Native Oklahoman Bryan White knows just enough about Dust Bowls to be an expert. After seventeen singles on Billboard’s Country Charts, a mantle full of country music awards, two platinum records and six number one singles including “Someone Else’s Star” (1995), “Rebecca Lynn” (1996), “So Much for Pretending” (1996) and “Sittin’ on Go” (1997), his music career came up dry.
For the last decade, White has toured intermittently, worked on several small projects and continued songwriting. But most of all, he’s taken some time to take stock of his life and delved headfirst into a family with his wife, actress Erika Page of One Life To Live.
“After a decade of building my career and being on the road so much, I was spent, mentally and physically,” he says. “I knew, I needed to get away and take some time to breathe and do some of the other things I had always dreamed of. I found my true identity, not only as an artist and a songwriter, but as a human being. I realize now that life is an incredible gift and it’s meant to be lived on purpose. Music is a gift and a great vehicle but it’s really about what happens beyond the music for me.”
But the music siren called again and White has answered her by completing and releasing his eighth studio album entitled Dustbowl Dreams last month. The title track could be one of the most autobiographical songs of 2009. As the “son of a son of an auctioneer,” White talks about things like pressing on and perseverance, losing his way, being bruised and cut and carrying on the dustbowl dreams of his family. In three minutes, White tells his ten year story. The song ends with an old clip of his grandfather being introduced as an auctioneer and then auctioning off some piece of farm life.
The 9513 had a chance to sit down with the singer/songwriter and talk about his new project and its inspiration.
KEN MORTON JR.: Why 2009 for Dustbowl Dreams?
BRYAN WHITE: That’s a really good question. For fear of going into way too long of a story, there’s just a lot of things that have gone on in my life in the last few years. 2000 was the last full-on record that I released–it was the Greatest Hits. And during that time, I was pretty spent. I was really worn out. I really dealt with the road well and handled it well, but I needed some time to grow up a little bit. I knew it was time for me to take a break. My label at the time went under. Asylum Records went under. The powers that be at Warner pulled the plug. And we all got flipped over to Warner, so I had all of that going on at the same time. I sort of dealt with some confidence things at the same time as well. The airplay went down. It’s a combination of things. All of those things happened, and I had wanted to get away anyways. So this just kind of prodded it a little more. I always dreamed of having a family and all of that. Several different elements came into pulling me in off of the road and it was an opportunity to say, “Hey, I need a break.” And this might have been God’s way of making me take a break. I spent some time away from it all, all the while maintaining some creativity. I’ve always been a writer. So I continued to write.
I was fortunate enough to have a couple cuts a year for other artists. And I did a small collection of dates each year. I wasn’t in a big hurry to do a new record. I felt like it was okay to just write and stay creative. I would know when the time was right to put another record together. There wasn’t a light bulb that went off in my head to start another record. I just started writing about what was going on in my life. I was just jotting down everything going on in my life and it wasn’t too long before I was writing some heavy subject matter. When I looked up from the paper, I realized that I had written some really good songs here. So I wanted to jump in and do this. I didn’t know where it was going to go, but I didn’t want to focus on looking too far ahead. I wanted to just do a real solid project that was representative of who I am now. Let’s just have fun. I took my time and dealt with the struggles in my life and learned a lot about myself. The reason it took so long was I was sorting out who I wanted to be in my life and doing a lot of soul-searching. Amidst that, I was writing about it. And soon I discovered that writing was a great collection for a record. That’s how it got started.
KMJ: I’ve had the pleasure of listening to it extensively and it’s far more introspective and autobiographical than anything you’ve done previously. Why the decision to do something so much more personal?
BW: Because it’s healing to me. These songs are very therapeutic to me. Now I realize more than ever the importance of writing songs from your own perspective. They’re real. They can help a lot of people but there’s nothing like singing something of your own that you’ve really gone through and continue to struggle with. There’s something powerful about that. There’s something powerful about releasing a record that you didn’t hold back with. You didn’t just cut stuff because it was a hit. You were writing stuff because it meant something to you.
To put that in perspective, I remember how I used to go about making a record. There wasn’t usually any thought about any depth to me. So I would just go around, listen to all the publishers and wait until I heard a melody that I really loved to sing. And oh-by-the-way, it might have some pretty cool lyrics that went along with it. There wasn’t a whole lot to me back then. I was a knucklehead kid that sang good and found songs that were fun to sing. I wasn’t thinking as much about what I was singing about. I wasn’t as nearly as an experienced songwriter back then as I am now, either. It’s really powerful to sing about things that mean something to you. When you can do that, then you’re really reaching people for the first time.
KMJ: Let’s talk about a couple of the specific tracks off of the album. The first song and title track is “Dustbowl Dreams.” That could be the deepest one of the bunch. Tell me about that song.
