Dee White wasn’t initially sold on the idea of calling his debut album Southern Gentleman. The longhaired 20-year-old native of Slapout, Alabama, who recorded the project with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and David “Fergie” Ferguson, felt like he didn’t exactly fit the typical image of other men — like the frat-guy types at big public Southern universities — he’d seen adopting the term.
“Maybe in my own eyes I’m not the stereotypical gentleman,” he says. “But coming up to somewhere like Nashville and being in such a diverse melting pot, musically, I guess I resonate as that. It was coming to terms with that in my own head.”
And yet, it’s an entirely appropriate description for the album, which came out March 1st and nods to country gentlemen of yore like Don Williams even as it retains White’s unique musical perspective. Where many performers with throwback sensibilities play up their credentials with outlaw rebelliousness or bluesy grit, White opts for a more genteel approach here. He sings sweetly of small-town life, love and friendships in a way that feels lived-in, with a musical backdrop that’s lush and pretty enough to match his croon.
White had his first brush with the music industry upon meeting Harold Shedd, the former label executive who’d signed Alabama and Shania Twain and later retired near where White grew up. Encouraged by Shedd to try his hand at writing songs, White began making inroads in Nashville. With the help of Auerbach and Ferguson, he recorded the songs on Southern Gentleman — half of which he wrote or co-wrote — backed by a group of players who’d also appeared on cuts by Elvis Presley, Dusty Springfield and more. Alison Krauss lends her voice to a couple of the tracks, including the nostalgic “Bucket of Bolts,” while Ashley McBryde duets on the gorgeous “Road That Goes Both Ways.” White proves himself a capable foil for both, intuitive about the material he chooses to sing, whether he wrote it or not.
It’s interesting that you cultivated a sound that was so distinct from the music that was likely popular with people your age. Were your friends interested in the music you were making?
They were, and that was kind of a validation for me to keep doing what I wanted to do. And to follow my heart and not so much be persuaded by trends and what other people necessarily go to when they plug their aux chord in. I was playing what I wanted and people enjoyed it. We’d be having fun, bonfires, and I’d be playing guitar singing old songs, and hell, after a few times, they’re singing every word with me. And we’re talking Hank Williams, way back.
But there’s something to those types of songs — contemporary country radio is pretty much always changing, but you could play a Hank Williams song on the guitar at any point in time and people would respond. They’d either know it, or it would feel familiar and comfortable somehow.
That’s why those songs are standards, man. Hell, when I started playing that kind of stuff in high school, a lot of the time it would be like, “Oh wow, this was my granddad’s favorite song or my grandma’s favorite song.” And they know every word anyway. And not having any siblings, I was always out with my dad, who is an older man himself. That’s who I was around, older people. And I just came to appreciate those kinds of things and I don’t think other people my age were ever really around that kind of stuff. They were around the radio and what the other kids were listening to. Which is great, it’s cool.
How aware were you of Harold Shedd’s career when you met him?
I had no idea who he was. It wasn’t until he let me in his house and I’m looking at all his gold records that it dawned on me to look into him. We hung out for a while the day that I met him at his house, because I had to deliver this piece of furniture with my dad, that he had bought from my dad, and Dad was asking about his career and stuff. He’s 83 or 84 years old at the time, so he was just saying, “Oh, I was in the music business.” Of course he didn’t go into any details because he doesn’t do that. I was never going to bother him with even letting him know I played music and I didn’t ever tell him I played music. He found out on his own, and that’s how that happened.
And then things went from there?
Yeah, they did. And I was also at a point then that I didn’t feel like I had any business having those conversations. Didn’t think it was there or ever would be.
You didn’t think you were ready?
Of course not. I’m a kid who knows a few chords on the guitar and sings at school and at bonfires while everybody’s drinking beer, just for fun. I didn’t know how any of it worked. Eventually Harold pushed me to write songs and that was a big deal for me.
Has that view about yourself changed now that this has actually become your career?
Yeah. It feels good. The moment for me I guess in hindsight was back when I was in high school, right before I left for Auburn [University] and I started dabbling in songwriting some because of Harold. And then when I did that I realized, like, wow, this is what I want to do. And before that I was not that kid who was like, “I want to be this or that.” I never did know what I wanted to be until that time. That’s why I ended up leaving Auburn. Hell, I couldn’t figure out a major to choose or anything like that because I didn’t know what to do. It is different now having a little road experience, having a great band, having support from people like Ashley McBryde. That means the world.
How did your duet with Ashley, “Road That Goes Both Ways,” come together?
Me and Auerbach and a gentleman by the name of Joe Allen, who’s an older guy and writer, sat down. Joe had that melody and we went from there. When we finished the song it was like, “This is a duet.” I suppose Dan got in touch with his manager, who later became my manager, but that was not even an idea at the time. They sent in Ashley, who had just affiliated with them. Dan hadn’t met her, no one had met her. She just came in with her guitar and did that thing she does, and did that thing that’s on that record and it was just special.
I caught that show with both of you at Marathon Music Works in Nashville. Her fans seem like the kind of people who might be open to hearing what you’re doing.
Oh man. It was crazy. There were probably, I’m not exaggerating, 10 states on that tour, that the front row was the same every night. Her fans are that devoted. Our first show was in Atlanta, and they just embraced me and the guys. By about the third or fourth show, the whole front row’s wearing Dee White shirts. And that was a moment. So they’re absolutely accepting and they love anything Ashley loves because they love Ashley.
What kind of songs were you looking for as you were getting ready to record Southern Gentleman?
This go around, it was songs I had gathered before I met Auerbach and Ferg. Like “Crazy Man,” I had discovered out on my own. I’m that guy who will sit at a sports bar and listen to somebody’s original work in hopes of hearing something I like. This older gentleman, I guess he was friends with Harold, I don’t know. He was playing at a sports bar and I heard that song and I went and demoed it while I was at Auburn, made a worktape. And it ended up making the record. And the other songs were stuff that Dan had. He would send stuff periodically and every now and then I’d love something. I’d say, “Shit, that’s me.” That would be like, “Under Your Skin,” or “Oh No.” I like those songs for different reasons.
I like that the album goes from the stripped-down stuff like “Bucket of Bolts,” to big, orchestral productions on a few songs. What kind of conversations did you have with Dan Auerbach about how to make it all fit together?
He pretty much just worked song to song. He would go all in, one song at a time. That’s the way he does it and that’s also the way I do it. And to be honest, we really weren’t worrying about what you just asked me. We were doing what we thought was best for the song. I personally have always loved big string arrangements and stuff like that, I’ve always thought they were beautiful. My only thing with Dan was always just, that’s badass as long as that’s all real stuff and that’s all real people playing that. How can you not love that?