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Far from the grind and glamour of Nashville—where he worked for years as a songwriter before stepping into the spotlight himself—White settled in his hometown of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a wellspring of gritty Southern rock and soul since the 1960s. Together with Alabama Shakes keyboard player Ben Tanner and Shoals native Will Trapp, White founded and runs Single Lock Records, a local indie label that has released records by some of the Yellowhammer State’s finest, including Dylan LeBlanc, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, and legendary songwriter and keyboard player Donnie Fritts.
White’s most recent album, Beulah, was released in 2016 to critical acclaim. It is his first in nearly a decade, a remarkably and assuredly diverse collection spanning plaintive folk balladry, swampy Southern rock, lonesome campfire songs, and dark acoustic pop. Gothic and ambitious, with a rustic, lived-in sound, it is a meditation on love curdling into its opposite, on recrimination defining relationships, and on hope finally filtering through doubt.
Beulah is also a White family nickname. “It’s a term of endearment around our house,” White explains, “like you would call someone ‘Honey.’ My dad used to call my little sister Beulah, and I call my daughter Beulah. It’s something I’ve always been around.”
Beulah is also something much loftier. For the poet and painter William Blake, Beulah was a place deep in the collective spiritual unconscious. “I won’t pretend to be the smartest guy in the world,” says White, “but I dig a lot of what he’s written. Beulah was a place you could go in your dreams. You could go there in meditation, to relax and heal and center yourself. It wasn’t a place you could stay, but you came back to the world in a better state.”
And perhaps the music on this album originated in that “pleasant lovely Shadow where no dispute can come.” According to White, the songs came to him unbidden—and not entirely welcome. “When these songs started popping into my head, I had been home for a while and I was perfectly happy. I wasn’t looking for songs. I didn’t know whether any would pop back in my head again, and I was honestly okay with that. I’m a very happy father and husband, and I love where I live. I love working with artists for a label that I think is doing good work.”
John Paul White’s voice was meant to be heard on its own.
A lot of it sounds spectacularly gloomy and bitter. That’s often because it is spectacularly gloomy and bitter. There are songs on here about collapsed relationships that make his old fan Adele’s last album sound like a masterclass in the virtues of moving on and letting bygones be bygones.
The past is over, and the future looks incredibly bright for us because John Paul White is writing music in it.