with video: Michigan favorite Don White returning for two nights at Green Wood Coffee House
But, he’s also a comic. And a storyteller. Indeed, at one point, he worked for two years strictly as a comic, setting aside music temporarily.
And his onstage stories—which, when he first writes them, start out at about three to five minutes long—can evolve over a period of a couple of years into discursive tales that go on for 20 or 30 minutes.
And he loves performing in a live setting. Most of his albums have been either completely or partially live discs.
For much of his career, White was known primarily as a performer who played the New England circuit (he lives in the industrial city of Lynn, Mass). But several years ago, Carey Carlson, then the host of “Over Easy,” the weekend-morning acoustic-music show on WCSX, 94.7-FM in Detroit, discovered two of White’s songs — first “Rascal,” and then “I Know What Love Is” — and began playing them on her show.
Then, after Carlson left, the new host, Pam Rossi, continued carrying the torch. His songs remained a fixture on the show, and won him a large Michigan audience, which in turn helped him build a strong regional audience in the Midwest. He even recorded a live album titled “Live in Michigan.”“If that hadn’t happened, I would have had a totally different career,” says White, who comes to the Green Wood Coffee House for two nights on Friday and Saturday. “That experience really opened things up for me.”
On his latest album, “Winning Streak,” White also has a Michigan song, titled “People in Michigan,” which in fact is the album’s lead-off track.
“Now, I travel more than I would like, I’m on planes a lot, but I still think of myself as a regional guy, because for a long time I was a New England guy who also came to Michigan—Michigan was the only place where anyone had heard of me outside of New England,” he says by phone from his home in Lynn.
“And when I spent time in Michigan, I noticed that Midwestern civility, people being friendly to each other, so I have a special place in my heart for Michigan.”
The song isn’t exclusively about Michigan, though. The song changes directions from one verse to the next. “On that one, I was inspired by some of John Prine’s later songs, after he’d made about seven or eight albums—where you write three verses about things you think are funny or interesting, but aren’t necessarily related,” says White: “Each verse stands by itself—but then they’re tied together by the chorus.”
The title song was inspired by an incident from more than 10 years ago, when White worked part-time as an installer for ADT, the home security company. “The company became unionized, and for years I worked three days a week, Tuesday through Thursday, and then had the long weekend open for doing gigs in other cities.” But the company was bought out, and the new regime decided they didn’t want part-time installers, and “they tried to get rid of me, but with the union’s help, we fought it all the way. We ended up losing in arbitration, but the song is really about the bigger idea, fighting the good fight.”
“Winning Streak” also includes a few live live recordings of his onstage storytelling, but “this album has more studio tracks on it than any album since ‘Little Niche’ in 2001,” he says.
White didn’t have a general theme in mind when he began writing the songs for the album, but when it was finished, and he’d listened to it a few times, he realized that a theme had emerged. “That happens sometimes, you write these individual songs, and later you realize the album had its own agenda,” he quips.
In this case, “I think the album is general reflection on where I am in my life right now, and where I’ve been, after having raised my kids, and now have grandchildren. I think much of it is a reflection on what it took to get me here,” he says.
“Like, looking back on how I left home when I was 17, and spent three of the next five years hitchhiking all over the country with my girlfriend—and how whenever we came back from one of those long trips, after meeting so many different kinds of people, we just weren’t the same people any more that we were when we left. And, how, at one point, I worried if my own kids were going to do the same thing.” (They didn’t, he adds with a relieved laugh.)
"After doing so many live or half-live albums, which were just me and an acoustic guitar, I decided I wanted to do something this time where the songs were more fleshed out, with more instrumental textures—which was mostly just something I wanted to do to keep me interested during the recording process,” White adds with a laugh.
It was produced by Steve Sadler, “who is a very talented multi-instrumentalist who’s kind of a legend around here, so I could take advantage of how versatile is. I think he played nine different instruments on the album, like banjo, lap steel, pennywhistle, Dobro, some keyboards, and fiddle,” White says.
A few years ago, White “retired” many of his most popular onstage comic stories, because he felt they had grown out of control, that they were taking up too much of his show, “so I took little pieces of them and added to them, to create new stories, which have since grown into something different,” he says.
“So, I still tell some long stories onstage, but I also have two new ones that are shorter, so we’ll see what direction they go in. I am addicted to that early part of the process, where I craft the story, and work on the timing, and the language, until it’s as refined as I can make it. And, then, over the next two years, it will grow, and evolve, and I will sometimes take it in new directions based on the audience reaction - based on what lines get the most laughs.
“If pressed, I would say that’s the part of my work that I love the most - telling those long stories onstage, and getting the feedback from the audience. I like that exchange of energy.”