Jack White once surprised Dolly Parton by picking up her tab when they were both dining at the same Nashville restaurant — but buying a meal for the petite blonde legend certainly isn’t the only contribution the White Stripes founder has made to country music.
In fact, since moving to Tennessee in 2005, White has become a fixture not just in his black-and-yellow wonder factory, Third Man Records, but amongst the classic figures of Music Row, from Loretta Lynn, to Wanda Jackson, to the ghost of Hank Williams — even being anointed ”Music City Ambassador” by Nashville mayor Karl Dean. Though he’s most often associated with dirty blues icons like Lightnin’ Hopkins, the Detroit native has always carried a taste for the Southern soul — often filling his stage with both distortion pedals and pedal steel. Now, on the eve of his newest solo offering, Lazaretto, we delve into six of White’s twangiest moments — which, based on the wailing fiddle of his new song, “Temporary Ground,” probably won’t be his last.
1. White and Loretta Lynn Partner Up For Van Lear Rose
White’s connection to the Coal Miner’s Daughter goes back as far as his White Stripes days — his partner (and ex-wife) Meg used to slam out a version of Lynn’s “Rated X” on her meager drum kit, which was as much of a tribute as it was an inside joke from one of rock’s most famously divorced couples. The admiration didn’t stop there: the band dedicated their 2001 release, White Blood Cells, to Lynn. But the feeling was mutual. Lynn referred to White as one of her “idols” when they first shared the stage in 2003, a precursor to their partnership on 2004’s Van Lear Rose, her brilliant White-produced album that reintroduced the world to her rich, sexy sound and showed just how country a pale kid from Detroit can be (answer: pretty darn country). Van Lear Rose surprised fans not by being a blues-rock twist on Lynn’s Kentucky tradition, but by showing her spirit through a clear lens not seen since the Seventies. When you hear them duet on “Portland, Oregon,” their voices perfectly mismatched, it’s obvious this is a case in harmonious contrasts. The two Grammy wins didn’t hurt, either.
2. The White Stripes Cover Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”
“Jolene,” Parton’s 1973 song about a woman begging a beautiful temptress to keep her fingers off of her fella, is one of the most aching sonic pleas in music (and one of Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest of All Time). White, a diehard Dolly fan, transformed the song into a virtual onomatopoeia, ripping into it with so much emotion and force you almost want to find Jolene and warn her to watch her back. Featured on the White Stripe’s 2004 DVD release Under Blackpool Lights, White turns the opening licks into a menacing vamp, his voice quivering where Parton’s hit her warbling yodel vibrato. When he sings, “please don’t take him/even though you can,” not resorting to a gender swap, it doesn’t matter if it’s a male or a female howling — he tells the story loud and clear, and that’s all that matters. Parton hinted to Spinner.com in 2010 that a collaboration with White wasn’t out of the question: “You never know what I might do,” she said. Here’s hoping.
3. White Produces Wanda Jackson’s The Party Ain’t Over
Unlike her contemporary Loretta Lynn, Wanda Jackson wasn’t so sure about the prospect of recording with White, who had approached her about producing an album. “I wasn’t sure if we’d see eye to eye,” she told Billboard in 2011, worried that White’s fingerprint might prove a little too heavy on her traditional country and rockabilly pipes. She had a right to be concerned. Take one listen to “Busted,” the Johnny Cash cover on the resulting LP, The Party Ain’t Over, and it’s clear that White’s stamp is on every lick and vamp. After a few moments of her voice to a simple, waltzing guitar, the Third Man Circus rolls into town, smashing it to bits. The good news? It’s all deliriously fun and modernly mischievous, achieving one of White’s best magic tricks: inspiring the iPod generation to delve deeper and excavate classic Jackson records like Right or Wrong. The Queen herself was converted, too — covering the White Stripes’ “In the Cold, Cold Night” last year and singing his praises to Rolling Stone, raving, “Jack is such a talented songwriter.”
4. White Tackles Hank Williams’ “You Know That I Know”
It couldn’t have been much of a challenge for White to dig up this buried Hank Sr. tune for The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, 2011’s tribute to forgotten treasures of the country legend. White is a notorious preservationist of the American songbook, most recently evidenced in Third Man’s reissue of Paramount Record’s early 20th century pressings. “You Know That I Know” finds White in one of his most deeply twangy moments, the whole thing propelled by steel guitar and a percussive shuffle. He went on to incorporate it into his set for the tour surrounding his debut LP, Blunderbuss, playing it at his kick-off show at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. “I don’t know you personally,” he told the audience in the great Mother Church, “but I don’t think it would be too much of a problem if I played a Hank Williams song.” And it was no problem at all, naturally.
5. The Secret Sisters Come to Third Man Records
White has hosted a slew of unusual artists at Third Man Records as part of the Blue Series, which has produced 45s for everyone from grease-painted freak-hoppers Insane Clown Posse to grunge forefathers Mudhoney. It’s the recipe of White and the Secret Sisters — two siblings from Alabama who share more than just a reverence for genetics with the Carter Family — that proves to be especially pungent. White played guitar on the debut 7-inch in 2010, which included a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Big River,” where his signature riffs take a rock & roll assault to the Sisters’ classic country and old-timey harmonies, and raucously chug along on side B’s “Wabash Cannonball,” that transports listeners back to the 1880s in a glowing sapphire time machine.
6. White Stars in Cold Mountain — and Provides a Soundtrack
Jack White shocked everyone when he appeared in the 2003 film Cold Mountain alongside rumored girlfriend Renée Zellweger, and even more so when he performed five traditional country and folk songs on the movie’s soundtrack, produced by T Bone Burnett. It’s on White’s version of legendary bluegrass picker Ralph Stanley’s “Great High Mountain” that he displays a subtle knack for the most fundamental bones of American music, choosing to lace the tune together with lyrical fiddle and softer vocalizations. It’s a thrilling juxtaposition next to the White Stripes’ Elephant, which was released in the same year, with its full-throttled rock-blues numbers like “Seven Nation Army.” At this point, it was clear this is a man who can paint lines both precise as Vermeer’s and as unpredictable as a Pollack splatter, with great respect for our historical songbook. But Cold Mountain wasn’t the only clue to where his future allegiances might lie — take a close look at the cover of Elephant, and you’ll see White in a Rockmount Ranch Wear shirt, the same western gear beloved by the likes of Dwight Yoakam and Alan Jackson. The writing was on the wall — or at least on the fringe.