After flirting with country music during his days with the Civil Wars, John Paul White completely embraces the genre — particularly the lushly orchestrated countrypolitan sounds of the 1960s — with his newest solo album, The Hurting Kind. It’s a record that looks to crooners like Roy Orbison and pickers like Chet Atkins for inspiration, shot through with the voice that helped the Civil Wars take home four Grammys before calling the duo called it quits in 2012.
As today’s guest on Chris Shiflett’s podcast, Walking the Floor, White fields questions about his pre-Wars gig as a behind-the-scene songwriter, his rapid rise from obscurity to fame and his musical rebirth as a DIY solo artist. Highlights of the episode are listed below, followed by our biweekly premiere of the podcast.
White’s new musical direction was inspired by a genuine love of the old stuff.
“It’s not me looking at the musical landscape and trying to find a hole I can fill,” he says of The Hurting Kind‘s sound. Instead, he was drawn in a nostalgic direction by his appreciation for classic crooners and orchestral country songs. “I love Merle Haggard,” he explains, “but most of the Merle stuff I like is the earlier stuff, like ‘Silver Wings.’ And with Willie, [I prefer] ‘Crazy’ and ‘Funny How Time Slips Away’ way more than the later stuff. That’s my bread and butter.”
His solo work dates back to 2008.
“My first solo record I made for Capitol Records,” says White, who enjoyed a brief ride as a major-label solo artist during the late-aughts. “It’s a rock record. It never came out.” In a classic big-label scenario, White’s album fell victim to a merger between Capitol Records and another company. The executives who had signed him wound up losing their jobs, and White eventually lost his, too. “Everybody has that story, and I’ve got my own,” he adds. “I was halfway through the mix process, and they merged with Virgin. For 10 years after that, [the album] didn’t exist to the world. I half-heartedly stuck it up on iTunes, but I never talked about it. I was bitter.” Things changed, of course, when White formed the Civil Wars with Joy Williams, kicking off a meteoric — if brief — run that resulted in multiple awards, several million album sales and a lasting legacy.
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He’s still got great taste in musical partners.
“My partner is Ben Tanner, who’s in Alabama Shakes,” he says, referencing the business-minded keyboard player who helps White run his label, Single Lock Records. The two also have a heavy hand in the albums that their label releases, often recording them at White’s own studio. “He’s got great ears,” he says of Tanner, “and he knows how to get great sounds from a room.”
More than a decade ago, he worked as a songwriter for country artists, penning tracks for some of the genre’s heaviest hitters.
“I was writing for [other] people, and I was trying to get on the radio,” he admits. “Whenever I created like that, I kept falling short. . .because I couldn’t guess what they wanted to hear and I couldn’t guess what radio would play. So finally I said, ‘Fuck it, I’m gonna make music for myself.'” Still signed to a publishing deal, White began writing songs without any regard for modern trends — and, to his surprise, people began listening. “I got a Rascal Flatts cut, a LeAnn Rimes cut, a Faith Hill cut,” he remembers, “and it was all songs I just thought, ‘There’s no way they’re gonna touch this; I’m just gonna make them for myself.'”
He’s not just a bandleader; he’s a businessman, too, handling multiple aspects of his own operation.
“Before the Civil Wars, I handled everything,” he says, “but then when the Civil Wars came along, it was just so overwhelming — the rise of the band — that I had to just let go of everything and say, ‘Just tell me where to stand.’ After the Civil Wars, I found a happy medium. I surrounded myself with people that are really good at their job, and until they screw it up, I’m gonna trust them, because they have expertise that I don’t.” That said, White’s day job as a record-label owner requires him to do more work than an average musician. “I’m probably more hands-on than most artists,” he admits. “Now I have my own label, Single Lock Records, and we put [The Hurting Kind] out through my own label, so I have to wear that hat, too, to figure out what’s good for me as an artist and what’s good for me as a label owner. . .which, more often than not, is the same thing.”
Looking back on the Civil Wars’ reign, White credits the band’s versatility for their success.
“We couldn’t really put our finger on what we were doing, or where we fit,” he says. “I don’t know if it would’ve been more successful or less successful if we’d been able to fit into a box. We were able to straddle the folk, country, indie pop world — the southern gothic thing — and we were able to be palatable for a lot of people. We went with that.”
A half-decade after the band’s breakup, he’s happy to be paying his dues again.
“I feel like a brand new baby band now,” White says. “I obviously have things in my corner that a baby band doesn’t, but I’m back in the van, and I’m still playing small places. I’m perfectly ok with that! In a lot of ways, it’s starting over and reintroducing myself to folks.”