10 Questions with ... Drake White
March 27, 2016
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Drake White is a singer-songwriter residing in Nashville, TN. The Hokes Bluff, Alabama native has a very different Country feel with a freestyle twist on many of his original songs. He ad-libs throughout a show, phrasing rhythmic lyrics as his entertaining live show unfolds. Drake frequently involves the audience in his witty craftsmanship of verbalization, as well. The enthusiastic artist credits many Country, Blues, Rock, Bluegrass, and freestyle influences with the formation of his musical sound - which is unique in its own way. Drake is incredibly motivated in his pursuit of creating great music and wants nothing more than to do what he loves. He is a God fearing, river rat, beach bum that loves the outdoors and expresses this love through his soulful, lyrical exchanges.
1. Drake, thank you for taking time to speak with All Access! You're an Alabama boy, born and raised. How did growing up in Alabama shape your musical sound?
I do think that geographical location - where you're from - plays a huge role in the way things sound. I think that late nights around bodies of water where crickets are barking and cicadas are singing, those sounds - in a weird way - have a unique way of weaving themselves in to the music and the way it sounds. And I really think that's beautiful and a really cool thing. There are a lot of times in my music where I think, "Ah, that sounds like crickets!" or "Man, that sounds like birds!" So I think that being from Northeast Alabama, right where the Appalachian Mountains fall down on the top half of the state really kind of molded that sound.
2. What was life like growing up in your household, and how did your family surroundings shape your music?
I grew up in a very close family with a beauty shop in the garage. My mom was a cosmetologist - and a really good one, at that! She always had a line, and there was always a buzz in our house. And when she would get backed up with clients, she would say, "Hey, Drake! Go out there and entertain the girls! Talk to them." So, I learned how to talk to people - and especially to women - at an early age. I was maybe 8 or 9 years old. And we always kind of had that buzz around us, like a Floyd's Barber Shop type atmosphere. My dad and my grandfather were very important in molding me as a man and as an outdoorsman - an avid fisherman. And just having the ability to go out in to the wild and really listen and be quite, they gave me that. I think that's when my music is best created - when I'm just quiet and listen to God and listen to the sounds of nature. So in Northeast Alabama, growing up and being kind of baptized in the outdoors and really having a Native American spirit towards hunting instead of being out there just to shoot 'em up - I was really taught to appreciate animals and farmers and the land and the woods. There was very much a spiritual side to everything we did out there, and I think that really comes across in the way my music sounds and feels. I also had a sister who was three years older than me. That played a huge part - huge! A sister - female - three years older, so the twelve-year-old who got the guitar was now looking at fifteen-year-old girls. "Oh, you play guitar?" Yep! Sure do! And the bluegrass that was coming from my neighbor's house, Mr. Brown. He played banjo and smoked a pipe, and he whittled on cedar wood. The best smell in the world is pipe tobacco and cedar wood.
3. I'm guessing part of that natural outdoorsman quality is what recently led to your partnership with Salt Life. What role did the outdoors play in your life that led to your partnership? How will it weave in with your current music and touring schedule?
My parents, they really just let me do whatever I wanted as far as saying, "Do what you want to do." They used to let me go out to camp when I was five years old, and I got a motorcycle when I was six! They would let me camp, and I grew up on Cove Creek that winds in to the river. I read "The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn" in sixth grade and decided to just make me a raft. Mom let me and my friend, Taylor, float down that creek in to the river! Is that dangerous to let a nine or ten-year-old do that? Well, yeah! But she was definitely not a helicopter parent! Growing up, I loved knives and throwing axes. I love firearms and bow and arrows. My favorite movies were things like "Jeremiah Johnson" and "Dances with Wolves." As far as Salt Life, we really grew up in Alabama vacationing to the Gulf of Mexico. I really hold the conservation of that area very near and dear to my heart. That beautiful place - the water is great, the people are great, and the FloraBama, from a musical standpoint, that bar down there is somewhere I've probably played over a hundred times. Just being in that life of fishing and watching the people there and how they appreciate both nature and music - the salty smell and the way the place feels. It's everything. Some of my first memories are being two or three years old and vacationing there at the beach. Every July Fourth, we'd head down to the Gulf and go to the beach. But some of my family moved down there when I was young, so as I got older, I had a place there to stay with a cousin of mine. I went to school at Auburn, two hours from the beach. Well, guess where I'm going - music was just bouncing around down there like crazy! Taylor Hicks and Wayne Mills were both down there a lot. I'd go down there, and that is when I really started - around 18, 19, and 20 years old - that's when I really thought, "Okay, I can do this." That's when I really found my voice. I was at Auburn in school when I got a Martin guitar and found out that people like this - whatever I'm doing. I got a hankering for this passion during that time, and Salt Life is so much a part of that - I live the Salt Life, and it had so much to do with me finding my voice.
