Jeff White

FROM FOLKIE TO FLATPICKER: THE JEFF WHITE STORY ﷯Let me tell you the story about Jeff White, a hugely-respected bluegrass flatpicking guitarist who transformed a fascination with folk music into an international passion for the six-string. In the world of bluegrass virtuosos, where talent is real and auto-tune is a foreign concept, White is a superstar among musicians. This is a man whose command of the instrument put him onstage and on record with influential artists Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, The Chieftains, Lyle Lovett and Tim O’Brien. This is a studio diplomat comfortable writing songs, producing records or just jamming with friends. On his two solo albums, 1996’s The White Album and 1999’s The Broken Road, both of which he produced, White showcases his quiet brilliance. He’s a flatpicker with an easy going style that belies his instrumental perfection. He’s squarely in modern bluegrass terrain, combining the hallmarks of the genre with rootsy dashes of country, folk and Celtic music. For White, mixing sonic ingredients is a natural progression. “I try not to think too much about the differences in folk, bluegrass and country because when Bill Monroe began he was classified as a country artist and bluegrass groups incorporated folk music into their sound,” White says. “I’ve been trained primarily in the bluegrass world and the timing and intonation and attention to vocal blending and tone helped me as I moved from bluegrass to country to Irish.” Like all true musicians, White is moved by that innate need to explore the musical realms. Jeff White was born in Syracuse, New York in 1957; he’s the middle child of Catherine and Ed White. Syracuse and the Southwood suburb would be White’s home through elementary school. When he was 13, the family moved to North Manchester, Indiana. White would attend junior high, high school and college in North Manchester. But his greatest schooling started with the television set. “The summer we arrived was also the summer that the television show Hee Haw started, which was my first introduction to bluegrass and country music.” The seed was planted. White found the guitar during his freshmen year of high school. Initially he immersed himself in folk and pop music, soaking up Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, Bob Dylan, Jim Croce, Seals & Crofts, and Cat Stevens. While he was a freshman in college, White gravitated to a mandolin-playing dorm mate that introduced him to bluegrass pioneer Doc Watson. “My friend Alan Lloyd had an extensive record collection from which he made tapes of all the great guitar flatpickers like Dan Crary, Norman Blake, Doc Watson, Don Reno and the first generation of bluegrass pioneers like Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers,” White remembers. “He also introduced me to the next generation like the Country Gentlemen, Sam Bush, JD Crowe, to name a few.” The sociology major was quickly in a bluegrass band, The Suburban Grass, which played around campus. The Suburban Grass made a little noise, and before long the band was immersed in the burgeoning bluegrass music movement in North Manchester and nearby Wabash, Indiana. They played coffeehouses and local bars, reveled in the scene that would prove for White to be a formidable foundation for hardcore bluegrass. He learned the traditions by ear, and they would soon pay off. After Suburban Grass, White joined forces with brothers Bruce and David Johnson, along with David’s wife Melody, to form The Johnsons. In 1979 The Johnsons entered a band contest as part of the Kentucky Fried Chicken Bluegrass Festival in Louisville, Kentucky, a free festival showcasing the biggest names in bluegrass music. The Johnsons won the top prize, KFC Best Bluegrass Band in America, and snagged $2,500 plus a chance at recording a 45 single in a bona fide Nashville recording studio where Elvis Presley and many others had laid down tracks. They also scored a real Music City record producer in Tom Collins, who made a name for himself helming records for Barbara Mandrell, Ronnie Milsap, Sylvia, Steve Wariner and Tom T. Hall, among others. “It was my first time in Nashville and we spent an afternoon doing our two songs. I think I still have some 45 singles around here somewhere.” But while some members of The Johnsons immediately made the move to Nashville, White took the responsible route and stayed in Indiana to start graduate school. During his first year of graduate studies White worked for sociologist Dr. Martin Weinberg at the renowned Kinsey Institute. Now in Bloomington, Indiana, White once again sought out the bluegrass scene and quickly met musicians that played bluegrass as well as folk and old-time country. White was naturally spending more time playing bluegrass than focusing on his academic work, which led Dr. Weinberg to make the suggestion that White choose his true career path. He dropped out of graduate school. In nearby Beanblossom, Indiana, where Monroe had his yearly bluegrass festival, White was introduced to a 13-year-old bluegrass wunderkind named Alison Krauss. About three years later, when Krauss was 16 and White was playing music full-time, serendipity reunited Krauss and White. White, low and behold, would become a member of Krauss’ band Union Station. He spent about three years with Krauss touring and making a couple of records, 1989’s Two Highways and 1990’s I’ve Got That Old Feeling. “It gave me insight into what another one of her gifts is and that she constantly searches for great songs and forms relationships with lots of songwriters and continually prods them to write something heart wrenching,” White