Jim White has a broken cat. Well, he has a healed cat. Well, he has a cat that was broken, but is now healed. Okay, here’s the story…
Jim White took in a cat named Butter Kitten. He and his son adopted the cat after their old cat died. But one day Butter Kitten up and left, just walked out the door. He was gone for a while—some neighbors said they saw him prowling about—until one day Butter Kitten crawled back to White’s house, mangled up and in no good shape. Butter Kitten had hurt himself somehow, and the veterinarian didn’t quite know how. A joint in his hip had been crushed, but it wasn’t a car, and it wasn’t a dog, and it wasn’t a fall.
Maybe a branch fell on him out there in the woods, but White doesn’t really know, and never will. It doesn’t matter too much, because Butter Kitten made his way back to the house, back to his safe place where people loved him and gave him food, and now Butter Kitten’s healed up and fine, slinking around the house and begging for attention from visitors and residents alike.
Jim White, a stellar country-folk songwriter, does a lot of healing these days. Well, he heals. He heals himself with music, and with family, and he hopes that his art can heal—or at least help—others. “Your art is meaningless unless it meets the world and can influence things,” he says, Butter Kitten pawing under the door from the other room, “either directly if people hear it, or if by creating my art I’m improving myself as a person, a father, a friend, then my art has meaning and influence.”
An accidental career
White’s house is in Winterville, Georgia. Winterville’s the only entire city besides Athens located within the boundaries of Athens-Clarke County, and its entire population is significantly less than the enrollment of a suburban Atlanta elementary school. It’s just a 15-minute drive from downtown Athens, but feels like it’s in the country. The Butthole Surfers lived out here in the ‘80s, and since then, well… Jim White’s about the next big thing to come around.
His house, ringed by high hedges and lacking a street number, is a big Victorian number that’s undergoing some repairs, with a cozy cottage house out back. His home studio and its many guitars occupy a central room in the house, and his own paintings cover the walls. White moved here back in the middle of the last decade because his ex-wife and daughter moved to Georgia in 2004, after Hurricane Ivan tore up Florida, and he wanted to be near his child.
White—55 years old and born Michael Pratt—grew up in Pensacola, Fla., attending a Pentecostal church. He spent some time escaping his family, “took drugs, set buildings on fire, that sort of thing,” he says. He spent a decade or so as a Christian, but when things in church didn’t line up so easily with things in the real world, he says, he set that aside, though a certain Southern mix of religion and tradition haunts most of his albums. “I guess since then I’ve been shaking loose Jesus like a dog biting at my hem,” says White.
A man of many pursuits, White got his musical start via former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, whose label Luaka Bop issued White’s first album. Before then, he’d earned money working odd jobs like modeling and driving taxis. The songs had just been recorded at home, and he’d never really performed them in public. White spent 16 months on the road opening for Byrne, learning how to play in front of audiences, deal with “properly” tuned instruments and how to work with other musicians—a community in which he’d never thought to include himself before, but was somehow now thrown. In fact, White’s current performance style—his shows are a mix of songs, audience interaction and intricate conversational storytelling—evolved directly out of the early times he didn’t know what to do onstage.
“I’d be there tuning my guitar, trying to figure out this guitar tuner, how to read it,” says White, “and I realized that nothing was happening and everyone was just looking at me up on stage. So I figured I’d give them something to listen to, and talking also helped me take my mind off the pressure, and it was even free therapy in a way.”
Stories: true, found, exaggerated
Since the beginning of his career, artistic expression and his personal life have always crisscrossed for White. In 2009 he curated an exhibit called Deep Fried Ephemera (Jim White’s collection of Southern marginalia) at the Douglas Hyde Gallery in Dublin, Ireland. The gallery is a forward-thinking space that’s recently branched out into the musical realm, blending performance and exhibits from acts like Cat Powers, Jandek, Sufjan Stevens and Laura Veirs.
The gallery invited White to come up with an idea for a small exhibition, and he gathered a multimedia selection of curious and engaging oddities—books, newspaper clippings, videos, and photographs by two friends, Joe Gillette and Wayne Sides—from the American South. Not one to simply look without for material, White mined his own life for art once again; the display included an autobiographical piece called “Superwhite (Another True Story).”
