RAINBOW ON THE EASTSIDE By MELISSA WOLF
The stage was small and covered with an old oriental rug that surprisingly fit in with the funky décor of the venue. White string Christmas style lights draped from the old ventilation system in the ceiling that was no longer in use, except to add character to the place. Local art hung in unusual places and handmade quilts covered the walls to absorb the sound. In the middle of an East Nashville neighborhood, this old laundromat cleverly turned restaurant/bar/venue – The Family Wash – was laid back and comfortable as opposed to the typical Nashville uptight listening room with a two-drink minimum and an overwhelming pressure to be quiet. The venue’s wide bar with a curved edge was full of customers consuming beer, wine, and shepherd’s pie on a warm August night in 2007. Amelia White and the Blue Souvenirs would be the act of the evening; it would be the first of many times that I would become consumed with White’s smart lyrics, catchy melodies, and quirky worn voice.
After a delicious shepherd’s pie and pint of Stella Artois, I heard a unique voice coming from the stage: “Checking…checking…la la la la la…sorry for the sound check folks. We’ll get the show started soon…Ohhh…Black doves flying against the fire lit moon, you’ll be gone too soon/ Black Doves flying…” Amelia White was wearing tight green pants and heeled boots with a fitted long-sleeved button down western-style shirt. A mud flap girl was appliquéd to the shoulders of her thin but sturdy frame, and her thick fiery short hair was styled with gel to achieve an effortless, messy look. She’s striking and has a tough exterior upon first impression; but the “tough girl” appearance is due more to her contemporary stage clothes and sharp facial features than it is of her attitude. When I asked her in a recent interview what her favorite piece of clothing is, she responded, “I’m torn between my - every hour is happy hour t-shirt and my old gray sweat pants.” While many performers may have chosen a stage appropriate clothing item that flatters their figure, White’s candid response reflects her genuine character, a quality that is always present.
At The Family Wash, as White abruptly turned around to switch out her acoustic guitar for her sleek, hollow-bodied electric guild, she bumped into the microphone stand, almost knocking it off of the stage before the bass player stepped in on its way down. “Well, I never said I was smooth,” she said with a chuckle. White has an uncanny knack of making her audiences feel at ease, even during her occasional klutzy moments on stage.
On that special summer night, White played most of the songs from her 2006 release, Black Doves. The title track, written for those left behind in the war – any war, never seems to go out of style. The song was featured in Neil Young’s collection of “Living With War” tunes on his website. “It’s bittersweet that “Black Doves” is still one of my most requested songs,” White adds. The white dove, a symbol for peace and harmony becomes black as a sign of unending war and distress. The song combines a folk rock style with a vulnerable melody and honest lyrics: “They’re taking you now, and they took you before/ I’m lonely already – what are we fighting for?” Many of White’s poetic lyrics boil down to a simple meaning in the end. In this case, “Black Doves” forces the listener to go beyond their political opinions and put themselves in the shoes of someone who is waiting for their loved one to return home from war, and the always unanswered question: “What are we fighting for?”
After that show at The Family Wash, I began to work with Ms. White – booking tours and handling much of the business side of her career. For a couple of years, I even managed some of her tours; a job that required me to travel with her and make sure that she and her band had everything they needed on the road. I drove the van, made hotel arrangements, and maintained budget records. One of my most important jobs, however, was making sure that nobody left equipment behind at venues or hotels. If it happens, it can be disastrous! There are so many little pieces of equipment to account for: cords, pedals, microphones, microphone stands, etc. These items are not easily replaceable while traveling. One night at a gig in Tulsa, the bass player left his bass in his hotel room! We didn’t realize it until we were several hours into the drive the next day. Of course we turned around and went back for it, but we were late for the show and everyone was on edge. After that, I made a checklist of all equipment/important personal items, and everyone had to check off their items before we were allowed to leave – White still uses that checklist I made for her. Working with Ms. White was always a pleasure and I learned a lot about the music business first hand.
