Eccentric Singer/Songwriter Jim White Talks About the South and His Odd Connection to Knoxville

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Chances are you’ve heard of Jim White, but you thought he was a different Jim White from that other Jim White. Though never in the spotlight, he’s all over the place. He’s an artist and an essayist and has done some filmmaking. He’s a singer and guitarist, but his voice doesn’t always sound like it belongs to the same guy. Some of his work is eerie, some is hilarious, some sounds like an ancient ballad, some like an old gothic dirge, some like a rock anthem, some like a gritty folk song. The one thing that binds it together is a tinge of honest weirdness.

Songs like “Alabama Chrome” (a reference to duct tape, of course), “Buzzards of Love,” “Ten Miles to Go on a Nine-Mile Road,” “A Perfect Day to Chase Tornadoes,” and “Ghost Town of My Brain” prove him a storyteller with a talent for vivid metaphors and downbeat insights. “Everything I think I know,” goes one lyric, “is just static on the radio.”

He was also the subject of Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, a quotable 2003 documentary about the South that has attracted a cult following.

He has collaborated with everyone from Aimee Mann to the Barenaked Ladies and toured with David Byrne, a professed admirer. But in recent years, he has also worked at Juilliard on a soundtrack for a Sam Shepard play.

He doesn’t tour much, but he is going to be at Barley’s next week with one of his favorite groups, the Packway Handle Band, a way-offbeat crypto-bluegrass group from Athens, Ga., that White has produced.

White grew up in Pensacola, Fla., but went to college at New York University. For the last decade, he’s made his home base in Athens. White’s fascinated with the South and what makes it different from all other places, and that has informed his music and his persona.

“I love Knoxville,” White says. “The first time I was there, I walked around, nonstop, 11 in the morning to about 4. It’s my kind of town.”

His late stepfather was from the Knoxville area, and White produced a record by the Skipperdees, twin singer/songwriters from Oak Ridge who made a critical splash a couple of years ago. He says they broke up just after recording the album he produced, but he still thinks they’re great, a duo we should be proud of.

Three years ago, White posted an essay called “The Bottom,” based on a couple of experiences in Knoxville, and it’s gotten around in scholarly circles. During a tour with David Byrne—they played the Bijou Theatre in the mid-1990s—he had a fascinating experience with the late Central Street barber Walter McGinnis, whose Tri-City Barber College evolved into a small barber shop and junk store.

White was wandering around downtown with Byrne when they wandered into McGinnis’ shop. McGinnis, who could be grumpy, yelled at them. Alarmed, Byrne left. But White was fascinated with the old man, and stayed to hear McGinnis’ long, tall tales of painted ladies and knife fights in the gutter.

“He was real proud of the .38 bullet holes in his shop,” White says.

White is a Cormac McCarthy fan, as you might expect, and at length he asked McGinnis if he’d read Suttree. McGinnis answered, “Sut? Did he write a book?” And he proceeded to describe Suttree, heretofore believed to be a fictional character. Walter claimed Suttree used to come in his shop to get a haircut, and paid in catfish. White is still perplexed about what that means.

“He was an odd character, but I don’t know that he’d be that devious, as to read the book and make up a story about it,” White says. It gets stranger. “The Bottom” should be required reading.

This week White says he’s glad to hear confirmation that Walter and his weird shop really existed. “Sometimes when I tell stories I start to wonder about the veracity of them—whether they’re real or some deluded memory.”

When he returned to the Old City a few years later, he had a BBC Four camera crew in tow, working on the Southern travelogue that became Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus. “The British filmmakers were very enamored of Walter,” he says, “but all his stories were five to eight minutes long, and there was no way to cut them up.” The barber’s voice and image are in the final film, which won a Royal Television Society award.

The last time White came to town, around 2007, when he performed at a suburban radio station he doesn’t remember, he checked on Walter and was disappointed to see his store had closed.

Talking to White about literature, religion, and politics, it’s easy to forget that he’s mainly a musician. He plays guitar and sings. “It’s hard to get people out,” he says. “There’s a tsunami of tortured geniuses with guitars. On the way into town, there’s a whole traffic jam of them.”

He has a couple of daughters in Athens, and he is not crazy about touring. For White this is just a two-stop tour, Knoxville and Louisville.

The show at Barley’s is billed “Jim White Vs. the Packway Handle Band.” White likes the “vs.” because he and the band have opposing sensibilities. “They’re fun-loving, zippy, very boyish,” he says. “I’m sort of slit-your-wrists music. But we’ve advanced to some kind of synthesis.” He likes the chance to play some of his country songs that never seemed to fit with his solo shows.

The unlikely alliance has kicked up some surprises. One cover they’ve done together is the old Desmond Dekker ska bit, “The Israelites.”

“No telling what’ll pop up,” White says.


Jim White Vs. the Parkway Handle Band plays at Barley’s Taproom and Pizzeria (200 E. Jackson Ave.) on Thursday, June 18, at 10 p.m. 

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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