John Paul White is a musical auteur of the highest rank. His Grammy-nominated work as one half of The Civil Wars brought him to prominence. His songwriting craft and haunting voice have kept him there.
He owns Single Lock Records, a record label based in his hometown of Florence. The label’s roster is laden with stellar talent, including St. Paul and the Broken Bones’ first release.
Co-owning a label and maintaining his song catalog is only a fraction of White’s output. He has a new album out, “The Hurting Kind,” and is coming to Birmingham to play the Lyric Theater on May 18.
Q: I watched the video to “I Wish I Could Write You a Song,” and it seems like that song was really hard to write. Is there any truth to that?
A: It is not true whatsoever, and it’s funny because I wrote that with Bill Anderson and I’d never been in a room with him before. I wondered walking into it if we’d just be sitting there telling stories all day and talking about him being a host on “Fandango,” but we wrote three songs really quickly. That one, I think that song has been written in my head about 50 times. I was glad to finally get it onto a page.
Q: In the video, I like the fact that you included text about Muscle Shoals. How important is it to you to identify with that area?
A: My city being here, my label being here, my band and most of the artists being in my backyard … I’m perfectly happy that the Shoals has become such a big part of me and who I am as a brand — I can’t stand that word, but it’s true. One doesn’t come without the other, and I’m 100 percent proud of that.
Q: “The Hurting Kind” is the title of the album. How did that come about?
A: The title popped in my head out of nowhere and I didn’t know what it meant. I just know I loved the phrase. I had most of the record already finished and I thought it just fit perfectly.
I didn’t know what the song was, and I sat down and just kind of followed it. I started singing the phrase and playing some stuff that seemed to fit with it. I started realizing that I was coming at it from a female perspective and that it was really about a toxic relationship, and maybe even bordering on abuse.
If I had sat down to write that song, it would suck. It would be too overt and too heavy-handed. Coming at it from that angle, where I didn’t intend for the end result to be that, made me create a song that I’m really proud of.
Q: I just looked at all the titles of the songs, and that track list is pretty melancholy.
A: Yeah, maybe that’s a step up for me because I get a lot of people saying my songs are dark and gloomy. I think that is true to a sense, but a lot of the stuff that I write about is love songs. They’re veiled, but the song “I Hope I Die” is actually a love song. Like, I hope I battle for our love like nobody else because nothing else will compare to it. I listen to a lot of Hank Williams Sr., Townes Van Zandt, and I think “Good Lord, I am nowhere near as dark as these guys.”
Q: How important is it to you that artists keep making albums and not concentrate on just releasing singles?
A: This may be controversial with the people I love around me, but I don’t think it’s important at all.
I think what’s important is that an artist creates work that they’re proud of. For a lot of artists, I think being beholden to an album sometimes can weaken a song because they want it to shift into a batch. They might shave off a corner, they might take a turn that they wouldn’t have, because they want it to sit in that batch of songs.
I say create your best work every time you sit down, and at the end of the day look at the pile and see if they have a common thread and treat them as such.
I’ve got songs that are dearly loved that I couldn’t put on this record or the last one because they didn’t just fit in that batch, and I’m still just as proud of them. They will see the light of day at some point.
I think some artists are always going to create in a way that they create an album, and that’s real. Some artists just create classic one-off songs, and that’s brilliant too.
Q: Let’s talk about Single Lock Records. What philosophy do you think characterizes the label?
A: Well, we are definitely a blue-collar label in that we do partnerships with artists, so we expect a lot from them. And we work with artists that expect a lot from themselves, and are willing to do a lot of the work and not wait for their record label to do things for them. We try to associate ourselves with artists that are able to pull it off live, and that are able to play shows that people can’t stop talking about.
Q: “This Isn’t Going to End Well” with Lee Ann Womack is a stand-out song. How did she end up on that song?
A: I wrote it with Bobby Braddock. When we wrote it, we didn’t write it as a duet, we wrote it as a guy singing about how he was guarding his heart and didn’t want to go down the road of love again because he still hadn’t healed.
When I was doing the demo, it hit me that it would be a lot more intriguing if it was a conversation between two people. I thought it was better for them both to feel the same way and there be that tension to that.
Lee Ann and I had been friends for a while and talked about collaborating over the years. I think she is one of the voices of our generation, so it seemed rather silly for me to even ask her, but because I had written a song with Bobby and I was making this record of country that would really suit her voice, I felt like I should take my shot, because the worst that she could do is say no. But when I asked she jumped in with both feet.
Q: One of the things I was impressed about looking at your itinerary was that you’re playing the Panoply festival in Huntsville. Have you played with that particular group of people before?
A: I have not, but I’m thrilled to be involved with it. I’m always surprised when people around here reach out to me to be a part of something, and I guess I shouldn’t be, but it’s just me being the “aw shucks,” small-town guy. It’s very shocking but also very flattering. I want to make them happy and make them proud, and I want to make all of my family that is going to show up to this thing proud, too. It’s a daunting task playing this close to home with a big crowd like that, but one that I’m thrilled to tackle.
Larry May is the owner of CD Cellar record store on Noble Street in downtown Anniston.