Since the release of Black Doves, White has released three more full-length albums and is currently working on a fourth. The song, “Motorcycle Dream,” another title track, brings up the teenage angst she experienced from being ‘different’ and at odds with her parents for most of her life. At a recent gig, she introduced the song to the audience by asking the question: “Who here has ever felt like a freak?” Feeling like an outcast at the age of seventeen, White borrowed her neighbor’s motorcycle and recalls driving it around without a license as much as possible. At the time, she lived on Bainbridge Island – a small town off the coast of Seattle. She didn’t actually write the song until years later when she was going through a hard breakup and losing her home, an experience that took her back to the freedom she felt from riding. I suspect she thinks of this often. Again, the song exudes a “tough girl” image with lyrics like: “Turbo engine between my legs, somebody on the back – arms around my waist.” The toughness can no doubt be argued for, but the song is also about freeing herself from relentless hardships in life, including the music industry.
The struggle for White, as is most independent artists, is trying to fit artistic music into a commercial world. As White explains, many mainstream artists are successful because they fit into a particular ‘box’ or genre that record labels feel comfortable promoting. The creative side often gets ignored if an act has a particular sound that has already proven to be popular. The label then hires publicists, booking agents, tour managers, a radio promotion team, and a band for touring. What all of this equals is exposure – and a lot of it. The same is true for independent artists; it still requires a lot of money to make an album and put it out into the world. It can be done on a budget, however, and White is rather savvy at finding clever ways to make albums without breaking her bank, or compromising the integrity of the music. In her latest album, not yet released, she and drummer Marco Giovino – of Robert Plant’s Band of Joy – figured out a way to record the majority of the album live. This is a rather unusual way to record, but with a group of talented musicians who are all in it for the music, it can create a vibe that is artistically rich and fruitful.
For White, the tough part comes after the artistic, “Once I’m done making an album, the real hard work begins; now I have to promote it with everything I have and hope that it catches someone’s ear the right way,” she says. Many independent artists contribute every last dime to their careers, sometimes at the risk of losing their homes or relationships. Although White lives in a cute brick house with her partner, two dogs and cat in East Nashville, she is no stranger to the “couch-hopping” way of life for the sake of her music career. Peter Cooper, of the Tennessean, sums up White’s unique style, “she’s a worthy poster child for a genre that tends to differentiate itself from the contemporary country world as much by its DIY ethic as it does by its comparatively rootsy sonics,” he says.
White was born in Arlington, Virginia in 1968. She is the youngest of three, and was the most anticipated only girl. Due to her father’s job in the Navy, she spent much of her upbringing in Seattle, where her songwriting began to take shape. “It was something I had to do; my parents hadn’t planned on their precious girl being artistic, gay, and strong-willed,” she says.
When she was ten years old, she saved up her allowance money to buy a guitar from her older brother – a 1968 Martin D-18; she still uses it today. She takes the guitar out of its sturdy case to show me, and it is beautiful – even to someone who lacks expert knowledge in guitars. The sides and back are solid mahogany and the neck is worn along the frets from years of playing. The wood is thin and fragile, which I’m told allows for the full-bodied sound, and the few nicks and dings throughout, only add to the guitar’s character. One of the sides has a barely noticeable circular indention where her dog, Vita, jabbed her paw through the wood when she got excited one day. She laughed as she told the story, “Whether I’m the klutz or it’s my dog, I’m lucky to have gotten to know a few great luthiers over the years.” She was right. I could barely tell that there had been a hole there. White has all of her guitars hung up in her music room. “They’re fine pieces of art,” she says.
As she began to play one of her new songs on that guitar, it was as if nothing else in the world existed. Her focus was strong, she closed her eyes, and her fingers confidently pressed down on the shiny strings. She didn’t doubt a single move as her foot tapped loudly on the wood floor. I could tell that she truly let go of everything; she felt every note and every lyric. The song is called, “Rainbow on the East Side,” one of her newer tunes that she is so excited about. As White puts it, “I’ve made East Nashville my home, and it’s also home to many other talented musicians and songwriters. Unfortunately, it’s also the side of Nashville that doesn’t make the big bucks.” As I gathered, “Rainbow on the East Side,” is about the highs and lows of being a songwriter, or any artist for that matter. “Count the money; it’s old and dirty/ It never seems to stretch as long as the highway/ Shine the melody, dig your fingers in/ Let the sweat and anger hold you there and swirl the high notes round/ It can bring you down, or it can lift you up…up…up.” As her lyrics imply, the life of an artist can be glamorous one day and down right humbling the next. Through the years of knowing Ms. White, I’ve learned that there’s a fine line there somewhere; the hard part is finding that line and then staying on it.
