If authenticity is roots music's holy grail (and white whale), nowhere is the grail holier than here in the South. This is the regional patch where the music was born in the crucible of sin (see Robert Johnson's blues) and salvation (see the Carter Family's country gospel), and those two DNA strains still course through most every note and narrative.
While many pay it lip service, few current musicians capture the South's knotty contradictions more compellingly than Pensacola-bred Jim White.
Musically, White's four full-lengths play like a compendium of Southern-tinged modern Americana: Country folk, blues-rock and gospel all braided through funky looped samples and subtle ambient textures. This ground has seldom been covered as well, and White is additionally blessed with the storyteller's gift. His songs tend to read like Larry Brown's disturbing vignettes or Flannery O'Connor's spiritually flawed-character studies.
But his narratives ring true because they've been lived in, not put on. Where so many young roots rockers opt for the fool's gold shortcut to authenticity by drinking hard and playing loud, White's 1997 debut — Wrong-Eyed Jesus! (Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted) — was the quiet, mature work of an adult with loads of actual miles on him. By the time that debut was picked up by David Byrne's Luaka Bop label, White's life-portfolio included stints as drifter, religious fanatic and addict, film school graduate, NYC cab driver, professional surfer and even fashion model in Milan.
Shadowing White throughout was his Pentecostal upbringing in the Florida panhandle. On the plus side, his worldly peregrinations afforded his songs both an insider's realism and outsider's skeptical vantage. But they also left him straddling a spiritual Mason-Dixon Line in a purgatorial two-step.
"The people in the South don't want to know me because I'm talking about the idiot child they keep locked in the closet," White said in an online interview (Ed. Note: Creative Loafing was unable to reach White by press time for an interview.) "The Northern people don't want to know me because they've been inured by a million incarnations of Southern stereotyping."
But White has always been careful to mark the distinction between the Vaudevillian vicars on the Southern born-again circuit and genuine spiritual yearning. It's a topic his songs examine in sometimes excoriating — and one suspects often biographical — detail.
"I travelled all around the world and became more and more dissatisfied with my search for God," White said, in the excellent 2005 BBC4 documentary Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, which was inspired by his debut. "I realized I wasn't looking for what everybody else was — I was looking for the gold tooth in God's crooked smile."
White served as the documentary's tour guide, using his storytelling knack and songwriting gifts — as well as guest spots from the Handsome Family, 16 Horsepower's David Eugene Edwards and author Harry Crews, among others — to supply context. The film explored the bayou shacks, roadside diners, overflowing penitentiaries, "cut-and-shoot" juke-joints, and strip mall churches that dot the underbelly of the Deep South, and the characters in the film are the same ones you find in White's songs. In both, the marginalized — preacher's wayward sons, meth-heads, jailbirds, late-shift waitresses, Greyhound bus riders, trailer-dwellers and the like — do battle with their inner demons and Southern paradoxes.
White's own battles seem somewhat resolved. In the promotional material for his last full-length (and final one for Luaka Bop, it turns out), he said he titled 2007's Transnormal Skiperoo after a phrase he came up with to describe a "strange new feeling" of balance "after years of feeling lost and alone and cursed." White put down roots on a farm in the Georgia countryside, and has two new projects in the offing. He recently released Sounds Of The Americans (for a free download go to www.jimwhite.net), a side project that grew out of a score he wrote for a play that Julliard Music School put on. And now, with the help of a Kickstarter.com fundraiser, he's putting the finishing touches on his next full-length, Where It Hits You.
On his website, White calls it his most eclectic record yet. He adds that after years of physical and spiritual wandering in the wilderness, he's finally found something resembling home.
"Now I daily do my best to continue my work building a reliable bridge back to the quotidian world I spent most of my life fleeing," he writes, adding that it's "no small task when your core building materials are slivers of thought bound together with spider webs of faith, hope and reason."