Lawrence County, Tennessee is celebrating its Bicentennial (1817-2017) with a day full of events including a “homecoming” concert by one of its own
By Nancy Brewer
John Paul White, singer/songwriter, says he’s looking forward to his August 5 concert at Lawrenceburg’s historic Crockett Theatre, where he last played about 20 years ago. During that interval, he earned four Grammy Awards as half of the duo, Civil Wars, became a partner in a Florence, Alabama record label and launched a solo career that has him back on the road touring.
White was born in the Shoals, but the family moved to his parents’ hometown of Loretto, Tennessee when he was four years old. His early singing experience was at the local Catholic church.
“I sang in church quite a bit. When you’re from a small area like Loretto and Sacred Heart and you can carry a tune, you’re going to be singing.”
White attended Sacred Heart Elementary, “like my mom and her mom before,” and as a teen, formed a band with friends for a Loretto High School talent show. He was assigned the role of vocalist by default: He was the only one who knew the words to AC/DC’s “Back in Black.”
That band led to another and another. “There was a long list of bands we got to open for, and it was very eye-opening, rubbing elbows with those guys, seeing their tour bus and their entourage, and their amps that worked all the time. That even furthered the dream, seeing people actually doing it for a living. I thought, they’re human beings just like me, they grew up in small towns just like me, why can’t I?”
White was also writing more, and had an opportunity to resume his college career at the University of North Alabama. An internship with an adjunct professor/songwriter who was working with music publishing giant EMI led to his own songwriting contract six months later.
He was able to make a living for his young family, but “…I realized that the songs I was writing were not exactly like what everybody else was writing in Nashville. I was a bit of a square peg in a round hole.”
EMI sent his songs to offices in Los Angeles and New York. “They really liked what I did, and I ended up getting a record deal as a solo artist with Capital Records out in L.A. It was a great situation, but then the entire staff got fired.”
Not far into the “limbo” that followed, White met Joy Williams at a songwriting event and the Civil Wars partnership resulted. “Suddenly, things started going really well for me,” he said.
Their 2011 CD “Barton Hollow” and its title track won popular and critical acclaim. Lawrence Countians recognized the setting of its video as Mt. Zion, a picturesque spot on a creek in southeast Lawrence County.
The Civil Wars toured nationally and internationally, and for two months performed with Adele, who called them “the BEST live band I have EVER seen.” The New York Daily News wrote of their music, “With care and delicacy, they curate their notes, stitching together a sound that’s sharp, arch and almost achingly fine.”
Despite success that included the Grammys and a second CD, the duo split in 2014, citing “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition.” White settled back into life in Florence, Alabama with his wife and four children, but friends soon challenged him to “put his money where his mouth was.”
White, with Alabama Shakes keyboardist Ben Tanner and Florence businessman Will Trapp, started Single Lock Records, a label designed to get local talent the audience it deserves.
“We really wanted to take advantage of the fact that there was so much great local talent who couldn’t really afford to work with proper producers and make proper records in proper studios,” White said. “We felt that was the major impediment for artists to really make hay, to get that record in their hands and go out and promote and sell it.”
The trio have had to look no further than the Shoals area for talented musicians to work with, including Dylan LeBlanc and St. Paul & the Broken Bones. “We really think we’re doing good work,” White said, “putting what we consider to be very good music out into this earth.”
White is also putting his own music out there. Lyrics and melodies that eventually became the “Beulah” album came unbidden. “Honestly, I tried to avoid them, but then I realized the only way I was going to get rid of them was if I wrote them down.” The eight songs on the album are hard to classify in any particular genre, said to span “plaintive folk balladry, swampy southern rock, lonesome campfire songs and dark acoustic pop.”
He’s particularly proud of the video for “What’s So,” which travels from his home in Florence to a dilapidated trailer he once lived in “on the highway in St. Joe” to his parents’ home outside Loretto. His mom and dad, Mac and Mary Blanche, are featured.
“It’s basically me, knowing where I came from, and I’ll always be that kid that grew up there. Making the video was a dream come true. I’m glad I was able to do it.”
Coming back to play at the Crockett Theatre is another dream. “It’ll be like a homecoming. I’m incredibly excited about it, and I have a feeling I’m going to be nervous about it.
“I have to say, it’s an awesome responsibility, being the local boy. Kind of daunting, too, when somebody from back home says, ‘We’re watching you.’ You feel not only proud of that, you feel like ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t let them down.’ It’s a great responsibility that I never took lightly, and I’m very proud to be that guy.”
TICKETS for the August 5, 7 p.m. concert may be purchased through www.LawrenceburgTN.gov, a link from “Lawrence County Bicentennial” on Facebook, or by calling 931-762-4231.
Nancy Brewer is a native of Lawrence County who worked for many years as an editor and writer at the Advocate newspaper. She is currently an assistant to County Executive T.R. Williams.