4. So the spiritual side and the natural outdoorsman in your come together with music. Were there certain artists or genres you listened to growing up that also add to the influence of where you gain inspiration?
My dad was a child of the 70s and was the son of a preacher man, so he had that really gospel and soul. We always were surrounded by that really great music that came out from about 1973 to 1979, with Steely Dan and the Eagles, Marshall Tucker Band and all the Southern Rock. My dad had this huge record collection! And, they just sold their house recently - he cleaned his closet out, and I've got about 1,000 records now. It's the best thing ever. But between that record collection and the spiritual connection to church and being introduced to that, and also having very liberal parents in the sense of letting me do what I want to do. I think all that came together in me.
5. How did you find your talent, and when did you know music was the right career path for you? And what influenced you as you grew your talent and learned about stage presence - because we all know that you've got a killer stage act!
I think my parents being so willing to let me try anything really helped me find my music. I think that's why I'm a musician. It was okay to beat on pots and pans. It was okay to listen to Nirvana. Guns -n- Roses with the parental advisory sticker? Yeah, my mom bought that for me at the mall! I remember having to go to the mall with her. And that's a very vivid record for a nine-year-old, but she taught me right from wrong, and so did dad. I was spiritually raised, but I wasn't religiously raised. It wasn't staunch, but it was very serious. I had a very rural, backwoods upbringing, and I definitely think that's why you get that kind of back porch, rambler kind of gospel preacher vibe in my songs. But I love the Hemingway and Faulkner kinds of literary stuff, and I still do. I always thought intellect - the guy who had the pen in his hand - that's what makes you cool. He could outsmart people by the way he talked, and I always thought that kind of a guy was really cool. I learned that at a very young age by watching my grandfather and my uncle - who was a Vietnam vet. They'd say, "No, no, no. Don't get mad. Here's how you get the chick!" You chill on it, and you act like you don't care. Then you figure out what she likes, and you write. So, it was always pretty magical - my childhood relationship with writing and music. I found it around campfires and around the church. And then my neighbor, Mr. Brown, playing that bluegrass. That's when I started falling in love with roots music and Country music was around the age of twelve or thirteen. That's when those older girls were paying attention, and Mr. Brown gave me a guitar. I started really reading then, too - classics like "Huckleberry Finn" and "To Kill a Mockingbird." And I was listening to stuff like Bob Dylan and The Allman Brothers. I went and saw John Prine, and I also saw Pearl Jam! I was able to go down I-65 at the age of fifteen or sixteen and go to shows at Oak Mountain Amphitheater. I'd go to Pearl Jam or Red Hot Chili Peppers. I got to see Widespread Panic and Fish. At the same time, I'd be hitting up the outdoors with kayaking and camping, and that introduced me to a tight group of Bluegrass guys. Rock, Bluegrass, and Soul were all a huge part of those early teen years. Being in that stage of my life, being able to go five hours south to be at the beach or go just down I-65 to get to a show - that was the biggest part of what set me on the path. When I was in school at Auburn, my cousin was living down there, and she was a huge concert-goer. She was kind of a hippie, gypsy-type person, and she would always say, "Hey, these guys are coming in to town, and they're awesome!" A lot of times, I had never heard of them, but I'd go listen to them with her. Sometimes we'd go hit a Yonder Mountain String Band show, or we'd drive over to catch a Willie [Nelson] show. Merle Haggard is in Biloxi, Mississippi? Okay, great! I don't have anybody to take care of but myself, so of course I'll skip class tomorrow and go do that! There's just nothing quite like a live music experience. I hope that comes across in what I'm doing on stage, too.
6. When you're writing, or when you're listening to demos to decide what to cut, what is your process? How do you select songs to cut, and how do you select singles?
I think I always follow my gut when it comes to that. I don't really think about it too much. Once you have something, you can really tell when fans are reacting to music. You can tell when it's in your marrow and really in your lane if it's in your soul. We've got a new song we're working up called "Stomping Grounds," and we'll know really quickly if that song works in the set. It's pretty simple for me, really. I'm out there playing - the goal is to create moments. My goal is to create unbelievable memories for these fans out in the audience, whether it be two or 200,000 people. I want to create that time in space where they put down their damn phone and really get in to what's going on. The way I pick those songs is by the people in the audience. The radio is a lot different than a live music venue, and I definitely understand that. But I have a really good team in my label - they pick the radio things, and that's their bag of worms and cup of tea. Mine is touching people's hearts in the live setting. I know that's my thing. And the studio is becoming my thing. I really love what the studio has become for me. But I love songwriting and being in that frame of mind. Just last night, I stayed up late trying to chase down a thought and figure out where it was coming from and if I could get a song out of it. The thought was, "Wild." That was it. Just "Wild." So I was going through stuff that was wild, and that's a cool way to exercise my mind and stay sharp. As I watch my grandparents get older, I'm looking forward to staying sharp. But as far as choosing radio singles, you really have to rely on your team there. I do rely on my gut, too, though. I'll come in - I'd be the first to step up and say, "I really believe in this song, and I think it should be a single." And they do listen to that. Picking the album - I could write a song tomorrow that makes the album. It's just a matter of giving the fans what they really want.
