Interview: John Paul White

John Paul White, 2016Producer, songwriter and recording artist Alabama-born and breed, John Paul White returns to a solo career after the break-up of the four-time Grammy winning duo Civil Wars. Enjoying a pace of life befitting the history of the American south, family man White has been doing things at his own pace. Working on other projects prior to turning his attention to his own career White doesn’t make rash statements. He muses issues over in his mind before sharing his conclusion in a quiet, yet authoritative manner. 

Beulah is White’s first solo album in almost a decade, and with it containing a spare gritty feel it looks set to propel him to the forefront of the Americana scene.

John Paul it is wonderful to see you back recording again. It seems like you are a busy man producing records and now releasing one of your own, a solo record?

Yes, I felt terrified making this record.

What made you feel that way?

I knew as soon as I started writing these songs and heading back down that path I was probably going to be back out on the road, and back into the rat race again. I was really happy back home, holding my babies and sleeping in my own bed. I had a very blissful life going, but these songs kept popping in my head and could not get them to go away, and they would not be denied.

I am taken by the quality of the work that you are doing. Like the album Oh My Goodness (Single Lock Records) you and Ben Tanner produced for Donnie Fritts?

Thank you very much. I am very proud of that record. I am glad you know about ol’ Donnie.

It brought you to my attention. I thought to myself this guy is doing some wonderful artistic, unspoilt non-commercial work under the radar?

Thank you very much. I used to joke with Donnie, saying, I am going to make millions of dollars off you Donnie. We just laughed about it. Donnie is a guy who even here in his hometown he is under appreciated. A lot of people don’t know his history and legacy; the songs he wrote and the people (Kris Kristofferson) he played with, so I thought. (Pause) I love his voice and the music he was making now just as much as the music he made in the 1970s and 1980s so I jumped in with both feet when I got the chance to make that record.

It certainly was a great thing for Donnie because he hasn’t made many records?

He has not. It has typically been ten years between releases. Donnie has never really considered himself an artist. He thinks himself first and foremost to be a songwriter. I think that is where his passion lies, in the writing and creating and I get that but he is also a fantastic artist in his own right. It was the first record I ever produced. Again, that was terrifying, to have the responsibility of producing an artist as great and big as he is. It was something I did not take lightly.

I remember Kris Kristofferson’s reference to Donnie in the spoken intro to “The Pilgrim; Chapter 33”; a song he wrote about Fritts and a bunch of his other friends, Johnny Cash been one of them?

The way I got to know about Donnie was through John Prine. John had a live record that I wore out when I was young. He talks about funky Donnie Fritts when he was talking about his song “The Oldest Baby In The World”. I remember thinking I would like to meet a character like that, not realizing I lived about 15 minutes away from him.

That is something else. Where exactly is it that you live in Alabama?

I live right here in Muscle Shoals, Florence Alabama.

Muscle Shoals has this fantastic history what it has done for music (as in the development of southern soul, r&b and southern rock music)?

It has. It was dead for a while, the town was really hell bent on keeping the legacy alive and talking about the old days. About the music that had been made in the sixties and seventies, and for good reason, and we are all extremely proud of that. I am close to a lot of the guys responsible for all that history, but the Shoals got into a rut for quite a while. It wasn’t doing anything to promote the present or the future. Our little generation round here realised, quickly history doesn’t do you any good. We had to create our own. The mentality around here is different to what it was back in the day, because then it was all based around studios, and recording artists that were from out of town. Today the community is mainly based on songwriters and artists, so the creativity actually happens here in Muscle Shoals instead of people coming here to do it.

You mention the future and one man who have given music a shot in the arm and that is Jason Isbell, another guy you have worked with?

Yes, sir. We have been friends for a long time. I have known him since he was a young teenager. We would run into each other playing talent shows. It is a small town, any musician who is around you will run into real quick. No only Jason but Gary Nichols who sings for the Steel Drivers, The Alabama Shakes and The Secret Sisters and Dylan LeBlanc. We are really proud of what’s going on, and feel like it should go on for the near future at least.

Did you spend much time in the recording studio making your record?  

I probably did not spend as much time as you might think. A lot of this record was guitar, and myself live. Then we put stuff around it. Some tracks we recorded over at Fame Recording Studios; that were drums and bass, and myself tracking at the same time. I think maybe it took about three weeks all in to finish it up, that wasn’t too bad.

I believe in keeping the record streamlined is the way to go today and something that gets to people’s heart. People aren’t looking for big productions?

I think you are very correct. I think everybody is trying to simplifier their lives in just about everyway possible, so it makes sense they would do it with their music. In the times we live in now people tend to gravitate toward songs that are reality based, and not production based. Where it is about the lyric, the message and theme. Not about bells and whistles. There is a time and place for everything, but what hits my heart is a song, and not a sound typically.

You have The Secret Sisters listed performing primary vocals on one song (and what a song it is; “I’ve Been Over This Before”) but in reality they are tucked in the background for most of the remainder of he record singing?