BW: I dealt with a mild depression with that time off because I was used to having hits and a certain level of success. When I moved to Nashville, I really didn’t have a long sob story. I was very fortunate. When all of that was pulled out from under me, it caused me to implode in a lot of ways. I found myself because of that. When all of that gets taken away from you, you have to really look at who you are and really pick that apart and start finding who you’re really made of. That’s when the character building really starts. Through some of that hiatus, I started identifying better with people–especially my home. Without sounding like a cliché, I really did go back to my roots and got into reading about where I came from. I was looking back through my lineage. I read a book about those that survived the dustbowl. I sort of did a big study for several years about where I’m from and the kind of people I’ve come from. I lost my granddad along the way who was really my father-figure. He was an auctioneer at the stockyard for thirty-something years. He was the only guy I ever saw who really got it done. He was a really hard worker and really loved his kids. He was this jovial man with boots and cowboy hat. He was the perfect image of what a man was when I was growing up.
That sort of put me in a melancholy funk back in 2004 when he started ailing. Those kind of things will put you on a course. I was having struggles and then I lost him, it made me look at myself. A lot of refinement came as a result of losing him and those struggles. But it also inspired me to write about some of those things. That’s really where “Dustbowl Dreams” came out of. It was God just reminding me who I was. I went back and found some confidence in just being an Oklahoman. When people say “Okie” they don’t realize it is a badge of honor for these people. It started out as a derogatory comment, but it ended up being a badge of honor. That’s what it is for me too. I can really identify with the whole dustbowl thing.
KMJ: Although lighter in weight, but just as personal, there’s a duet with your mentor, Steve Wariner on the album. It sounds like a blast was had in the studio. Was it as much fun making the record as it sounds like it did?
BW: It was. Steve is about as good as they come as a person. He’s really been there for me through thick and thin. He was my first major influence as a kid. I heard him sing and that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to emulate that tone and sing like that. For whatever reason, I was fortunate to have our paths cross and become good friends. He’s just a fun guy to be around. He’s very encouraging and is a great writer. You always learn from Steve when you are in a writing scenario. And he’s also an amazing player. He puts on a guitar clinic every time we’re around each other. I’m always asking him questions. We’ve done other duets but I’d never ever done anything for any of my records. We basically just hung out for an entire day tracking this song. It was an absolute blast. When you own a studio and are past all the record exec stuff and don’t have a bunch of suits sitting around you, you can make a record like you always wanted to make it. No clock. No finances. No budget. That was the greatest thing about making music this time–it could be done at our own pace. And that made it fun. Steve was very gracious to take time over to do it. I’m glad it comes across sounding that way to people because it really was that way in the studio. Just fun.
KMJ: If there’s been any criticism to your music over your past, it is that some might say that it has been more lightweight ballad fare. Is that a fair perception or stereotype? How do you see that inside looking out?
BW: As weird as it might sound, I still go back and listen to the old records. A lot of times, if we’re working in a new musician or player to come out with us, I have to go back and listen to that stuff and refresh my memory and listen to the parts so I can be as helpful as possible. And each time, I think to myself, these are still really good songs. Believe it or not, they continue to inspire me. When I get away from them for a while, it makes me come back and think that we did a really good job with these songs. So I am constantly reminding myself that the element of those records need to be in everything I do. Some of it might be a little on default. It’s part of the way that I go about making records. It’s the way I play. The way I sing. But I also think I’ve grown a lot as a singer and as a player. I think I sing a lot smarter. I used to sing for myself, if that makes sense. It was about trying to impress everyone by what I did. It was to impress. Now I really try to be smart when I sing a vocal to be dynamic in the right spots but not on 12 all the way through just so people are wowed. Really, I’m kind of a less is more kind of guy these days. It’s a balance of keeping what people liked about what I do and working it into back into what I do these days.
KMJ: Any aspirations of jumping in front of the camera like your wife?
BW: (Laughing) I don’t aspire to do it per say. But if someone called me and threw a role at me that I thought I could do with the right coaching, yeah, I might try it. But I don’t feel that in my soul there’s an actor screaming to get out.
KMJ: What’s the old saying? “What I really wanted to do is direct.”
BW: Yeah, that’s better. I’d like to sit back and drink coffee and tell somebody else what to do.
KMJ: What is country music to Bryan White?
BW: That’s tough. There’s so many ways to answer it. There’s so many things you think you have a grasp of when you’re younger. We keep going back over this theme with me today. It’s not until you get to certain places in your life when you start appreciating things and understand things and start to figure out what life is about. And by no means do I mean that I’ve figured that out yet. But I think I understand a little more about it after becoming a dad and being hit by some of life’s curve balls and dealing with them. I appreciate country music more in my life than I ever have. I understand the real power behind an honest song. When I’m writing now, I’ll leave something alone when I feel it’s finally something somebody would actually say or something I would say. I don’t try to over-think things.
The best thing about country music is that it is simple and it’s pure. And honest. It’s music of the heartland. It’s middle America. Those are all of things I get much more now. I appreciate country music and the history of it and where it came from. And I appreciate, more than ever, great songwriters. That is a gift. There are those that are extremely gifted with songwriting. And for others it’s hard work. For me, I’m just one of those guys that has something to say but it’s going to take awhile for me to figure out how to say it. Sometimes it’s being around somebody else to help you get there. But I’m grateful. Country music has saved my life in a lot of ways. I don’t mean to be cheesy but it has. To have music in my life is amazing. I really don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t doing these. I’m grateful for all of the things I’ve had a chance to do because of country music. I’m just grateful to be in it.