John Paul White looked to Nashville’s illustrious past to create an album he thought would speak eloquently to the present, and to judge by the reception for “The Hurting Kind,” he was onto something.
White, whose sound encompasses folk, country and the diverse Americana genre, drew from the inspiration of artists known for the so-called countrypolitan sound. Legendary singers of that style, which blended country with pop music elements, include Jim Reeves, Patsy Cline, Roy Orbison, Chet Atkins and Glen Campbell.
Through his singing, songwriting and guitar-playing talents, White, who performs Sunday at The Plus in Eau Claire, is earning effusive praise for “The Hurting Kind.”
NPR Music calls “The Long Way Home” from the album “a magnificent tearjerker.” And Rolling Stone Country lauded the song “My Dreams Have All Come True,” crediting the instrumental work but adding, “it’s White’s top-shelf voice — particularly his high notes during the chorus — that delivers the knockout blow.”
The album features assistance from some major country stars. Lee Ann Womack, the award-winning singer whose sound also blends classic and contemporary elements, sings with White on “This Isn’t Gonna End Well.”
Two songwriting greats also helped out: Whisperin’ Bill Anderson, whose hits include Connie Smith’s “Once a Day” and Brad Paisley’s “Too Country,” co-wrote two songs; and Bobby Braddock, with credits such as George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and Toby Keith’s “I Wanna Talk About Me,” co-wrote one tune.
For White, “The Hurting Kind” builds on a two-decade music career in Nashville. He was one half of the Civil Wars, a duo that won four Grammy Awards before disbanding in 2012. He also has been a songwriter for a major publisher and has contributed to recordings by such notables as Rodney Crowell, Hiss Golden Messenger, Rosanne Cash, Jason Isbell and Emmylou Harris.
White took the time to answer questions submitted via email.
Q: “The Hurting Kind” is one of my favorite albums of the year. One reason for that is that I find the title accurate. That is, emotions on your songs and performances here seem deeply felt, and in a number of cases deal with pain and loss, or at times wistfulness. I’m thinking of songs such as “The Long Way Home,” “The Hurting Kind” and “James,” to name a few. Do the emotions of those songs feel fresh as you’re writing them, or is there any sort of artistic distance, if that’s an accurate phrase?
A: It’s an interesting relationship I have with all of my songs. Typically they’re not autobiographical — at least not in totality — but I have to feel every inch of what I’m singing. I can’t separate myself from the subject matter at all. If I do, it feels flat and uninspired. I write songs in a way that anyone can find themselves as the protagonist — but so can I. Taking on those roles is challenging and exhausting, but I don’t think I’d be compelled to do it any other way.
Q: By the same token, and another reason I think the album is so strong, the final product has a certain upbeat feel. How did you make that happen?
A: I don’t know! It wasn’t on purpose … but I think that when I set out to make this type of record, I wanted it to be more arranged, sophisticated, even slick. Not a record you’d call “raw” or “organic” or “in the moment” like I’ve made in the past (and probably will again). Maybe that sense of purpose comes across in a more assertive, definitive … dare I say confident way.
Q: Your music has earned fans who flock to, for instance, indie rock, Americana, folk and other genres. This album includes those elements, but it also has a strong classic country music element. That sound seems to me to set up the lyrics in a way that seems to enhance their power. How did you decide to work in that style?
A: I found myself searching for this type of record in the world. A modern take on the countrypolitan records I grew up listening to with my dad, with the troubadour up front with a rose in his teeth. I’d worn out those records, and longed for more — and knew that if I tackled a record in that way, my voice would lend to it something unique.
Q: You worked with some tremendously talented people on this album, notably Lee Ann Womack, who is featured on “This Isn’t Gonna End Well”; Bobby Braddock, who co-wrote “This Isn’t Gonna End Well”; and Whisperin’ Bill Anderson, who co-wrote “I Wish I Could Write You a Song” and “You Lost Me” (along with Jamey Johnson). What did they bring to those respective songs?
A: When I booked those sessions, I wanted to kill two birds. Meet my heroes, sit at their knees and hear stories of their heroes — but also see if I could get their seal of approval on this endeavor of mine. I knew if I could get the thumbs up from the masters that I was on the right track with this record, it would fuel the rest of the project. Along the way I made friends, and realized that although they are much more experienced (and better) at this, we’re cut from the same cloth.
Q: In the song notes on your website, you say you’re a huge fan of Roy Orbison — and I certainly hear that on some of the songs on the album. What about his songs/singing do you find so influential?
A: His delivery makes me feel. I don’t know how else to say it. Certain people have just the right amount of real emotion in their voice. Too much and it’s sappy, maudlin, overwrought. And if any singer wants a bar to try to reach, look no further. He gives me carte blanche to do whatever I want as a singer. No matter how dramatic I get, I will always pale in comparison. That’s perfectly fine with me.
Q: For people who became aware of you through your work in the Civil Wars, how has your music evolved since you’ve been working on your own, and what elements might strike a familiar chord to those listeners?
A: I tend to trust my gut, and allow whatever moves me to end up on the page. That’s usually influenced by my current story, the people around me, the world around me, but also everything I’ve ever been in contact with. It’s the way I’ve always created, so people will always be getting the purest form of who I am in that moment — or at least my best effort at that. I hope that anyone that’s connected with things I’ve done throughout my career will find that thread through all of it.