Jason White has always lived in the moment. When he led the popular Cleveland bar band the Janglers back in the late '80s and early '90s, he played power pop with a side of twang that was a tiny step ahead of Uncle Tupelo. When he moved to Nashville in the mid-'90s, he wrote and sang songs that sounded a lot like those by other up-and-coming singer-songwriters looking for their big break in Music City.
When his career derailed a few times over the past dozen years — White's first attempt at a debut album was shelved by his record company, and his official debut was released two weeks after 9/11 — he merely shrugged it off and moved on. And when he finally got a semi-big break in the form of "Red Ragtop," a song he wrote that country star Tim McGraw recorded and took to the Top 5 in 2002, White lived it up, appearing on CNN and other news forums to talk about and defend his controversial tune (whose main couple decide to have an abortion).
But on his new album, The Longing, which comes out next week, the 43-year-old singer and songwriter found inspiration in the past. Specifically, in the songs of Stephen Foster and George Gershwin. "It's music that has a touch of gospel, a touch of blues, a touch of folk, and is generally simple and sentimental," he says. "I was trying to write companion pieces to 'Let Me Call You Sweetheart.'"
Looking back, White discovered a connection between songs your great-grandma grooved to back in the day and the sort of pop Americana his songwriting had been leaning toward over the past several years. Not that the songs on The Longing sound old-timey or anything like that. But there is a sort of timeless appeal to "For the Freeway Home," "Perfect Stranger," and "Belle Historie d'Amore" that seems just a little bit out of step with iTunes' always-revolving Top 10. (The title track, on the other hand, would make a perfect addition to your alt-country playlist.)
At its core, The Longing is a collection of love songs. Since the release of his last album, 2004's Tonight's Top Story, White fell in love, got married, and bought a new house. They all had an effect on his work. "Writing sentimental love songs has never been my strong point," he says. "I was at a place in my life where I wanted to settle down, but what was missing was someone to share that with. There was so much guy rock on my other records, we wanted to make an album for the ladies."
The songs came easy. So did the recording. But, as usual, getting someone to listen and release the record hit some snags. Actually, it hit quite a few of them, including — once again — a major record company sitting on the finished record. It's one of the reasons, if not the biggest reason, for the seven-year gap between albums. The record has been ready to roll for a couple of years, says White.
"The hardest thing for me to learn is how to keep busy when this happens. I've been through all of this before. A friend of mine has always tried to impress on me that the one thing that I can always control is the songs. So I write."
Now that the album is finally coming out (on the indie label Better Angels), White can get back to working on his career.
He hasn't had a huge follow-up to "Red Ragtop." Old Crow Medicine Show and Air Supply's Russell Hitchcock recently recorded some of his songs, but they're not paying Tim McGraw-size royalties. (They do "keep the lights on," however.) White wonders if placing one of his tunes on American Idol would help any. All he knows is he doesn't want to wait another seven years to release his next album.
"I'm still experimenting with that kind of [American Songbook] songwriting," he says. "Sentimentality never really appealed to me. But I don't mind telling my stories. Those dark songs on my other records really happened to me or someone close to me. Hopefully that's what we're here for as artists — to say, I feel all this crazy shit. How about you?"
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