Trying to trace Jack White's many influences yields something like a map of Old Weird America that's both ancient and up-to-the-minute. With the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, the Dead Weather and his booming solo career, the Rolling Stone cover star specializes in updating old sounds and vintage vibes into a post-modern blues-rock pastiche. And even when the influences are recognizable, White puts it across with an elan very much his own. In advance of the upcoming Lazaretto, we've narrowed White's voluminous list of influences down to a few key sources. By David Menconi
Long before the Stripes, there were the Flat Duo Jets, Dexter Romweber's ferocious guitar-drums duo from North Carolina who blazed through the Eighties and Nineties playing some of the most face-melting roots-rock ever heard. Jack White has paid tribute to the influences of the Jets and the wild-eyed Romweber in a variety of places. In 2009's It Might Get Loud, a guitar summit pairing White with Jimmy Page and the Edge, White declared that seeing the Jets for the first time "opened up a whole new inspiration for me about the guitar." And he was downright effusive in the 2006 cult-classic Romweber documentary Two Headed Cow, calling Romweber "a huge influence on my music… one of the best-kept secrets of the rock & roll underground." In 2009 White recorded a seven-inch with Romweber, and in 2011 he reissued the Jets' long-out-of-print 1991 album Go Go Harlem Baby on his Third Man Records imprint.
Zep showed White how swagger works. There's no singer White sounds more like than Zeppelin's Robert Plant, he shares Jimmy Page's abiding love for blues guitar copped from the old Mississippi masters and, at their best, the White Stripes exuded the same "band in heat" vibe. In 2007, The U.K.'s Daily Mirror quoted White calling Led Zeppelin "an immovable force in music," and declaring, "I don't trust anyone who doesn't like them."
Blues from the Mississippi Delta remains one of Jack White's key touchstones, especially the scarifyingly deep blues of preacher-turned-bluesman Eddie James "Son" House, Jr. In It Might Get Loud, White cited House's a cappella song "Grinnin' in Your Face" as his favorite song ever, and he's done his best to take House's music to the masses. The White Stripes' eponymous 1999 debut was dedicated to him, they covered his song "Death Letter" on 2000's De Stijl, and White wrote the liner notes for the 2003 compilation The Very Best of Son House.
Don Van Vliet, the freak-jazz genius better-known as Captain Beefheart has been an inspirational signpost for generations of cultural misfits. White cites Beefheart for bringing the primal power of bluesman Howlin' Wolf into rock & roll as well as making what he calls "one of the most unique records in music history" – 1969's Trout Mask Replica. The White Stripes' contribution to the Sub Pop Singles Club was a 2000 seven-inch where they covered three Beefheart gems. Right now, a near-mint copy goes for $200.
Back when he was young and still finding his way, White encountered Coal Miner's Daughter, the Oscar-winning Loretta Lynn biopic. It was a seminal experience that nudged him toward pursuing music. "I fell in love immediately, somehow," he told CBS News in 2005. "I think that Loretta Lynn is the greatest female singer/songwriter of the 20th century." After the White Stripes' 2001 breakout White Blood Cells was dedicated to Lynn, they struck up a friendship and White produced her Grammy-winning 2004 comeback album Van Lear Rose – which reached her highest position ever on the Billboard charts.
One of the original cowpunk ensembles, this venerable band has been largely forgotten compared to better-known Los Angeles peers like the Blasters and X. If Jack White had anything to say about it, however, the Gun Club would be in the Hall of Fame. "The songwriting of Kid Congo Powers and Jeffrey Lee Pierce has the freshest white take on the blues of its time," he once told the British music magazine Mojo. "'Sex Beat,' 'She's Like Heroin to Me' and 'For the Love of Ivy'… Why are these songs not taught in schools?"
