The conversation reaches an awkward pause when I tell Jim White that the Brooklyn Rail music editor wants him for an issue on “underappreciated” artists. Perhaps his calculus sums differently: an album due for release, a recent project with Juilliard, tickets in hand to Denmark for a music project with Howe Gelb and a visual arts residency—and one of the short stories he bangs out occasionally just won a Pushcart Prize. This Whitmanesque multitude has marked White’s creative output since music diverted him from film school at NYU. Nine records later comes Take It Like a Man, a collaboration with the Packway Handle Band, a bluegrass outfit that, like White, resides in Athens, Georgia.
White’s early music was viewed through the prism of alternative country. Songs like “Christmas Day,” or the nearly perfect “Girl from Brownsville, Texas,” echoed Tom Waits or Townes van Zandt: tableaux vivantes populated by characters equally deserving of pity and esteem. But even then, White’s genuine identification with the lonely and downtrodden was offset by a distance revealed in lyrics or musical phrases that ruptured the seamlessness of the songs’ folky trappings. “I do ask a lot of my listeners,” says White, adding, “most of my records are a wild ride through challenging environments where the musically familiar is merged with the unfamiliar in frequently counterintuitive ways. My records have been referred to as musical crazy quilts. I like the analogy.”
White’s last album emerged from the sadness of a broken marriage. His desire to put those feelings in the rearview mirror coincided with his introduction to the Packway Handle Band. When invited to produce their next effort, White found half an album’s worth of songs that, coincidentally, equaled the same quantity in his pocket. They decided to collaborate, and Take It Like a Man was born.
For White, the collaboration served to darn some spiritual holes. Packway Handle’s instruments are typical bluegrass—guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass, and fiddle—but their tight five-part harmonies diffuse the limelight that usually falls on front men. The “joyful defiance” of the bluegrass tradition felt freeing to White, who has “spent a lifetime trying to shake loose [from] various self-imposed hobbles—religion, bad romantic ideas, willful naïveté—and bluegrass, even as a lament, seems to accentuate the feeling of slipping those bonds.” The resulting amalgam ranges from the Packway-heavy “Sinner,” a full glass of hillbilly Kool-Aid, to “Gravity,” with its ineffable Jim White quality; part familiar and part jarring. When the lyric “dad-gummed cornpone” pops up, we have no trouble identifying the source.
Interestingly, the album features a new version of “Wordmule” from White’s early Wrong-Eyed Jesus, and has White and Packway meeting in the middle. In its first incarnation, it was a fast and ugly song with a tempo reminiscent of Concrete Blonde’s “Ghost of a Texas Ladies Man,” with a braying slide guitar that sounded like a pastiche of Hee Haw. It proved so unpopular that audiences would beg him not to play it. After 15 years, when it was pulled from the vaults for a fight scene in Breaking Bad’s final season, its YouTube views leapt from a meager 457 to over 50,000.
“Wordmule”’s bluegrass treatment softens the song’s edginess; banjo replaces slide guitar, and everyone sings. When the fiddle kicks in toward the end, White and the Packway men sprint for the finish in a tumultuous free-for-all that showcases White playing nicely with others. The new version should find a broader audience, if not a huge one.
Still, White is philosophical:
Contrary to a lot of my more successful friends who have a singular focus on ‘making it,’ my goal has always been more about finding a way to lead a fuller life. The grocery shopping / trips to pediatricians / carpool scheduling preempt a lot of career-related activities that might get me noticed more. Thankfully, despite my flying low on the radar, opportunities have always come to me. There is always something compelling.