7. You touched on the team you have in your corner at BMLG/Dot Records. You worked the Nashville scene and hit the road hard after one label deal fell through and before signing with Dot. How did this partnership with BMLG come about?
I'm so glad you asked this! It really molded me, and it was kind of God telling me, "I'm going to throw this little curveball to you and see how you react." A lot of things could have happened, and I do believe that art - and life, in general - is a state of mind. It's your choice. You choose how you want to handle things. And I think that God tests us with these things He puts us through to see how we react. And who wants to listen to someone who has never been through something? I want to listen to someone who has been through the heartache and the tough things, but that came out on the other side victorious. So, for me, going through the first record deal and watching the music business shift - people coming in and taking over, and having a record contract dissolve. I remember when it dissolved, I got the call on my birthday. And I remember, something went off in my head right then as I hung up the phone. It was like, "I'm going to use this as a positive. I'll use this as a badge on my arm and a piece of armor in my shield to strengthen me." That thought came across really quick. And what do you do as an artist, in my opinion, to combat hard times? You put your pen to paper. You gather the people around you that love you - my wife, my family, my band, and my management - and say, "This is what I want to do, and this is how I want to do it." Forty-five days later, I had a show opening up for Lynyrd Skynyrd at The Ryman. [BMLG President/CEO] Scott Borchetta was there. [Dot Records GM] Chris Stacey had offered me my first deal with Warner, and I knew that he had always liked me. But Scott was there at the Ryman and saw me. So, Chris goes up to Scott and says, "Hey, man, what do you think about Drake White?" And Scott said, to Chris, "I just saw him last night at the Ryman." And Chris said, "Cool. Do you want to sign him?" And Scott said yes, and boom! That was about a year and a half ago. Now we're rolling, and it's a really good feeling.
8. So, as that first record contract is dissolving, you said that you put pen to paper and really took to writing. A lot of songwriters we've met love the behind-the-scenes aspect of that life, which also means staying off the road, writing, and collecting "mailbox money." Was that ever an appealing option to you, especially during the time in transition when you weren't signed?
No. I don't think so. I mean, that is a comfortable thought. One of my good buddies is Jonathan Singleton. And he's got an awesome place in Ashland City, a wife and kids, and he loves his life. That's the key is to love your life. Figure out what you want that you love. But I was born to boogie! I was born to get down; I really was. I love being on the road. I love being somewhere on stage, and no one knows who you are, and you have that chance to say, "Oh yeah? Well, here I am. This is me, and this is what I came to show you." I love being uncomfortable. I like sleeping on park benches, and all that shit! I seriously love it. Sometimes, is it hard? For me it definitely hasn't been a fast-track. I'm on my eighth or ninth year here pounding away. They key to this was me learning how my mind works. I'm not saying I've figured that out completely! But you have the power - I have the power - to wake up in the morning and say, "This is going to be a good day" or "This is going to be a bad day." No matter what happens. Life is so big and grand, and I love living it. So I'm not going to let a record contract or somebody's opinion change the way my day goes.
9. As you look at the Country format and the various sounds in the landscape currently, where do you think you fit? Do you like the direction the format is currently headed? And your current single, "Livin' The Dream," has an almost retro sound to it, to me. Was this an intentional move on your part to counter the modern Pop-driven songs, or do you think about that when you're writing and in the studio?