In Jack White's world, Bob Dylan is an influence not just for him, but for everyone who has ever played or listened to music over the past 50 years. And while his own music bears less sonic resemblance to Dylan than to, say, Led Zeppelin or Mississippi blues, his restless spirit and damn-the-torpedoes pursuit of the muse has served as an important inspiration. As White put it: "Do not trust people who call themselves musicians or record collectors who say they don't like Bob Dylan or the Beatles. They do not love music if those words come out of their mouths."
Along with Son House and Robert Johnson, Jack White also drew heavily from this Depression-era guitar-and-fiddle group, which he goes so far as to call one of the earliest rock bands. "This was the early days of a group of people getting together to plan an attack," he told the Guardian in 2013. "They were irreverent, too… These guys were saying very irreverent things about sex and racial relations that you'd think they wouldn't get away with." The Mississippi Sheiks are best known for 1930's "Sittin' on Top of the World," one of the most-covered songs in the blues canon. White has recorded it, too, for the soundtrack to the 2003 Civil War epic Cold Mountain.
White has said that this Forties-era cinematic bombshell served as "an all-encompassing metaphor for everything I was thinking about" during the making of the White Stripes' 2005 album Get Behind Me Satan. As White (born John Anthony Gillis) told Rolling Stone, he came to think of Hayworth as a kindred spirit because she, too, changed her name in order to "become something different… All of that was going around in these songs: What had been thrown on me, things I'd never asked for. Every song on that album is about truth."
You can take the boy out of Detroit, but not the Detroit out of the boy. So of course it follows that Iggy Pop is a key idol for White, who anoints the Stooges' 1970 masterwork Fun House as "the greatest rock & roll record ever made." White got to act on his fanboy side in the October 2003 issue of Mojo, conducting an interview with Pop.
"Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell," Bob Dylan sang on his Eighties-vintage song about the Piedmont blues legend. Jack White would agree, but would mention that McTell could do a lot more. "I like the sense he wasn't just a blues singer," White told the Los Angeles Times. "He was a street-corner entertainer who would play in front of Piggly Wiggly markets and stuff." The White Stripes dedicated their 2000 album De Stijl to McTell and covered one of his songs on it, "Southern Can Is Mine." White's Third Man Records started a reissue campaign of McTell's complete catalog – on vinyl, of course – in 2013.
White oversaw Wanda Jackson's 2011 album The Party Ain't Over, surrounding the raspy voice of the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer with some rocked-up bombast. The result got Jackson, "the Queen of Rockabilly," onto the Billboard 200 for the first time ever – the oldest female on that chart at 73 years old, breaking a record previously set by Mae West in the Sixties. White made the late-night television rounds with Jackson, and he also presented her Lifetime Achievement Award from Americana Music Association at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium.
If Captain Beefheart's primitivism just isn't raw enough for your tastes, there's also this blissfully weird outsider-art garage band comprised of American military service personnel stationed in Germany in the Sixties. They only released one album, 1966's Black Monk Time. But that was enough to hook White, who calls them "anti-Beatles" and says of their songcraft, "Their melodies were pop-destructive and must be played to your younger brother."
The reputation of the late, great Man in Black is such that just about everyone claims him as an influence to some degree. But Johnny Cash is especially key for Jack White because he demonstrated that it's possible to be a super-cool religiously devout party animal while appealing to country fans, hippies and punks alike. White works a similar set of borders, sometimes quite overtly. In 2010, he played guitar on the Americana duo Secret Sisters' fine cover of Cash's "Big River," which White's Third Man Records released – along with a proper seven-inch reissue of Cash's own Sun Records hit "Get Rhythm" in 2013.
Another greatest hit from Jack White's Mississippi blues pantheon is Charley Patton, "Father of the Delta Blues." White can be downright puritanical about Patton's importance, declaring that, "If a musician listens to Charley Patton and doesn't hear anything at all, I don't think they should call themselves musicians, because they're obviously just looking for fun and kicks and a good time out of it." No surprise that Patton has also come in for the reissue treatment from White's Third Man Records with 2013's The Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order Volume 1.