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With 'Blunderbuss,' Jack White aims for new beginning

The former White Stripes leader takes his first solo album through Memphis for soul and Nashville for honky tonk. Many of the album's songs are about an individual's struggle to express himself against the force of society.

August 04, 2012|By Evelyn McDonnell
  • Musician Jack White
Musician Jack White (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

A blunderbuss is an early shotgun. You could put anything inside its horn-like muzzle — broken glass, nails, rocks, metal scraps — though a lead ball was preferred. The makeshift ammo would spray a short but lethal distance. American revolutionaries and explorers favored blunderbusses, as did buccaneers.

"A romantic bust/ A blunder turned/ Explosive blunderbuss," Jack White sings on "Blunderbuss," the haunting title track from his stunning first solo album. "Blunderbuss" premiered at No. 1 upon its April release.

The antique weapon provides a useful metaphor for recurring themes of White's decade-plus career: his predilection for pre-modern technology, his digger interest in folk history, his scrappy inventiveness, his tendency to blow up. The lyric captures one of the several gifts — deft poetic wordplay — that have made White probably the most important musician of the last decade to tap into roots music traditions while simultaneously exploding conventions. White is the 21st century incarnation of an American archetype: the restless spirit.

"I can't help myself; I have to work on music and art," White said recently during a 45-minute interview from a casino in Delaware, a stop on the tour that brings him to the Grammy Museum and the Shrine Auditorium on Friday and Aug. 11. "I don't have any choice. I don't get up in the morning and pick and choose. It's natural, it's unstoppable. If I wander around the house, I will find myself in front of a piano."

Restlessness has fueled a prolific, genre-spanning career as well as a peripatetic personal life. As the guitar-playing half of Detroit garage-rock duo the White Stripes, his indie-rock song "Seven Nation Army" broke through at commercial rock radio, thanks mostly to his feedback-laden, eustachian-clearing lead riff. Inspired by Delta blues as funneled by North Carolina act Flat Duo Jets, the Stripes were willfully contrarian and devilishly quirky: They played and recorded only on analog equipment and, inspired by peppermint candy, dressed in red and white.

"When the White Stripes came out we just did a lot of things that weren't very popular," White said. "I'm not saying we were better than other people, I'm just saying we weren't doing things that were very popular. It wasn't popular to record on tape, it was popular to record on Pro Tools by then."

The White Stripes split in 2011. By then, White had begun pursuing other projects. He formed indie-rock super group the Raconteurs with Brendan Benson and members of the Greenhornes; with Alison Mosshart of the Kills on vocals, the group becomes the Dead Weather. He recorded songs for and appeared in the Civil War film "Cold Mountain." He produced comeback albums of brave new work by two female country legends, Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson. For the latter records, he refused to go the usual aging-legend route of interpreting classics or dueting with younger stars.

"With great respect for their talent, I was not trying to manipulate them but to get them into zones where they were uncomfortable and something new can happen," White says. "They responded pretty well; it's human nature, artists want to be challenged. That's the mark of a good artist: When a challenge is put in front of them, they rise to it."

Finally recording a solo album was the natural next step for White and a way for him to challenge himself. He recorded "Blunderbuss" at his own Third Man Studios, anchor of the budding music empire he has created in Nashville, where he relocated after finding he had outgrown — and perhaps burned bridges with — the Detroit scene. He produced himself, hiring session musicians and old friends to add breadth and breath to the sometimes intensely emotional songs — to "shake up a room."

"When you go into a room with nothing but hired guns, it's a completely different attitude," White says. "You become not just a songwriter but a songwriter, producer, bandleader, arranger, instructor, director. That doesn't happen in the Dead Weather, I don't tell those guys how to play."

On "Blunderbuss" White has left the garage and taken up residence in Music City. While punk's vehemence still powers his guitar, more often, he's plumbing Memphis soul or Nashville honky tonk with songs sculpted as much by pianos as by electric six-strings. He lays down a blistering Rhodes solo on "Missing Pieces." The passionate gospel of "Love Interruption" cops a lick from Dusty Springfield. "Blunderbuss" is an artistic breakthrough on the level of her "Dusty in Memphis" album, the Stones' "Exile on Main Street" and Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks," all discs in which pop artists reinvented themselves through immersion in the expansive vocabulary of American vernacular musics.

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