Pop: Hick-hop pioneer

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Jim White (not his real name) has transmuted his bizarre and unsettling life experiences into a hip, postmodern style of country music. Tim Perry talks to him

With bands like Lambchop, Sparklehorse and the Silver Jews, we've had a taste of weird takes on American roots music in recent years. Still, none of those quite prepared us for Wrong-Eyed Jesus, released last year by the hitherto unknown Jim White. Steeped in Deep South religious imagery, it came with sleevenotes that told a short story about God, demons, rednecks and drugs. The pictures featured a man doing his best to hide under a straw hat. It begged the questions: What kind of guy is this? And does he really exist? "Ha Ha," the subject piped down the line in a perky voice, "it's a funny question, as I changed my name to Jim White. I've always been a real private person and when the record company asked me to go out and perform, I had to get a new identity. That's the local issue. The larger issue is that I'd an incredible run of bad luck in my previous name including the deaths of some friends, losing my business to an embezzler, my girlfriend leaving me and my animals all getting killed in mysterious ways. I felt like that there was a lot of agents of the supernatural that had warrants for my arrest."

It's reassuring to know that the guy talks just like he writes. In his early forties, White grew up in Pensacola, Florida and during his teens got involved with both Pentecostalism and cannabis. He became a pro surfer, a catwalk model in Europe and a Bronx taxi driver. White took up guitar at 18 when he had his leg in cast for a year and continued to write songs, but it was only very recently that friends persuaded him to do a demo. That tape winged its way onto several important desks. Then David Byrne's Luaka Bop label got him into the studio with a bunch of top musicians. Perhaps most notable is the inclusion of Ralph Carney, the long-time Tom Waits collaborator, whose clarinet, trombone and sax are blasted out all over the pumping "When Jesus Gets a Brand New Name" and then pops up on harmonica and musical saw on the beautiful "Sleepy Town". The result is what White classifies as "a kind of postmodern country, if anything. I like to call it hick-hop."

White's debut received critical raves and Tower put it at the top of their country chart, above the Nashville elite. "To have me next to LeAnn Rimes makes me want to sing a song of joy."

Commercially, though, it's a disaster to be in the same category as her, but in the larger, humanistic sense it's very good because those people whose parameters are imploded, because country music is such a boring formulaic activity, will maybe have their horizons expanded. Or at least perverted."

Jim White is the special guest of David Byrne: Shepherds Bush Empire (0181-740 7474), tomorrow

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