John Paul White
Beulah – It’s a small, complicated word with a tangle of meanings.
It’s the title of John Paul White’s new album, his first in nearly a decade, a remarkably and assuredly diverse collection spanning plaintive folk balladry, swampy southern rock, lonesome campfire songs, and dark acoustic pop. Gothic and ambitious, with a rustic, lived-in sound, it’s a meditation on love curdling into its opposite, on recrimination defining relationships, on hope finally filtering through doubt.
Beulah is also a White family nickname. “It’s a term of endearment around our house,” White explains, “like you would call someone ‘Honey.’ My dad used to call my little sister Beulah, and I call my daughter Beulah. It’s something I’ve always been around.”
Beulah is also something much loftier. For the poet and painter William Blake, Beulah was a place deep in the collective spiritual unconscious.
“I won’t pretend to be the smartest guy in the world,” says White, “but I dig a lot of what he’s written. Beulah was a place you could go in your dreams. You could go there in meditation, to relax and heal and center yourself. It wasn’t a place you could stay, but you came back to the world in a better state.”
And perhaps the music on this album originated in that “pleasant lovely Shadow where no dispute can come.” According to White, the songs came to him unbidden-and not entirely welcome. “When these songs started popping into my head, I had been home for a while and I was perfectly happy. I wasn’t looking for songs. I didn’t know whether any would pop back in my head again, and I was honestly okay with that. I’m a very happy father and husband, and I love where I live. I love working with artists for a label that I think is doing good work.”
Far from the grind and glamour of Nashville-ore stepping into the spotlight himself-White settled in his hometown of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a wellspring of gritty Southern rock and soul since the 1960s. Together with Alabama Shakes keyboard player Ben Tanner and Shoals native Will Trapp, he founded and runs Single Lock Records, a local indie label that has released records by some of the Yellowhammer State’s finest, including Dylan LeBlanc, St. Paul & the Broken Bones, and legendary songwriter and keyboard player Donnie Fritts. The label is based in a small ranch house a stone’s throw from White’s own home, which would come in handy when those songs started invading his head.