People love to talk about what is and isn’t country music. Some folks think it’s whatever country radio wants it to be. Others believe it necessarily includes some very specific elements — real-life stories about hardship and humility set against a backdrop of real-life instruments like guitar, fiddle, and pedal steel. After all, back in the day, traditional country music didn’t need programmed beats and auto-tuned vocals to get its three-chorded truth across. And it still doesn’t. Just ask John Paul White.
On his new album, The Hurting Kind, White harkens back to Nashville’s days of yore, when guys like Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins ruled the Row by making beautiful, heartfelt records that were both organically earthy and lushly sublime, all at once. Because White’s songwriting and singing are both utterly malleable, when it comes to style, he can bend and flex them to fit whatever artistic vision he has in any given moment. To prep for The Hurting Kind, he listened to a lot of classic country records and set his sights there.
One of the artists he has long studied is Roy Orbison, and that is wonderfully apparent on several of the album’s tracks, including on the soaring “I Wish I Could Write You a Song” and the waltzing “My Dreams Have All Come True.” It also creeps in on the gorgeous “This Isn’t Going to End Well” which is a duet with the ever-flawless Lee Ann Womack. Yeah, Owen and Chet would have surely approved.
To show just how versatile he really is, White pulls from other country influences throughout the collection, as well. Songs like “Yesterday’s Love” and “You Lost Me” make it so very easy to imagine him in a Nudie suit crooning his heart out in a honky tonk, if not on the Grand Ole Opry. The album feels rather like a tour through Nashville’s hey day.
Quite notably, the set kicks off with the most topical tune White has ever proffered, “The Good Old Days.” Though its rock-solid roots groove feels more contemporary than most of its album-mates’ more throwback vibes, it’s an important enough inclusion that it leads the pack. In it, White eschews any semblance of making anything great again, understanding that even though some may have had it pretty good in times gone by, so many more absolutely didn’t. And he’s not willing to cash in on the progress of the masses for the comfort of a few. So, while he’s fine with revisiting long-lost classic music, he’s not okay with reclaiming long-past regressive values. Bravo, sir, all the damn way around.