large part in shaping his distinctive approach towards writing about the deep south. After moving to Pensacola, Florida from California as a young boy, he found it extremely difficult to integrate into the small-town world in which he found himself. As a result, he felt very much an outsider in the town, before becoming involved with a hard-line Evangelical Pentecostal church there. Although White eventually broke with it, his involvement in the church was to exercise a strong influence over his later work. Indeed, throughout his career, religious themes, philosophical questionings and broad existentialist concerns were to be central elements in his work. The type of Evangelical religion with which he had been involved was also one which favoured what could be seen as extreme forms of religion including speaking in tongues and various forms of spiritual healing. Its ceremonies were also highly theatrical and profoundly emotional occasions, featuring a type of ecstatic religion which occasionally was reflected in White’s later songs. In its belief in hellfire and damnation, there was a darker undercurrent to the church’s teachings which also left a mark on White’s later worldview.

In the years after he left Florida, White was also to pursue a wide variety of occupations which included brief stints as a professional surfer and as a male model and a more extended one (lasting nearly a decade) as a taxi-driver in New York. While holding down the latter job, White also spent some time as a film student at New York University and this, perhaps, accounts, for the cinematic quality which is typical of much of his best work. He also went through some personal problems during this time which included struggles with depression. In a sense, these widely diverse life experiences were to give White that empathy with outsiders and marginalised people, which was to be one of the key strengths of his best work.

He occasionally attempted to alleviate such spells of depression by writing songs and stories. Although he had done this throughout his life, it was only in the late 1980s that he began to feel that his newer songs had that ‘clarity and focus’ which had previously been lacking from his work. In consequence, he began playing and taping them for his friends. Eventually, one of these recordings found its way into the hands of David Byrne, the former Talking Heads frontman, who was both impressed and intrigued by it. Byrne was then running a small independent label, Luaka Bop, and it was on it that White’s first record, Wrong-Eyed Jesus (to give it its short title), was to appear.

In the event, it was to be one of those rare debut albums which immediately established its creator as an artist of very high calibre, indeed, with a distinctive voice of his own. It was also a record which, from the outset, inhabited a quirkily poetic world of its own. This atmosphere was heightened by the use of some unusual instruments (like the saw for example) and by the innovative and densely layered arrangements which added to its air of otherworldly strangeness. What really carried the record, however, was the strength of White’s songwriting throughout. Indeed, such is its quality that I found it very difficult to select which tracks I should include. In the end, however, my choice was based on selecting those tracks which gave a good representation of the qualities of the album as a whole.

My first choice from it, Sleepy-Town, is one of the first of the many strangely beautiful or beautifully strange songs which White has written in his career. Like much of his work, it also shows his empathy for the (perhaps) deluded beliefs of the strange characters that populate much of his work. It also includes my favourite lines from any of his songs – ones which also display the droll and dark sense of humour which underlies even his more melancholy songs:

And I would write Jesus a letter,
But I hear that he don’t speak English

My second choice from the album, A Perfect Day To Chase Tornados, is another example of his deadpan and rather grim sense of humour. It also features twisters, a murder, a subsequent shooting and a discussion of existential questions about where the soul goes after someone dies. What more could anyone want? In a similar vein, Still Waters describes a character who makes rather sinister use of the extra-sensory powers which he possesses or claims to possess. Like other songs by White, its narrative is not, however, a linear one and the rather fractured style he uses in his songwriting often reflects the mental states of the personalities they describe. The song also features some beautifully deft interplay on guitar between White himself and Joe Henry and David Pilch on bass. This adds greatly to the evocative nature of the song itself and, for me at least, is reminiscent of the brilliant filigree work done by Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny in Planxty.

While not, perhaps, as good as his brilliant first album, White’s second, No Such Place (2001), was a very fine record in its own right. From it I have chosen the wryly upbeat and rhythmically propulsive opening track, Handcuffed To A Fence In Mississippi. Again, the song displays White’s mastery of black humour and his ability to draw incisive character sketches in just a few lines.

A key element of Jim White’s career to date has been his ability to attract high quality musical collaborators and my next selection, Static On The Radio from the third album Drill A Hole In The Substrate And Tell Me What You See (2004), is greatly enhanced by the excellent harmony vocal of Aimee Mann.

If White’s first three albums can be seen as representing something of a trilogy, drawing on a similar range of themes and building on the musical landscape he had developed with Wrong-Eyed Jesus, his work since then has taken on something of a new direction. Generally speaking, these later records have been far more pared back than his earlier ones. As a result of this, the folk and country influences which always underlaid his work have come far more to the fore. At the same time, his lyrics have become much more directly personal in character. As a result, the best of this recent work has had a greater emotional depth than his earlier work possessed. My last selections are all drawn from these fine albums. The first, A Town Called Amen, comes from his 2007 CD, Transnormal Skiperoo, and is one of the most infectious and optimistic songs that White has written. It also clearly owes a debt to the songwriting of John Prine, who the younger man has described as one of his favourite songwriters.

The next two choices come from Jim White’s superb 2012 album, Where It Hits You. In my humble opinion, this is his best record since Wrong-Eyed Jesus, and deserves a place among the great break-up records along with Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks and John Martyn’s Grace And Danger. In fact, White’s then wife left him during the actual recording of the album and this, perhaps, accounts for the air of melancholy which pervades it. There is also, however, a stark beauty about much of the record and this is exemplified by my first choice here, Chase The Dark Away (see top clip). There is also a stoic air about the record and my next selection, What Rocks Will Never Know, both reflects this and White’s own willingness to seek the best in even the most difficult circumstances.

The final two tracks are from White’s most recent album, Take It Like A Man, which was made with the bluegrass outfit, The Packway Handle Band. On it, White re-arranged the song Wordmule which had first appeared on his classic debut album. It had always sounded like a slightly demented and deranged bluegrass song to me and, in consequence, this version works perfectly. My last choice, Sorrows Shine, is a beautiful old timey ballad which he sings superbly. Almost two decades on from the release of Wrong-Eyed Jesus, Jim White remains a superbly idiosyncratic performer, who has maintained a quirky individuality which continues to mark him out from the bland conformity of the modern music industry.

 

Postscript

For those interested in discovering more about Jim White’s music I highly recommend the excellent 2003 documentary, “Searching For The Wrong-Eyed Jesus”. Just click on the link below.

 

Jim White official website

Jim White on Luaka Bop

“Searching For The Wrong-Eyed Jesus” (BBC Arena documentary)

“A Day With Jim White vs. The Packway Handle Band” (documentary)

Jim White vs. The Packway Handle Band

Jim White biography (iTunes)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs …

TopperPost #536

3 Comments

  1. Dave Stephens
    Jul 17, 2016

    Brilliant. An absolute eye (and ear) opener on a man that few people know. And even for those that do I suspect there’s still something in here to learn.

  2. PaulK
    Jul 18, 2016

    Excellent piece which will have me listening to these albums again. Thanks
    (Take a look at PaulK’s excellent website, Blabber ‘n’ Smoke, a Glasgow view of Americana and related music and writings. Ed.)

  3. Andrew Shields
    Jul 18, 2016

    Dave & Paul, thanks for these comments. Enjoyed working on this piece as White is a fascinating character as well as a very fine songwriter. He also has a good line in self-deprecating wit as can be seen both from his music and his website. Would add that ‘Chainsaw of Life’ – the album that he made with Johnny Dowd and Willie B. under the name of Hellwood – is also well worth checking out.

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