They are. That was on purpose because we did a Music Hall of Fame induction for Hank Locklin, so the three of us sang “Please Help Me I’m Falling” and “Send The Pillow That You Dream On”. They came over to my house and though we had known one another for quite a while we had never sung together. The first thing that came out of our mouths was instant magic. I had their voices in the back of my head all the time I was making this record. If anybody was going to sing on this record it was going to be them. We grew up living five or ten minutes apart, so we drank the same water, came from the same background so it made sense our voices would line up the way they did.

The songs you mentioned by Hank Locklin are all-time country classics, the kind of songs people want to sing?

That is what I strive to do. Jason and myself have had that kind of conversation. He said, every time he sits down his intent is to try to write a classic. A song that people will want to sing and to make it as timeless as possible. That is what I try to do too. Sometimes I fail miserable, laughs. The hope is that someone else will take it to heart the same way I took Kris Kristofferson to heart.

Oh yes, back in the late 1960s and early 1970s he was turning out one classic after another, conveyor fashion, but of that fashion of a nice way. There was a ton of them; Darby’s Castle, Sunday Morning Comin’ Down, Help Me Make It Through The Night and Why Me, Jody And The Kid and more. There was a ton of them?

It’s so true, and the timing of it was so perfect. He kind of bridged the gap between the Outlaws that were coming to town; Willie, Waylon and Johnny Paycheck and all those guys. He was a natural bridge between the Nashville Sound and a new way to look at the country world. It didn’t hurt that he was one of the more intelligent songwriters in the world.

He studied English literature here in England (Oxford) ?

I did not know that. I know he was a Rhodes scholar.

I believe he was very much into the poet William Blake? 

As am I! The name of the record is based on a place where you go to heal and re-centre, and get everything back together. He called that place Beulah, and that is exactly why I used that term for the title of the record.

Where does the name come, does the name come from African American slaves?

No, it is actually biblical. It is not mentioned very often but it is a couple of times, as in Beulah or Beulah Land and a reference to heaven. You will hear it a lot in southern gospel spiritual, there are also many people named Beulah in the south. My dad used to call my little sister, Beulah as a term of endearment and I do the same thing with my daughter and wife. For me it conjures southern in nature, but Blake’s use of the word definitely weighs heavily in choosing it as the album title.

You mention southern gospel music; the South Sea Islands off South Carolina have this wonderful uniqueness to it?

It certainly does. I would liken it to primitive country and blues. Where people write from the soul, it’s unadulterated. There’s no notion of making it commercial and sellable. It is trying to convey a feeling in your gut, nothing is contrived. I am definitely drawn to songs that have a short distance between your heart and the page.

Do you do all your writing on your own?

You know what, I didn’t. I used to write professionally for the Nashville Music Row country market. I co-wrote for ten years every song I wrote, and enjoyed it a lot but for this record I was here at home and started hearing these things in my head. I started chasing them, and things would click-in really well just guitar and me. I just went with it and was extremely pleased with the result and plan to do more of that. Honestly, it was a novel endeavour to go about it that way.

Do you feel after the breakup as he Civil Wars and break from the road the creativity is just now resurfacing?

You know its funny, because I had written for so long as a profession I learnt how to turn on the inspiration and turn it off. I was never fully quiet so I could relax and have a song pop into my head; like “Hallelujah” or a Bob Dylan classic. I did not write that way, I wrote more in the terms of craft, so when I took some time off and was completely quiet and rested and enjoying being round my family these songs popped out of nowhere. It seemed like it was the first time that had happened.

Did you feel that there was a new John Paul White emerging, a new man?

It was definitely that. Stuff was coming through from where I did not know and did not really care. Correct. It was like turning on a faucet and catching it all. Once I allowed it to flow, it came hard and heavy.

“What’s So” is among the songs of particularly note. Could you tell me a little about the song?

Thank you. It is among my favourites. Down here in the south you hear the phrase ‘don’t get above your raising’ especially when I was growing up. It was definitely considered not okay to think yourself better than anyone else. To put on airs as they might say. Elevating your social status was frowned upon. Everyone was blue collar, working men, farmers, carpenters and labourers and there was honour in that. We all kind of joined arms and pulled together, and thought we had the same plot. I was always told you aren’t better than anyone else. Put your nose to the grindstone, and work hard and earn everything you have. I still fight, the urge to downplay anything good that happens to me. To be like aw’ shucks to any accolades it is a natural, and have since learned it is common with a lot of people who have grown up in the same place I have.

The song “Fight For You” with the lines ‘let’s take our guns to town – let’s push someone around’ sounds like something Johnny Cash might have written?

I’ll take that all day long. He was definitely a hero of mine. The beginnings of the song are the guitar licks. I actually wrote that on a small, four-string tenor guitar. It was in open tuning and that riff popped up, it felt really aggressive, combative  and in your face. I just followed where it lead me.

How far back do you and Ben Tanner (co-producer, B3-organ) go?

