January Jams Presents: John Paul White
For Fans of: Civil Wars, Sara Watkins, Andrew Combs, Gregory Alan Isakov
Beulah. It’s a small, complicated word with a tangle of meanings.
It’s the title of John Paul White’s new album, his first in nearly a decade, a remarkably and assuredly diverse collection spanning plaintive folk balladry, swampy southern rock, lonesome campfire songs, and dark acoustic pop. Gothic and ambitious, with a rustic, lived-in sound, it’s a meditation on love curdling into its opposite, on recrimination defining relationships, on hope finally filtering through doubt.
Beulah is also a White family nickname. “It’s a term of endearment around our house,” White explains, “like you would call someone ‘Honey.’ My dad used to call my little sister Beulah, and I call my daughter Beulah. It’s something I’ve always been around.”
Beulah is also something much loftier. For the poet and painter William Blake, Beulah was a place deep in the collective spiritual unconscious. “I won’t pretend to be the smartest guy in the world,” says White, “but I dig a lot of what he’s written. Beulah was a place you could go in your dreams. You could go there in meditation, to relax and heal and center yourself. It wasn’t a place you could stay, but you came back to the world in a better state.”
And perhaps the music on this album originated in that “pleasant lovely Shadow where no dispute can come.” According to White, the songs came to him unbidden—and not entirely welcome. “When these songs started popping into my head, I had been home for a while and I was perfectly happy. I wasn’t looking for songs. I didn’t know whether any would pop back in my head again, and I was honestly okay with that. I’m a very happy father and husband, and I love where I live. I love working with artists for a label that I think is doing good work.”
Far from the grind and glamour of Nashville—where he worked for years as a working songwriter before stepping into the spotlight himself—White settled in his hometown of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a wellspring of gritty Southern rock and soul since the 1960s. Together with Alabama Shakes keyboard player Ben Tanner and Shoals native Will Trapp, he founded and runs Single Lock Records, a local indie label that has released records by some of the Yellowhammer State’s finest, including Dylan LeBlanc, St. Paul & the Broken Bones, and legendary songwriter and keyboard player Donnie Fritts. The label is based in a small ranch house a stone’s throw from White’s own home, which would come in handy when those songs started invading his head.
“Honestly, I tried to avoid them, but then I realized the only way I was going to get rid of them was if I wrote them down. I got my phone out and I’d sing these little bits of melody, then put it away and move on. But eventually I got to a place where it was a roar in my head, and that pissed me off.” Due to his experiences as a gun-for-hire in Nashville, White was reluctant to romanticize the creative process, to turn it into a spiritual pursuit. “Then one day I told my wife I think I’m going to go write a song. She was as surprised as I was. I went and wrote probably eight songs in three days. It was like turning on a faucet.”
Most artists would kill for such a downpour, but White was wary of the consequences. He knew that writing songs would lead to recording them, which would result in releasing them, and that means touring and leaving home for weeks at a time. “As soon as I write a song, I start thinking what other people might think of it. I’ve talked to friends about this: What is it about us that makes us do that? Why can’t I just sit on my back porch and sing these songs out into the ether? I don’t have an answer for it yet, but I think it’s just part of who I am. I need that reaction. I need to feel like I’m moving someone in a good way or in a bad way. I need to feel like there’s a connection.”
White threw himself into the project, no longer the reluctant songwriter but a craftsman determined to make the best album possible—to do these songs justice. He cut several songs at the renowned FAME Studios in his hometown, where Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, the Allmans, the Osmonds, Bobbie Gentry, Arthur Conley, and Clarence Carter recorded some of their most popular hits.
Tickets: $25 or buy Weekend tickets for $40 (John Paul White on Jan. 12 and John Moreland on Jan. 13).