During his five-year run with the Civil Wars, John Paul White was a permanent duet partner, bellowing harmonies and swapping verses with the duo’s other big-voiced half, Joy Williams. Now, two years after the group’s breakup, he fires his own shots with Beulah, a solo album that recasts the Muscle Shoals resident as a fiery, folky frontman.
Recorded at FAME Studios and bookended by an acoustic guitar riff that, if given a jolt of electricity from a Peavy amp, might skew closer to heavy metal than Americana, kickoff single “What’s So” points White in a dark, new direction. The song’s lyrics take a look backward, though, focusing on a lesson White picked up from his childhood days on the family chicken farm.
“I grew up in the Tennessee Valley in Loretto, Tennessee, just north of the state line,” he says. “It was mostly made up of working class families: farmers, carpenters, and the like. I was raised on one of those farms, and was always taught the value of remembering where you’re from. Folks around there often said things like, ‘Don’t get too big for your britches,’ or, ‘Don’t get above your raising.’ It was, and still is, considered honorable to keep your head down and work the row in front of you, instead of considering yourself above it. I remember kids getting bullied for their clothes or toys — but because they had them, not because they didn’t. Elevating your station was a precarious endeavor.”
The song’s music video, which premieres today on Rolling Stone Country, takes White back to that farm, visiting several other “homes” along the way.
“The video works backward chronologically through some of the places I’ve lived: my current home, the first home I owned with my wife, a trailer I lived in alone, the farmhouse I grew up in,” he explains. Shot on location on either side of the Tennessee/Alabama border, the video also stars several members of his family, all of whom sit on various porches and stoops while White performs “What’s So” in the front yard. Equal parts haunting and nostalgic, the video bears a clear message: don’t forget where you came from.
It’s advice that White, who releases Beulah via his own label, Single Lock Records, on August 19th, has taken to heart.
“I’d like to think that after all this time,” he adds, “I’m still the kid that grew up on that chicken farm.”