Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene The Best of Luck

Freed from Music Row, singer soars

By Michael McCall

Country singer Joy Lynn White begins her third album, The Lucky Few, with a declaration of independence as defiant and as determined as Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run." Just as Springsteen's semi-autobiographical song portrays an ambitious young man overcoming his hometown's small-mindedness, White's "Dreams Too Big" looks at how a small community sometimes shoots holes in the dreams of those looking for something bigger. Like Springsteen, who found the courage to announce triumphantly that he was "pulling out of here to win," White proclaims that her "dreams are just too big for this town."

At 19, White left Terre Haute, Ind., and headed to Nashville in a beat-up Gremlin with nothing but $200, an old guitar, and a million songs to sing--just like her song says. "The boys back home say you'll never get far," she sings, "so I just said get out of my way, there's a tomorrow out there with a brand new start." The irony is that White could just as easily be talking about Nashville, where she has made her home for the last 15 years. In its way, Music City tried to snuff her ambitions too.

But White has never lacked nerve--her dreams are just too big for this town. Her pluck came across clearly on two strikingly good albums for Columbia Records, 1992's Between Midnight and Hindsight and 1994's Wild Love. On both collections, White attacked better-than-average songs with an audacity rarely heard in these days of polite country music. Even as she attracted support from critics and other artists, her music proved too feral for modern-day country radio. When Columbia gave up on her after two albums, White became another in a string of female artists (k.d. lang, Shelby Lynne, Lari White, Bobbie Cryner) who have faced rejection because of the sheer force of their talents and personalities.

White's tenure at Columbia was fraught with difficulty. She argued with the record company about song selection, musical style, and personal image--some people at the label thought White didn't fuss enough with her hair, her makeup, and her choice of clothes. Even on her most successful radio single, "Wild Love," the company asked White to dilute a lead guitar part because a few key radio programmers thought it was too edgy. She refused to change it for fear that it would make the song "too wimpy," as she said at the time.

Rolling with it Joy Lynn White: "I don't let the circumstances of the music business make me unhappy anymore."Photo by Henry Diltz

Still, she says, "I have no grudges against anybody at Columbia or against any of that stuff." She's thankful for the initial break she received from label executive Paul Worley, who signed her to the label and coproduced her albums with Blake Chancey. She maintains a friendship with both men, she says. "I'm fortunate to have had those two records," she adds. "I look back upon it now as a great opportunity for me. Things don't always work out the way we want. Nothing lasts forever, you know?"

White's dismissal from the Columbia roster led to the usual domino effect: She subsequently lost her publishing contract, her management, her booking agent, and her publicist. "It made me a stronger person," she says. "Of course, you don't see that at the time. There were a lot of low points for me in there. But everything happened for a reason. I look at it now, and I'm really glad to be where I am. I've figured out that you really run your own life. You can either run it into the ground, or you run it on track."

As with lang and Lynne, White reacted to her lack of corporate support by moving beyond big-league Nashville circles. And just like those two women, once she broke free of the creative chains that Music Row tends to strap around its most fertile talents, her artistry blossomed. On The Lucky Few, White fully realizes her potential in a way that Music Row never would have allowed. Working with Los Angeles-based producer Pete Anderson (best known for his work with Dwight Yoakam), White leaps beyond the conventions of '90s country music to create a wide-open, organic-sounding album that bursts with emotional abandon. "He likes music," White says of Anderson, who released The Lucky Few on his label, Little Dog Records. "He doesn't care whether I look like a model or if I'm 20 years old. That's not why he signed me."

Needless to say, the album moves beyond slick Nashville formulas, with a dynamic roots-rock sound reminiscent of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers or The Wallflowers; it also makes several side trips into stripped-down soul and bare-boned country. White contributes two songs while digging up powerful and personal material by a collection of iconoclastic songwriters, including Jim Lauderdale, Lucinda Williams, Gwil Owen, Kostas, and Verlon Thompson and Suzi Ragsdale.

Altogether, The Lucky Few ranks as the strongest collection of songs released by a country singer in 1997. White performs with impassioned bravado, but her vocals never overshadow the emotional truths of the lyrics. Instead, she connects with the complex layers lurking in each of the songs, bringing out the drama with subtle nuances and broad flourishes.

On "Why Do I Love You," White offers a stunningly soulful performance, delivering a soaring chorus that conveys the agony of a woman in love with man who causes her pain. But just as memorable and haunting as the chorus is a spoken sentence--"I give myself away"--that White repeats several times. Near the song's end, when she turns the declaration into a question--"Why do I give myself away?"--White makes it clear that the woman's pain is growing even stronger. No longer is she posing questions to a man who disrespects her; instead, she's wondering why she has put herself in this position. It's a heartbreaking moment of realization, and White's subtle shift in phrasing captures the dramatic implication of the lyrics.

The album's true anthem, however, is the title song, written by California country singer Jann Browne with Tommy Lee James and Matt Barnes. "I never did have anything," White sings in the attention-grabbing opening line. "I never wanted much anyway." She delivers the words with dry defiance--her tone makes it clear that she's not asking for sympathy, she's just saying she doesn't give a damn about the things that concern most people. This song, too, can be read as a comment on the singer's experiences in Nashville, and White renders the point explicit in the second stanza: "I hang around this crazy town. I watch these people throw their money 'round," she sings. When she gets to the chorus--"I never learned how to play the game like the lucky few"--she enunciates the words deliberately and defiantly.

White doesn't figure she's among the lucky few. But that hasn't ever stopped her from going after what she wants. "Life's kind of like high school," she explains. "I never did fit in with the cheerleaders and the football players. I see the music business as being that way. It's like that in every business, I imagine. Somebody can sit there and look at the lucky few in any walk of life. But I don't let the circumstances of the music business make me unhappy anymore. I roll with it now. I've realized it's not the town you live in that makes you unhappy; it's only yourself that can make you unhappy. You have to learn to let yourself be. It's what you choose in life that matters."

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