Until recently, John Paul White had a pretty clear vision of what he wanted his records to sound like before cutting them.
The Muscle Shoals-born songsmith had in mind a rock-inspired enterprise for his debut album (2008’s “The Long Goodbye”) and a more expansively poetic folk/Americana soundscape for his sophomore effort (2016’s “Beulah”). In between, of course, was the celebrated, harmony-rich music he created in collaboration with Joy Williams in the Grammy winning duo The Civil Wars.
But when began work on the new music that would eventually become his 2019 album “The Hurting Kind,” there was no agenda, just a clean musical slate.
“When I set out to make this record, I just had a blank sheet of paper in front of me,” said White, who returns to Lexington for a June 27 performance at Manchester Music Hall. “The first solo record I made was more of a rock record, really. I had written songs for the national market for about 10 years, so I just picked my favorites and made a record. With The Civil Wars, everything was 50/50 collaborative and give-and-take, so it’s not 100% personally mine. Then with “Beulah,” I don’t feel like I had a whole lot of control over that record. It just happened. So this was kind of the first time I just sat down and said, ‘What do you want to do? What makes you happy? What got you here? What have you wanted to say but have never been able to say?’”
As it turns out, what made White happy – what has, in fact, always made him happy – was a love of the orchestrally designed country he heard in his youth. Light years removed from modern day country-pop but equally detached from roots-driven, pre-bluegrass country, White was fascinated by late ‘60s and early ‘70s recordings that emphasized not just voice, but songcraft and arrangement. A lot of that sound came from Nashville, but not all of it.
“All around me growing up I was immersed in Ray Price and Jim Reeves, but also Dean Martin and Chet Atkins, a lot of the troubadour kind of stuff, a lot of folk and jazz stuff, like Perry Como. I love all of that. So it was time. I was an adult and it was time to make an adult record - a complex, well-arranged, thought-about record. And I feel really good with what I ended up with.”
White wasn’t about to make the journey alone, however. Granted, “The Hurting Kind” is dominated by solo compositions, like the opening “The Good Old Days” which recalls the more sobering, overcast sentiments of his past work (“What so good about the good old days?”). But on the following “I Wish I Could Write You a Song,” White recruits longstanding country music song stylist Bill Anderson as a co-writer for a tune that epically captures the vintage mood he envisioned. He teams with another practiced country composer, Bobby Braddock, on a Roy Orbison-esque heartbreak saga sung as a duet with veteran vocalist Lee Ann Womack titled “This Isn’t Gonna End Well.”
“This was integral for the record to work,” White said. “This was not me trying to appropriate somebody else’s thing. But the best part of it was, no matter what happened, I just wanted to soak up stories and breath the same air with these people for a little while, because I had grown up listening to their songs. And they were so energetic. They were so fired up about writing a song. They love songs and songscraft and finding a great line. It was infectious. It really spurred the all the momentum for the rest of the record.
“For me, there is probably more than a little nostalgia at work with this music. My dad loved those old records by guys like Eddie Arnold and Charlie Rich. I think they just became ingrained in me. I’m a sucker for that stuff. I eat it up.
“I think my dad loved the music so much because it was so different from the life he was living. He lived in a pretty poor family. For years, people that grew up with the same means that he did and spoke the same way he did created art that was complex and mature and sophisticated. I think that was a way of escapism for him and set a kind of hopeful tone about things maybe he could aspire to. It’s sure that for me.”
John Paul White
When: 7 p.m. June 27
Where: Manchester Music Hall, 899 Manchester St.