A kid from the buckle of the Bible belt

By Chris Morrison

Raised religious in Pensacola, Florida, singer/songwriter Jim White has his own style that takes the Fundamentalist imagery of his childhood and seamlessly blends it with his more worldly experiences. White sat down with Gauntlet staffer Chris Morrison at the 2002 Calgary Folk Music Festival for a drink and some pleasant conversation.

Folk festivals have come a long way since Pete Seeger attacked the power cables with an axe during Bob Dylan’s first public electric set at Newport in 1965. If old Pete had been at Calgary’s own festival this year he may well have gone straight for Jim White with that axe.

For those unfamiliar with the music of Jim White, in the words of the man himself, he’s the originator of hick-hop. Hick-hop contains a beat and a steady bass line that even white people can dance to. There is a southern rock-swamp guitar bit, much like an Allman Brothers song, and finally there must be mention of a southern state.

The life of Jim White reads like a William Faulkner novel, or at least like one of Jim’s own songs. Raised in Pensacola, Florida from the age of five, Jim was an anomaly in the south. He had the accent and attended church but he was a Yankee to his neighbours. As he says himself, he was never really a southerner.

"I can still remember the first time I said y’all," he explains. "I was seven. I decided I had to say it, there was no getting around it. You’re not a southerner if you can remember the first time you said y’all."

With more churches per capita than any city in the world, Pensacola is the buckle of the Bible belt. During his solo set, Jim mentions one intersection back in Pensacola where there are two Pentecostal churches kitty corner from each other. Both have men standing outside holding crosses, but one of the crosses has wheels, the other does not. That is a huge bone of contention between the two churches.

Home to the longest standing revival, going on since 1993 at the Brownsville Assembly of God church, young Jim was a church-going guy. Saved at the age of ten, he was rededicated at 15 following three years of youthful mischief where he fell in with what my mother would call "the wrong crowd."

It was only in his twenties, working as a fashion model in Europe, that Jim eventually freed himself of the spiritual tyranny of Christianity.

"I felt like anytime I moved, my movements were being controlled by someone else, like a puppet on a string. I realized the only way to free myself from this was to sit real still. After a few years the strings were gone."

Upon returning to the United States, Jim attended New York University film school on a scholarship, and drove a taxicab for years. He spent his spare time in his room playing guitar and writing songs. Eventually he came to the attention of the wife of singer-songwriter Joe Henry and gave her a demo tape made at home on a four-track recorder.

"I used spoons for percussion and sang through a hollowed out pop can for reverb."

The tape made its way to the office of Luaka Bop and its founder, former Talking Head David Byrne.

"It’s the first time I meet him, and he comes to me saying ‘It’s a pleasure to meet such a great songwriter.’ This is David Byrne, cover of Time magazine, and he’s saying this to me. Then he turns around, like you’d think David Byrne would."

Those of you who have seen Stop Making Sense know what Jim means.

"He’s looking through the mail, and I’m still standing there. After a couple of minutes of me standing there, he turns and asks ‘What do you think about pedal steel?’"

Jim’s Luaka Bop debut-aside from the now out-of-print Gimme 5 ep–1997’s Wrong Eyed Jesus, accompanied by a short story of the same name, featured songs which all had the words "angel," "heaven," "Jesus," or "God." But don’t be fooled like the organizers of this years folk fest, Jim is not some Bible-thumping Jesus freak. The imagery used shows more of a fascination with the mythology of Fundamentalism than any firm belief in the righteousness of Christianity.

"Speak the name of God and it ceases to exist and becomes an idea, not God. It’s like oxygen. Before I said ‘oxygen,’ it was something real, existing in your lungs. But once I said the word, you start to think about oxygen. It ceases to be the air in you lungs and becomes a thought in your mind."

Unfortunately, the festival’s organizers did not know this and scheduled Jim to play a Sunday morning gospel themed workshop titled "Playing to the Congregation" with David Essig, John Reichsman and the Jaybirds, and Sleepy La Beef. Jim began with "God Was Drunk When He Made Me," or Jim 3:16, which pissed off Sleepy to no end. The set ended with Sleepy leading the musicians in the Carter Family classic "Will the Circle be Unbroken," which Jim, being no hypocrite, refused to join in. It is a gospel song and Jim is not much of a Christian. Sleepy was still angry later in the day and even approached Mary Gauthier about it.

But as Mary later told me, "What do you do with a right-wing, good-old-boy from the south? He doesn’t know Jim, so I let it go."

The follow-up to Wrong Eyed Jesus, 2001’s brilliant No Such Place, sounds surprisingly coherent for a record which uses five different producers. It expands on Jim’s trademark hick-hop sound by incorporating trip-hop, courtesy of Paul Godfrey, Ross Godfrey, and Pete Norris from Morcheeba Productions. There is also bossa nova, scratching, and even a rap on "Hey! You Going My Way???"

Arguably the best album of 2001 (the only challenge coming from Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft) No Such Place is lyrically as warped as ever, yet at times surprisingly tender. Check out "The Love That Never Fails," a song about his daughter.

Missing his trademark cowboy hat, a security blanket which once gave him a level of comfort onstage, Jim was accompanied only by his "Japanese drummer." Alone onstage, with only his guitar, Jim looks like the typical folk singer, but the minute the music starts, it is not a typical folk singer’s concert. Using samples and loops, Jim’s embrace of technology is very atypical for the weekend’s surroundings, but like he says, "there’s no need to be a Nazi."

What’s next for Jim White? Well, first he’s back home to his daughter in Pensacola, where he moved to from New York once he became a parent. Then there is the collection of short stories in the works. (For a sample of his writing ability check out the short story accompanying Wrong Eyed Jesus.) He also just filmed a documentary for bbc 4 with Johnny Dowd, the Handsome Family, and David Johansen from the New York Dolls, among others. The performers travel around the southern United States playing country music and visiting various "out there," fire-and-brimstone churches.

Will he be back in our fair city? One can only hope. I suggested a tour with Mary Gauthier to Jim, which could see them come back to Calgary. No matter what he does next, I suspect it will be as interesting as No Such Place, which I have been listening to virtually non-stop since last year.

Oh yeah, Jim, if you’re reading this, Mary thinks you’re the greatest as well.

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