Idiosyncratic Southern Gothic singer-songwriter Jim White, whose new album, Take It Like a Man, is a collaboration with The Packway Handle Band, has a way with words, so it’s wise to give him the floor and let him vividly describe the best show he has ever seen.
“In 1964, my family moved from San Diego, California to the armpit of the Gulf of Mexico—Brownsville, Florida,” says White. “My first Sunday morning there I rose early before my sisters and turned on the TV expecting to find the usual fare of cartoons available out west. No such luck. In place of kid shows there was a bewildering array of religious programming.
“I flipped through the channels — there were but three — passing over ‘Coffee with the Parson’ twice, eventually settling on a show called Gospel Jubilee. It was the dirt plain set — grim no-seam backdrop and dusty ficus tree — that got my attention first. But, upon further examination, the three rough-looking musicians were truly captivating dressed in a manner that appeared simultaneously dignified and ridiculous.
“I had not before encountered working-class Southerners wearing their Sunday best — cheap garments likely culled from the bargain racks at Kmart which, at that point, was one of the few discount outlets that catered to the poor-white-trash underbelly of southern culture. I watched in stupefied wonder as the two scruffy farmer types and the bee-hive-haired woman with the pinched face began to wail to the Lord.
“In southern California, surf bands like the Beach Boys dominated the airwaves. Not so in rural Florida. These people were singing hardscrabble bluegrass and doing so with a vengeance. I was vaguely aware from family discussions that I now lived in a backward realm and expected to be repelled. But I was surprised to instead be drawn in — to suddenly realize that this kind of backward worked for me. It was spellbinding. I remember I watched the second half of the show with the sound turned down, so I could better study their mannerisms. I wanted to be like them — to sing like them, to dress like them, to live like them. It was a watershed moment — I was hit with that bluegrass sound without filters. Without preconceptions or grooming.”
The hardscrabble bluegrass that mesmerized White 51 years ago is reflected in his albums, including the new one with The Packway Handle Band of Athens, Georgia. The band asked White to produce their album but then learned he had many unreleased bluegrass songs. It soon became a joint album.
On his website, White recalls the union and his impressions of The Parkway Handle in his own inimitable way:
“When I’d heard ’em play a couple of years earlier, I muttered under my breath, ‘I wish I could have that much fun playing music.’ When they offered me the chance to produce, I thought, ‘How can I undermine this?’”
Thus, Take It Like A Man was born. It’s another winner—the seventh unique release in the eccentric White’s catalog that began in 1997 on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label.