In 2010, White released an album of original music written for the theatrical production The Americans: Part 1: The Lay of the Land. Based on the works of playwright Sam Shepherd, it took place at the prestigious Juilliard Drama School in February of that year. Sounds of the Americans spotlights 16 of the tunes chosen to accompany the play, and was composed by White in collaboration with Athens jazz-and-more heavyweight Dan Nettles, of improv-jazz band Kenosha Kid.
Sounds of the Americans covered White’s predilection for morbidly weird storytelling; throughout a melange of blues, country, folk and Americana soundscapes, tunes like “Suckerz Promises” held the American dream up to the light, while “Esoteric Text Found in a Religious Garbage Can” married preaching with otherworldly thoughts. Like most of White’s recent work, it received a more enthusiastic reception abroad. Available on disc in Europe, it’s available only digitally here in the States, as no American record label was interested in backing the project.
“It’s a really cool record that’s great through headphones,” says Dan Nettles. “There’s a lot there and it goes a lot of different places. I started out going to his house and recording in that studio, but little did I know that the demos we started making turned into some of the tracks. I learned then that anything recorded with Jim could turn ‘real’ at some point. We have a very different approach. He’s very enthusiastic, and I like to sit with things and stew and figure things out. It was a good mix of both. Working with Jim is something I’d encourage anyone to do. It’s sort of like working with a blender that you didn’t know was turned on when you starting putting things in, and things got mixed up.”
Says White, “Dan Nettles taught me to enjoy playing music. I don’t mean to perform, but I mean to enjoy the actual physical act of playing the music in and of itself, not as a vehicle for lyrics or anything.”
Classic City, meet Jim
Nettles ended up helping plug White into the Athens music scene, giving advice and introductions when White was looking to put together a live band or for musicians to record with him in his studio. Says Nettles, “I’m not a very good sideman, but with Jim’s music I could see what I do fitting in with his aesthetic. He asked me to be his collaborator or translator to help him communicate to musicians. He would have the words and sketches and I would function as random riff generator, or function as the harmonic piece of the song… I became sort of like another instrument for him to play.”
One musician who joined White for the recording of the terrific new album Where It Hits You, released earlier this year by Yep Roc Records, is Bryan Howard, whose funky band The HEAP provided backing on the track “Here We Go!” It’s a weird track, and sits in the middle of the album. Copping the vibe of a wild New Orleans party on its third night straight, “Here We Go!” was recorded a few years ago when White took a phrase he and his son would share, named a song after it, then recorded demo vocals using Prince’s slinky falsetto for inspiration and instruction for the band. After numerous takes and tracks, none of which felt right, White says he just decided to stick that original demo vocal, which had the emotion and intent all there, over The HEAP’s tunes, which was unexpected but came as no surprise to the bandmembers. “You never know what the final product is going to be like,” says Howard. “He’s the most extremely talented songwriter I know, and things always seem in flux, but then the final project is rarely what you expect but always fantastic. “
Aside from creating his own songs and finding the best way to express the sounds in his head, White’s taken up production duties with other artists’ recordings. He’s recently worked with Savannah singer Dare Dukes, L.A.’s Haroula Rose and a Belgian group called Stanton. “Producing has been a way for me to develop my meaningful arsenal of tools to help people,” says White. Those projects are taking a breather for now, though, as White prepares to head out on tour to a few of the U.S.’s larger cities, then over to England and Holland, where he does quite well.
Blood on the tracks
On the penultimate track of Where it Hits You, “Epilogue to a Marriage,” White sings, “On the best of days, still there’s hell to pay.” The tune’s a duet with Caroline Herring, and one of the more moving tracks on an album packed with emotional heft and melodic melancholy. It’s no Here, My Dear (the Marvin Gaye post-divorce classic), but Where it Hits You bears clear lyrical influence from White’s recent personal tribulations—his marriage fell apart during the recording.
The wry Southern charm of some of White’s earlier albums like Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus hasn’t faded, but it’s a little more sober, a little grayer at the temples. Sometimes pared down to guitar and vocals, at other times filled out with a handful of local and national players, White’s arrangements this time around convey an ease with folk traditions and a willingness to stray from orthodoxy. What hasn’t changed is White’s observational acumen—check out “State of Grace,” for instance, which suggests the “cockeyed state of grace” that applies to Southern geography can apply to a Southern man too.
“I’ve found a lot of healing through my songs,” says White. “I hope I find more. It’s a process, though, and that fascinates me.”