For about five years, John Paul White rode an indie-folk music rocket ship called the Civil Wars. The duo was formed by White and fellow Nashville songsmith Joy Williams in 2008 with a tragic name and even more tragic sensibility, crafting a quietly dramatic sound and penning haunting songs of heartbreak, loss, and longing that struck a major chord with listeners. Their songs would go on to pepper soundtracks, win AMAs and Grammys, and set the two on a worn industry path of touring and recording.
Despite the pair’s obvious musical chemistry, their name proved fitting, as a swift and tumultuous dissolution of the band occurred in 2014, with White heading back to his hometown of Florence, Ala. and settling into domestic bliss with his wife and kids while Williams continued the grind.
That was the way it seemed anyway — but White clearly has music in his blood, and his first solo album since the breakup, Beulah, arrived last year on the independent record label he co-founded, Single Lock Records.
“I was a songwriter-for-hire for 10 or 11 years before the Civil Wars started, so I come at [writing] from a little different perspective,” White says. “It was later in those years when I decided I was sick of doing that and wanted to write for myself instead of for other people. I want to do this for the rest of my life, and I’ll continue to look for ways to do that.”
Much of what made the duo so distinctive — the clear roots in folk tradition, the theatrical flair of the storytelling, and the subtly grand pop sensibilities that governed the arrangements — shines through on Beulah, with White mining similar thematic material with just a hint of his musical breakup in the background.
It’s a stunningly effective approach, and one that the songwriter credits to the specific musical mélange of his youth, with Southern sounds sitting alongside “the music of the MTV generation” and vocally powerful, melodically invested indie-rock songwriters like Elliott Smith and Jeff Buckley.
“Those are definitely some of my heroes, for sure,” he says of those two musicians. “And as much as I love those records and pop orchestration records like the Beatles records or ELO, my dad also raised me on country music my whole childhood, so I’ve heard steel guitar all of my life. So somehow all those different elements I grew up loving all coalesced and became part of who I am. I always felt there were songs, especially with Elliott, that he could have written a country record if he wanted to. He had some of those same influences [as me], that Hank Williams, Townes Van Zandt influence. That all made sense to me. It all clicks with my brain.”
And while the sound and style that White forges feels unique, he’s also part of a cadre of musicians in northern Alabama who seem to be producing a mini-renaissance at this particular nexus of folk, soul, and rock music in the wake of the Muscle Shoals legacy — most prominently the Alabama Shakes, whose keyboardist Ben Tanner is a co-founder of White’s label, and St. Paul & the Broken Bones, who was one of the first artists signed to it.
“So many people for so long rested on the laurels of the Swampers and Spooner Oldham and Rick Hall and those guys. We all idolized them, and for a long time that’s all the Shoals wanted to be,” White explains. “My generation came along and looked at all that, and said, ‘You know, that’s great, and we’re proud of that legacy, that we’re standing on those shoulders, but that ain’t doing us a damn bit of good. We have to do our own thing.'”
White says many of his contemporaries grew up with those Muscle Shoals session players as mentors and teachers, which in some ways created a shared bed for offshoots that range from Jason Isbell to Brittany Howard.
“We use a lot of that as a foundation because we can play all of those R&B and soul classics, but also Southern rock and country music,” he points out. “Combine that with being the MTV generation that grew up with a lot of other records from other parts of the country and overseas. We beg and borrow from a lot of different places, but at the root of it all is that groove, that heartbeat of what happens around here.”
There’s an obvious enthusiasm in White’s voice that quickly turns sour when he talks about his experience with the label and the larger music industry, where the hints of why he abruptly left the Civil Wars becomes clear.
“At the moment it excites me to make another record, but I’ve said before that when I’m not that way, I’ll go home, hold my babies, go to basketball games and dance recitals,” he offers.
“We’re getting to that point in the industry that that has to be your driving force — you have to love it. You have to want to do it so badly that you deal with all of the BS and the constantly declining amount of revenue. It takes crazy people.”