White’s eccentrically smart lyrics are cleverly crafted and carefully woven into her melodies. She incorporates imagery and symbolism into her songwriting in a way that is reminiscent of early James Taylor and The Beatles. Not surprising, these are two of White’s musical influences. “I spent so much time listening to those early Beatles albums. They wrote songs that are still current, non-linear, and they put melody first. Their songs were more like mini-movies as opposed to some hokey story,” she told me. John Jackson, a former guitar player for Bob Dylan and current player for White, had this to say about her songwriting, “You see those people riding around with the dream catchers in the rear view mirrors of their cars—she catches those dreams and writes songs about them.”
In 2013, White released her latest full-length album, Old Postcard. The album’s nostalgic theme evolved after several trips back and forth from East Nashville and Virginia to visit her parents as their health was declining. They needed help moving into an assisted living suite, where they could have care around the clock. “Growing up, my parents fought me on just about every aspect of who I was. Being an artist didn’t agree with my dad’s practical nature, and being a lesbian was hard for both of them to swallow,” she says. White’s two older brothers did take the practical route in becoming an engineer and a doctor; but this wasn’t the right path for Ms. White. She left home at age 18 and landed in Boston, where she cut her teeth in the music scene and realized her ambition of being a full-time artist.
White’s relationship with her parents has come full circle since the hard times of her youth. “Reconciling with them hasn’t been an easy endeavor; it has been a process that has taken most of my life. What I know now is that despite their resistance in accepting me for who I am, they have always loved me unconditionally,” she reveals.
In the title track, “Old Postcard,” (written with John Hadley), White uses her dense lyrics and beautiful melody to describe her childhood memories and how her relationship with her parents has evolved. “While helping my parents clean out their house, I was moved by all of the memories that we’ve shared through the years, and how intimate I’ve become with them as time has passed,” White says. The song begins with the lyrics, “My folks home is an old postcard, concrete Jesus standing in the yard/ I can see the ghost of myself as a kid growing up there,” a nostalgic, haunting image of her youth. White continues to paint the story, “Somewhere in the middle of a night going by, daddy’s on the phone with a pain pill high/ He would never say, but I can tell he feels bad/ Silence on the line for a moment or two, he says, ‘Why was I calling you?’ I don’t know, but that’s alright dad.” As White describes, watching your parents grow old and start to decline is difficult. “It can really soften you up and put things in perspective,” she says.
White’s parents, both in their late eighties, have been married for over 65 years, and despite their recent decline in health that forced them to move into assisted living, neither are terminally ill and they’re generally in good spirits. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting White’s parents while touring with her over the years, and they are genuinely delightful people. Joe White, her father, has a charismatic demeanor and never turns down the opportunity to tell a story with complete enthusiasm, especially around the ladies in their community. “He’s such a flirt,” White adds. If superlatives were given at retirement communities, Joe White would certainly be voted most popular. Margaret White, her mother, struggles with dementia but she, too, stays feisty and never fails to notice her husband’s flirty behavior. She also never fails to put him in line because of it. It’s on ongoing joke between the two of them, but the most special thing about White’s parents is the love they continue to have for one another – a love that was born 65 years ago. It’s what they live for.
Much of White’s music career was spent in the northeast, but since moving to Nashville 14 years ago, she has come to associate it as home. “When I first moved to Nashville, a friend of mine said ‘Welcome to the songwriters’ ghetto,’” she says. White never forgot that and 13 years later, after she truly understood what it meant, she wrote a song called, “Ghetto.” The video for “Ghetto,” from the album Old Postcard premiered on USA Today, and features several of White’s friends, musicians or otherwise – including myself, jamming at her house and hanging out on her back deck. Friend and fellow Nashville musician, Anne McCue, who also made an appearance in the video for “Ghetto,” says that White is, “cut from the same cloth as Leonard Cohen.” Again, White’s lyrics describe the hard life of a musician, “I drive for miles to sing the blues; go on little bird fly somewhere new/ Times are tough here in the ghetto – times are tough in this ghetto.” In the video, as the train growls through the backyard while good friends carry on conversations, share inspiring tunes, and enjoy each other’s company, White is reminded of the sense of community and support she has in East Nashville. This is the songwriters’ ghetto and it’s why Amelia White agrees to her part of the hard bargain. She only sees the “Rainbow on the Eastside.”