Ben has been a really close friend of mine for almost 15-years. He was an assistant engineer over at Fame for Rick Hall when I first met him. I used to go over to do demos and songwriting and we got to become good friends. He went on to play keyboards for the Alabama Shakes, and still does. When I came off the road we started a little studio together. Eventually we started Single Lock Records and released this record, plus St. Paul & The Broken Bones, Donnie Fritts, Dylan LeBlanc and Penny and The Sparrow on our little label. Because he has known me for so long and knows what I like I didn’t have to tell him how things should be or what should be where. We have a lot of the same tastes. It is just a natural twin-speak.

I imagine bringing players in would be a relatively easy task?

Yes, sir, that is one of the beautiful things about this area we have a lot of great pickers in our backyard, but they are not common studio Nashville guys for the most part. What they play is really fresh. More primal than a really slick session cat that plays proficiently, but not with very much soul, and we have got that in spades around here.

You have Jason Goforth on lap steel, a musician who seems to be cropping up regularly on albums recently?

Yes, he does, and I think for the same reason. He also does a lot of touring and is a great guy, great player and does this ambient thing that none of the other studios guy really do. He has this great little niche with the ambient lap steel stuff he does. He fills in the gaps and the corners in a way that does not call too much attention to him self, but sets the mood almost like a string section would, or keyboards normally would. He does it in a more obscure way, and this is getting him a lot of phone calls!

It is interesting to see cello used on the record ?

I am a huge fan of cello and acoustic strings in general. We are very lucky that we have a Shreveport Louisiana transplant here in town named, Caleb Elliott. He is a fantastic player. He is also very intuitive. Sometimes when you have classical players they only play the notes on the page, they have a ridged way about going about performing. With Caleb he has enough of that training in the theory side of it that he has no problem with it, and is an artist in his own right. If I hum something he will just take it and run with it. If I ask him to play half as much it is an easy conversation. Where as with a lot of classically trained players if it is not on the page they don’t know how to play it He brings a lot of nuance, and creativity to the album.

Who are John (bass) and Elizabeth Estes (fiddle) that play on the record?

John is a good friend who I met on a couple of records Single Lock put out. Playing in a band named Steelism, and one called The Kernal that will come out next year. He called himself the ‘Kernal’ and the band are out of Jackson, Tennessee and have been touring with me, opening the shows on the East Coast leg of the tour that we have just done. I met John because of them and he is a phenomenal player. That’s his wife, Elizabeth Estes who plays wonderful fiddle on the record.

Have you any other acts line-up for the label or collaborations planned. To add to those with you have done with the likes of Rodney Crowell, Jason Isbell, Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash and Candi Staton?

I have done more of that collaboration than I had done in the past and have been really enjoying it. It is great to get to feed off the energy of my heroes and watch how they go about songwriting, look at life and performing, and learn from them because they are obviously legends in their time. I would love to do more of that, and probably will. Production wise I have got  a couple of things on the table but I have been so busy touring that it’s been hard to block off enough time to record. But this is going to change because our studio is expanding. We are moving into a larger building as we speak. My focus will switch to that at some point next year. Right now, I’m having so much fun touring and connecting with people in regard of this record.

I would like to wish you every success with the record. From the sound of it your greatest inspiration has come via your family, and you being a happy, contented man?

One hundred percent. The priorities that I have now set are, will this make me happy yes or no? If it does let’s do it. If it doesn’t life is too short. I am perfectly happy with what is within arms reach of me at this moment. I have no need or reason to do anything that does not please me from this point forward.

What music were you brought up on?

My dad would beat me up with country records. He listened to a lot of what you would think, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, and a lot of earlier stuff too. Like Slim Whitman, Tex Ritter, Moon Mullican, Cowboy Copas and of course Hank Snr  (Williams), Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills. A lot of that early, formative country music was played around our house, and I did not really like it to be honest. I was a rock’n’roll kid. Later in life started to realize it was part of my DNA and was   something I dearly loved. It took over because of artists like Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris and Rosanne Cash. When those records came on the scene I fell in love them and soon realized the reason I loved them so much was part of the background my dad had instilled in me.

You mention Bob Wills, I believe his arrangements were exquisite?

They are perfection. They can’t be improved on. One of my favourites is one people don’t talk about quite as much called “Cherokee Maiden”. Oh! That song gets into my head like it shall be with me forever more. In the tour band, adds John Paul I now have a fiddle player called Kelly Jones Savoy and she’s from Lafayette down in Louisiana. So we are constantly goofing off at sound check playing “Faded Love”, “San Antonio Rose” and all those standards; it is just part of my American songbook.

What a great family to be associated with. Marc Savoy (his wife is Anne Savoy) not only plays fine accordion but he also make them?

Good for you. I am not surprised you know that but a lot of people round here  don’t know of the Savoys. She told me, I need to go on down there and check out the area, because I would just love it. Joel Savoy (fiddler) is her husband.

How do like been called, John or John Paul? 

I am good either way. If someone calls me John they have known me all of my life. John Paul is my whole name, but as a kid I was always John. When I started playing music I started using my full name John Paul.

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