Joy Lynn White – Tougher than the rest
Today’s breakthrough female singer in country music, Gretchen Wilson, is celebrated and promoted for her up-from-down-home midwest background, for her blunt and direct way of holding herself and singing, and for R&B-influenced rock elements in her music that give way to moving, traditional honky-tonk ballads. In a real sense, Wilson now fills the smart, feisty woman niche left open within Sony’s Nashville division when the Dixie Chicks were effectively pressured into a hiatus from that role.
Back in the early ’90s, before either of those acts were well-known, Sony Nashville let loose a couple of strong, largely forgotten albums from a fiery, knowing vocalist with every one of the attributes now associated with Wilson — and who first introduced a couple of the songs (“Tonight The Heartache’s On Me” and “Cold Day In July”) that would launch Natalie Maines and the Chicks into stardom.
That was Joy Lynn White, best recalled by most readers here, no doubt, for her extraordinary 1997 Pete Anderson-produced alt-country disc The Lucky Few, which posited and presented her as the female answer to Dwight Yoakam. That album went to #1 on the fledgling Gavin Americana chart and featured breathtaking, gulp-inducing versions of Lucinda Williams’ “I Just Wanted To See You So Bad” and Jim Lauderdale’s “Why Do I Love You?”
Joy spent the second half of ’97 opening for Lucinda and playing a variety of other dates. The national audience had no reason to know she was simultaneously fighting to collect money from the record, disappointed with the performance of her manager and booker in the wake of critical raves, and caught up in the sort of enervating differences over directions and choices not so uncommon for a woman in the music business who knows what she wants.
And, as White is the first to admit, she has rarely hesitated, particularly in those days, to speak her mind — bluntly.
“Honesty can be misinterpreted,” she says in a conversation at Nashville’s Portland Brew coffeeshop. “Honesty ruffles a lot of feathers. I feel like I’ve sometimes gotten ‘womanized’ from that. And I’m a real redhead, too, which, right away, sets off some people thinking, ‘Uh-oh!’
“But I stuck to my guns. It’s not that I’d been trying to hurt anybody’s feelings or piss anybody off, but when this is the truth — well, sorry, if that bothers you!”
Even as these professional battles flared, in January 1998, Joy’s only niece, 14-year-old Jamie Leigh White, was killed, swept away in an East Tennessee flash flood along with other close relatives. It was a devastating loss that she couldn’t just set aside.
“After awhile,” she recalls ruefully, “you can get so beaten down that you just go, ‘I’ll quit for a while; I can’t take it anymore. And that’s what I did. I shut down.”
What followed was a hiatus from recording, for more than a passing “while.” In the nearly nine years since, save for a 2002 collection of demos of songs she’d written (sold only online and at shows), there had not been another Joy Lynn White release — until this past October. Titled, appropriately, One More Time, it was co-produced by White with veteran Kyle Lehning for his new label, Thortch, built largely on songs she co-wrote.
Moving easily from sledgehammer roots-rock to ’70s-style country-rock tones and spare, understated balladry, One More Time is already being taken for the markedly strong return it is; it had reached the upper ranks of the current Americana airplay charts by the moment of its release. The theme running all through its tracks, in a word, is resilience: Take it all in, spit it back out, bounce back, and come up smiling.
The title song, co-written with Amy Rigby, speaks of breaking the habit of misplaying the cards dealt to you. “I’m Free”, co-written with Nashville songwriting great Kostas, turns country music convention on its head: The ex-lover walks by, and Joy Lynn doesn’t fall to pieces. And “Victim Of Love” expresses unmitigated joy (no pun intended) in not being one of those.
“Yeah; there you go,” she agreed. “‘We’ve got the scars to remind us, so we won’t end in tragedy.’ That line’s in ‘Victim Of Love’ and it says it all. It’s, ‘Hey; if you don’t really like me, if I don’t like you — I don’t want to hurt your feelings, and you don’t want to hurt mine. Let’s just be friends and go our own way, look somewhere else.’…I want to say ‘Don’t be a doormat; you can be all right without these guys.'”
Some of the women she’s speaking to here are her musical peers, especially those who have been less lucky than she actually has been on the Music City scene. They’re saluted on what may be the most striking song on One More Time, “Girls With Apartments In Nashville”, co-written with Duane Jarvis, a frequent collaborator and bandmate.
The song “is about the idealism I saw when I first moved here in 1982 — girls with different intentions, driving beat-up cars who came here to make music, make art,” White says. “It was a completely different town; it was always first about being a really good singer, and singing great songs. I came here not wanting to ‘be a star’ — but to make records, make a living doing what I wanted to do, to be what I was meant to be. That was my dream.
“I’m not a rich girl, and I didn’t come here to go to Belmont College and get a degree to get in the business; didn’t even think about doing anything like that. ‘Girls With Townhouses Driving Beamers In Nashville’ — that would be the epitome of how it is now!”
Unlike so many aspiring singers, then and now, White didn’t have to start out in Nashville by learning the rudiments of performing. She was at it when she was 5, as lead singer with Indiana’s “Singing White Family featuring Little Lynn White.”