An Interview with Jim White
BBC Four (in the UK) are screening one of my favourite documentaries tonight, Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus. The beautiful Arena film follows Jim White’s idiosyncratic road trip through the South, revelling in Southern Gothic and taking in an impressive roster of alt-country favourites including The Handsome Family, Johnny Dowd and 16 Horsepower along the way. This clip will give you a flavour.
I interviewed Jim about the film for the BBC Four website when Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus was first shown on TV six years ago. This repeat screening seems like the perfect excuse to ressurect our conversation. Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus also has a fantastic soundtrack and there are a few MP3s on my original post at Carnival Saloon.
How did you react when you heard that an English guy wanted to make a film about you?
I thought there were people better suited than me to be a tour guide to the underbelly of the South, like Johnny Dowd. But they liked the fact that I wasn’t born there and don’t have eight generations of Southern blood in me. As an outsider I can convey the oddness of the South yet I’m still familiar with the intricacies of it.
Johnny Dowd is from the South, but it’s interesting that other musicians in the film, like 16 Horsepower and The Handsome Family, aren’t…
No, but they are all influenced by Southern culture, Southern religious culture even – either the rejection of religion or the acceptance of it. David Eugene Edwards [16 Horsepower] is a devoutly religious person. Rennie Sparks from The Handsome Family is fascinated by the carnality of Southern religion or the “bloodthirstiness” as she calls it. So I think that the choices made sense. If they’d got Southern bands or some singer from Texas like Joe Ely then it wouldn’t have transcended anything. It would only show the cause, it wouldn’t show the effect. In far-away places people are influenced by Southern storytelling and music. That’s really the point. Its influences on culture in the English-speaking world are fairly profound and yet nobody’s ever really referred to that.
Religion is obviously such a major part of that culture, I almost said a suffocating part…
Suffocating is fine. When you’re poor and there is no opportunity for pleasure in this life, you have to invent something to keep you going. If the ship never comes in then you invent the ship. The ship that they’ve invented there is Jesus and the Second Coming of Christ – The Rapture as they call it. There’s a lot of very normal people in middle-class jobs who sincerely believe that in a couple of weeks or couple of months, they’re going to get yanked out of their car and watch the earth disappear below them like a little speck of dust, and they are going to sing praises in a city covered in jewels and gold. For a person who lives in London that must seem like a mentally-ill vision, but it’s considered quite normal in the South.
Have you found your own beliefs mixing with that very distinctive Southern religious culture?
They are coloured by it. I was indoctrinated into the church at the age of about eight when I went to what I thought was a summer camp. In fact it was a church indoctrination camp. They don’t put you on a hay ride or take you to the swimming hall. They preach Jesus to you for an hour and then again three times a day. It’s insidious.
At a certain point going to church became the only way I could see to survive. I was an oddball and the oddballs fell into two categories – those oddballs that were getting saved and the oddballs that were strung out on heroin and starting to shoot people.
I went in the direction of the criminal for long enough to see that I didn’t fit in there and was going to come to a bad end. I have no self-control. If I’d have taken one hit of heroin I’d have been dead because I wouldn’t have been able to stop. So I went to church. I figured that excess in search of God can’t be that bad of a thing. But it’s its own drug.
By viewing the world through the church, intensely, passionately, with spirit and mind, I see the world through a pair of what I call Jesus glasses. If I take the Jesus glasses off, I’m blind. The difference between me and the other people in the South is real simple: with every step that I take and every word that I utter there’s a little subtitle which says, “Don’t take it too seriously because I’m wearing Jesus glasses”. I can’t take them off. I can’t not see the world through that context, but I can remind myself that it’s a tainted context of the world.
William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor are both mentioned in the film. Are there any other Southern cultural figures you tend to go back to?
I just enjoy standing around against a truck talking to regular people who know how to tell a story well and know their way around exotic phraseology. I go to the flea market every weekend. It’s a cornucopia of fascinating people. If you get to know them then you’ll hear all sorts of stories. One tells you how he was an ordained preacher but he backslid and spent 10 years in prison. Then you see the next guy and he’s got tears tattooed under his eye. When you ask him what those are he says that each one is for someone he killed in prison. If you just sit and listen to the richness of the culture, you don’t have to go and look in literature.
How did you plan where you travelled in the film?
It was based on a circle of locations: the honky-tonk, the farm, the church and the prison. Each one informs the other and we just planned to let this circle of ideas tell us what we don’t know right now. They had some cities in mind and I had some cities in mind. They wanted to go to Ferriday, Louisiana, because Jerry Lee Lewis was born there. People there are aware of the outside world and yet at the same time it’s a tiny little town in rural Louisiana.
I wanted them to go to the Jesus is Lord Catfish Restaurant and Truck Stop. The whole place was painted with a scene depicting The Rapture – pictures of planes crashing and souls flying up in the air, but sadly, two weeks before we went there they painted it all white. You can’t imagine how beautiful it was. Andrew [Douglas – director] called me on the phone crying. That was going to be the first place we shot. It was all gone; they’d saved one little part of the wall which you see in the film.
I think that tells a little story about the good that the film is doing. It’s documenting something that is going to get painted white. Pretty soon, the South that’s in the film is going to be harder and harder to find.
If someone watched the film and became inspired to make a trip to South, where would you recommend that they go?
Well, they need to fly to Jacksonville, Florida and call Tyler Greenwell on the phone – 1-800-752-1778. Tyler is one of my best friends. A lot of what I know about the underbelly of the South, I know from Tyler. He’s always at the place where all the craziest people are, so he’s got access to all these strange individuals. They can stay at Tyler’s house. That’s what he’s like – he’s got mattresses leaning up against the walls of his house. He runs a gambling boat in Jacksonville called La Cruise.
From Jacksonville, you should just get on any side road and go. Don’t go to the malls, don’t go to the strip malls, don’t go to the Cracker Barrel. Go to the back roads and eat at the places that look like you’ll get sick at and ask everyone to tell you a story. Some of them are going to want to fight. But you don’t ever learn anything by playing it safe. I’d go in the winter, though, because in the summer people don’t have a lot of energy because it’s so damn hot.
Finally, are you going to grow your hair back?
No. I wanted to cut it for years but my ex-wife said she needed to be with a man that looked like Jesus. It’s that simple. I didn’t want to have any more arguments than we were already having so as soon as we split up I cut it off. I’m too old to mess with floppy hair, particularly in the South when in the summertime it’s just a blanket of misery. It’s like wearing a wet wig on your head every night. So my hair is going to stay like this. It’s much more comfortable.
Related Posts on Carnival Saloon
Jim White @ The Borderline – review of a gig in 2007
Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (BBC) – clip, tracklist and link to iPlayer
Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus – official site
A Short Film About Bottles – video some colleagues and I made about the Arena opening sequence