By Tim W. Jackson
John Paul White tries to be an ordinary guy. He took a break from home-schooling his kids to chat but said that algebra was on the itinerary next and the evening was a full schedule of baseball and dance. He lives in the ordinary town of Florence, Ala., just across the river from the smaller but better-known Muscle Shoals.
As a Grammy winner formerly with The Civil Wars, his new album, though, is far from ordinary. The Hurting Kind, which drops on April 12. The Record Store Day vinyl edition, featuring a bonus 7-inch, will be available starting April 13, but only at independent record stores.
The 10 songs on this new effort are a tribute to the sounds of yesteryear but with lyrics and themes wholly modern. White was inspired by the likes of Jim Reeves, Patsy Cline, Roy Orbison and other icons of the past, but if you listen closely you may well find influence from Elliott Smith and Rufus Wainwright, too. In the end you get a sound that White calls “countrypolitan” with lush instrumentation but the vocals always out front—in White’s case, where they belong.
White talked about the album in the control room of his Florence studio, Sun Drop Sound, adjacent to his home and in the same compound with Single Lock Records (of which White is co-founder and co-owner) and a yet-to-be renovated cottage that will one day be used for artists recording at Sun Drop.
A collection of ordinary buildings from the street, the rooms inside are indeed where the musical magic happens. The Hurting Kind, recorded mostly at Sun Drop, is the first album he says started with a blank slate. “On my first album, I had been a songwriter in the Nashville machine for 10 years so I just picked my favorites and recorded those,” White says. “With The Civil Wars, it was a collaboration. It was 50-50 so there was equal input and compromise. For my last album, Beulah, I was trying to not write songs but they just came out of me despite me thinking I wasn’t ready to start writing again. And then came this album.”
White said he loved those songs by the aforementioned artists and wondered why no one seemed to be recording music like that anymore. To do so, he enlisted the help of songwriting legends “Whispering” Bill Anderson and Bobby Braddock. “I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen with them,” he says, “but I knew I was going to sing in front of them and I hoped they wouldn’t think I was some sort of imposter. I did sing in front of them and the reception was great, which really was a major boost for my confidence.”
Anderson is listed as a co-writer on “I Wish I Could Write You a Song,” a soaring Orbison-esque number that White dedicates to his wife, and “You Lost Me,” a honky-tonk waltz (that also features Jamey Johnson as a writer) that you might expect to hear on a 1968 barroom floor littered with sawdust and peanut hulls. Braddock is credited on “This Isn’t Gonna End Well,” which is a duet with the inimitable Lee Ann Womack.
“Those guys really influenced a lot of the other songs, too,” White says, and with his classic sly and mischievous grin adds, “but I’m not paying them royalties on the others.”
White clearly has a knowledge and respect for the musical legends. He breezes through a list of influential country songs as if they’re always on his mind. But White did have the blessing and chore of writing the other songs on his album on his own.
“It was kind of like, ‘Who are you?’ when it came to this record,” White said. “It could have gone in any direction but I just made the record that I wanted to hear.”
White says he had the title “The Hurting Kind” before he had the song and he knew he wanted it to be the name of the album. Written from a female perspective, the subject matter is abusive relationships. “It was the last song we did,” he says.
In “The Good Old Days,” White becomes about as political as he gets, questioning what era of America people want to go back to. “I’m having a hard time thinking of one we haven’t progressed from, or shouldn’t progress from,” he says. From beautiful waltzes (“I have to hold myself back from making every song a waltz,” White says.) to intimate stories and vignettes, the album creates a soundtrack rich with visual imagery, high drama, and searing emotion.
To catch White performing these and other songs, visit his website for tour information. He begins supporting the album with a sold-out show at the Shoals Community Theater in Florence on April 12 and will be on the road through spring and into the summer.