says. “She maintains many of those relationships for years. She has a great ear for something that works for her and a very critical ear in the studio.” After his tenure in Union Station, White hung around Bloomington playing music in Southern Indiana and befriending a host of talented musicians. In 1991 White moved to Sakaide Japan to play bluegrass music at a resort – yes, in Sakaide, Japan – and by 1992 he was back in the states and living in Nashville. He played the Station Inn regularly, formed a musical and personal kinship with bluegrass virtuoso Tim O’Brien and set his eye on playing music with soon-to-be country superstar Vince Gill. It was, again, rather serendipitous. White was at the Station Inn playing with O’Brien. Gill stopped by to catch the show. White broke a guitar string onstage. While in his dressing room changing it, Gill asked White to join him on the road for a couple weeks as a trial run. “My first gig was later that week at the Grand Old Opry singing ‘When I Call Your Name.’ My first road gig was shortly after that in North Dakota where Vince was on a package show with George Jones and Conway Twitty. Needless to say it was surreal to be eating breakfast next booth over from George and his wife Nancy. Pretty tall cotton.” Nearly a quarter-century later, White is still a member of Gill’s band. To call that association a lifelong learning experience is an understatement. “The biggest thing that I’ve gotten from him is that if you can play with people who are better than you are, they will force you to raise your level of musicianship to try to keep up with them. He also exemplifies being a giving musician willing to jump into a project because he likes the people he’s working with without any thought of compensation.” From the professor so learns the student. White parlayed his Gill gig into a stint with tall Texan Lyle Lovett, one of the most revered and beloved singer-songwriters to emerge from the stellar Nashville class of late ‘80s newcomers that also gave us Steve Earle and Nanci Griffith. “Several years of working with Lyle Lovett gave me a peek at an artist who wants to present his show in a very specific way from when the audience comes in to the moment they leave, what they hear and see the whole time they are there.” And now, ladies and gentlemen, we have The Chieftains. Sure, going from Lyle Lovett and Vince Gill to The Chieftains might seem like quite a large leap. But it isn’t. It was 2002 and the O Brother, Where Are Thou? craze was still white hot. Chief Chieftain Paddy Moloney wanted to make a star-studded duets record that walked the intersection where bluegrass and country meet Celtic. White was instrumental in the making of 2002’s Down the Old Plank Road: The Nashville Sessions and its sequel, 2003’s Further Down the Old Plank Road. White assisted in the production, gathered the array of guest artists including Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Earl Scruggs and old pals Gill, Krauss and Lovett. White also played on both albums. He toured the states with The Chieftains always singing and picking a bluegrass song in front of the premier Irish band’s loyal audiences. But in the studio with Moloney, now that’s where White really witnessed yet another master at work. “It was educational to watch Paddy work since he is a master of having a grand vision for a project and the ability to get everyone on board,” White says. “As a producer you are trying to ease any of the problematic things that happen in a studio and get people comfortable in that setting to give inspired performances.” The Chieftains opened White to the vast international world of roots music. He collaborated with musicians from China, Japan, Italy, and worked with the Inuit people leaning their folk music. “I’ve always liked to say I love country music from just about any country. It opens up your own playing when you put yourself into a completely foreign land and try to jam with local musicians.” Back home White continued his studio production work by helming five albums for acclaimed fiddler Michael Cleveland, three of which took home Instrumental Recording of the Year honors at the prestigious International Bluegrass Music Association Awards. As a songwriter, White has been honored to have his tunes recorded by The Del McCoury Band (“The Cold Hard Facts”), Alison Krauss & Union Station featuring Dan Tyminski (“Blue Trail of Sorrow”), Dale Ann Bradley (“Leaving Kentucky”), The Infamous Stringdusters (“I Wonder”), and Dan Tyminski (“Carry Me Across the Mountain”), which was nominated for an IBMA song of the year award. These days White continues to expand his artistic reach. He’s been working with The Travelin’ McCourys as a rotating guitarist since the band’s inception. He is the mandolinist for The Earls of Leicester, the all-star Flatt and Scruggs tribute group led by Jerry Douglas. As White continues to hone his own virtuosity, he has an eye on the all-important future of the genre. While the current trends in mainstream country music aren’t his “cup of tea,” as he kindly tells you, he does have high hopes for the young generation of bluegrass pickers. “There are tons of great young players and singers out there, great songwriters coming up in all these genres. The recording process is getting less expensive and more people are able to get their music out there.” That’s high praise coming from a bluegrass flatpicking guitar master. Jeff White found his calling in the six-string, an instrument that took him around the world and always brings him back home. By Mario Tarradell

photo by Jim McGuire

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