You know what they say about opinions...! Music is art, and art is subjective. And that's okay! Just because I don't love every single thing I heard, that just means it's meant for somebody else. And I'm for that! If somebody is out there on the road changing flat tires on I-40 with stuff buzzing around them, and they're away from their loved ones - just because they don't make music that I absolutely love doesn't mean I'm not a huge fan of them! I'm a supporter of any artist out there working hard. They might not be a fan of me and my stuff, but all that you would ask is for respect. I'm out here working at something that I'm passionate about, because I want to put something good in to the world. As far as "Livin' The Dream" goes, I don't think we had any intention of moving toward or away from anything. We created that sound - Jaren Johnston and Luke Laird and the great Tom Douglas wrote that tune - and it was very different for me to go in and cut a tune that somebody else had written. But that tune spoke to me, and the groove really spoke to me. And then when I really listened to the message and what they were saying - I'm a lyric guy first. I usually listen to the lyrics first. On this track, the register starts out deeper than what I normally sing. So, was it intentional? I'm unique enough in my delivery and my choices of vocal paths that it's going to sound different than everything else you're hearing, anyway. And that may be why it's taking a little while. But I believe that 150-year-old oak trees are really pretty, and I believe in what we're doing and in that tune. I believe in everything we put out. Intentional? I think it was like going back to being raised and where I'm from - you're going to get kind of a retro feel when you grew up where I did, that close to Muscle Shoals, and you know what the Blues and Soul music is. I heard James Brown - I love him - and it made me want to learn how to dance better! And it's about going through something. About feeling it in the voice and the soul. And I've not lived a battered or tough life. I had an incredible childhood and I've lived and incredible life and had a wonderful musical experience coming in to town. I have a college education, and I feel like I've been very lucky. But I think it has all brought me to this place of music. And the struggle is real; the struggle is good. When I'm up there accepting awards one day, it's going to make me proud. I'll be glad that I hung in there. And I'm not trying to be pompous - I hope it doesn't sound like that - but I'm coming from a really honest place, that I do have goals of winning awards, and my intentions on touching people's lives are pure. I don't want to do it for myself. I want to do it for God and for my parents and for the people in my band and for the people out there - so that one day I can do like my buddy Zac Brown, who builds camps for kids. I want to help others learn to play guitar and hunt and fish - I want to help others become all that they are supposed to be.
10. You have a full lineup of performances as you are slated to hit the road with Zac Brown Band this Summer. Can you tell us a bit about the tour and the show that fans can expect to see at one of the stops?
I think it's really going to be a great tour. Zac is kind of dialing it back a little bit on a lot of his stuff - but in a good way. He's stripping it down a little bit more. And I believe that if you want to do something, you should find someone who has already done it, and you ask them how they did it. Zac has been gracious enough to open up and share. It took a little while - took a couple of shows. But we met through a mutual friend that is a duck hunter, and I played around a campfire for Zac's head of security. That was last year. And Zac's dad was there. They got some of my music, and they started playing it for Zac - and this is all a really short version of everything. But fast forward to Boston, Zac sells out three days at Fenway Park. [Greater Media Country] WKLB up in Boston with [MD] Ginny Rogers is very dear to my heart, and I was slated to do the after show for the last night at Fenway Park. And Zac's security guard - it was Zac's birthday - and he made sure Zac's birthday party was at that after party show. He put Zac up at the front in a roped off area, and we got to play 90 minutes in front of Zac. I didn't really know he was up there - I think I caught a glimpse of him once, maybe. But afterward, we shared many, many, many, many drinks, and we talked about music. He's from Dahlonega, Georgia, and from a latitude standpoint, that's just right East of Hokes Bluff, Alabama. So we automatically just hit it off. Two weeks later, I was playing with him at Citi Field. That's how quick it happened! And that really says a lot for Zac. If he says he's going to do something, he does it. He has done everything he's said he's going to do. And I really prepared myself for when Zac asked me the question. Because guys like Eric Church and all the guys I've been fortunate enough to play with and get to know, they've always been kind and said, "Hey, man, if there's anything I can do for you, just let me know." Well, I anticipated Zac saying that, and I thought, "I'm not going to let it go by." I'd usually just say, "Well, thank you, man. I'll give you a buzz." But when he said that to me back in December, I said, "Well, you can put me on all your dates next year." So, now we are going to be on all the dates in 2016! And we are learning from the best.
For anyone who hasn't had the opportunity to meet you yet on radio tour or see you perform live, how would you sum up the Drake White sound? What makes you different, and what unique life experiences do you bring to "three chords and the truth?" After countless radio visits and radio shows -- is there anything radio does NOT know about you that you can -- and would like to -- share here?
You know what? There is. I really enjoy the process. I hear a lot of questions like, "Oh, has radio tour killed you? Has CRS just killed you?" I prepare physically with working out and the way I eat. I even study body language and psychology, and I've studied how to communicate with people. I'm a little bit deeper - I try not to over-think it, but I do like to study psychology. So, I really do enjoy going in to these steak dinners and meeting people! I'm not a new guy - this is my third single after "The Simple Life" and "It Feels Good." And I do believe that there is a purpose in each of these meetings. It's about relationships. I serve a very relational God that loves relationships, and I really enjoy being out there. On another note, even though my favorite movie is "Jeremiah Johnson," I really like "The Notebook." Like, I really like that movie a lot. I'd prefer "Forrest Gump" over "Saving Private Ryan." I really dig pizza, and I love seafood. And, I just like to get in to the molecular level of everything - I like to go deep. If I set out to learn to fly fish, then I'm going to kill the animal to tie the fly, then I want to make the fly rod, and wade in to the water. I'm a very do it yourself kind of guy. I like woodworking and great craftsmanship. I love individualism and self-sustainability. And I love the comradery of going in and meeting everyone in radio. I love sitting around the table and telling my story. I believe I've got a lot to offer, and I believe they've got a lot to offer the world, too.