At the turn of the century, Jack White was thinking hard about the blues. "A hundred years had passed since the beginning of it," White says, "and it was an illusion in my head at that moment that on a very small level, there was a new blues emerging in the scene we were from. That was enough to compel me to keep going — but I had no illusions about the mainstream ever thinking it was interesting."
As it turned out, White's vision was exactly what rock & roll needed. With the homespun, stripped-to-its-skeleton minimalism of the White Stripes, he found a way to plug the music back into the folk and blues roots that fed the Stones, Zeppelin and Bob Dylan — and make it sound cool again in the process. "Anything I do is 1,000 percent the blues — that word is synonymous with the truth to me," says White. "I could play outdoor blues festivals and do that note-pushing Stratocaster white-blues bullshit for the next 30 years. But that's not the pinnacle of the blues."
White has shared stages with Dylan, Keith Richards and Jimmy Page, among others — legends who embraced him as an equal. "You get it from guys, players: 'Watch this cat,'" says Richards. "Then when Jack and I had a chance to chat, we found we both have an abiding love of Ramblin' Jack Elliott, the Everly Brothers and Arthur Crudup.... He's a good man."
The Stripes didn't seem like a world-conquering band at first. "We didn't really know what we were doing," says White, "if it was going to stand the test of time or if people would look at it as nothing but a novelty." But he was soon writing songs like "Seven Nation Army" — its minor-key riff, penned spontaneously at a soundcheck, is one of the decade's most indelible musical hooks. It even became a soccer chant worldwide: "I was sitting in a hotel room somewhere in Europe, and I heard people chanting that song in a pub a block away," White says. "I couldn't believe it — I didn't want that moment to ever end."
White revealed himself to be a restless creative spirit. As the White Stripes hit a commercial peak, he put the band on hiatus to form his four-piece, the Raconteurs, who offered a more muscular take on rock classicism. He also produced a Grammy-winning Loretta Lynn album and formed a third band, the Dead Weather, in which he plays drums. "None of those bands were planned," he says. "They got in the way of other things I was doing. But it feels good because I know the music is in first position in my decision-making."
White's sound now seems almost like a genre unto itself — and he's spreading it wider through his own record label and Nashville studio. "If you ever get some idea you've arrived at a certain level," he says, "you should only be taking it as a cue to work harder and to push farther."
Read More: Rolling Stone's 2010 Q&A With Jack White