Key to the Highway: Jim White

Interviews Key to the Highway Series

Americana Highways’  Key to the Highway series

Fans always clamor to learn more about their favorite, most beloved musicians and those who travel with them. There’s such an allure to the road, with its serendipity, inevitable surprises, and sometimes unexpected discomforts. This interview series is a set of questions we are asking some of our favorite roots rock Americana artists to get to know more about them and what they’ve learned and experienced on the road. We are sure they have key insights to share and stories to tell. Here’s one from Jim White.

AH: How do you like your coffee or other morning wake-up beverage?

JW: I’m fairly manic by nature.  By the time my feet hit the floor each morning usually I’m already wide awake and running.  I have a sleep disorder that makes sleeping a big battle nightly— I dream constantly, furiously and without much rhyme or reason to the images.  It’s like taking a bunch of LSD then fighting a tiger in a phone booth most nights. So waking up is different for me than most people—it’s kinda like, “Whew, I survived another night in the phone booth!”

Also, I once explained to a Frenchman who offered me a cup of coffee that I’d never smoked a cigarette, drank a beer or a cup of coffee.  He looked like his head might explode.  Finally he exclaimed, “But zees….it’s IMPOSSIBLE!”

AH: What’s the most interesting or strangest motel/hotel or place you have stayed (while on the road?) 

JW: The Waits Motel in a sketchy meth neighborhood in the Pacific Northwest.  I stayed there with my band because a) I’m a big Tom Waits fan, and b) it was the only place we could afford thereabouts.  Being named after the king of the glittering underbelly of life I was gratified to note when I walked in the door that there were missing persons fliers on the inch thick plexiglass separating me from the night clerk, who looked slightly confused when I asked for three rooms. He actually said, “Are you sure you want to stay HERE?” Later a meth fueled fight broke out in the parking lot outside the room I was staying in. It involved a heavily muscled thug in a wife beater and boxers and a wimpy little pimply faced guy in cutoffs and a Hawaiian shirt.  The little guy claimed the big guy stole his car and the little guy wanted it back.  The big guy told him if he wanted it so bad to come take it, so foolishly, the little guy tried.  It was a Chrysler K car, by the way.  A few blows into the exchange they slammed into our door, so me and my bass player sighed, rose and employed a time proven self protection method for cheap hotel survival: we piled all the furniture against the door, then put the mattresses on the ground and went back to sleep.  The fight raged on, but thankfully our tour van was still there the next morning when we woke up.

(But that’s not the most interesting motel incident by a long shot.  There’s dozens more of a similar pedigree, but the best one is a chapter in my recently finished Magical Realism Memoir.  It involves some familiar music industry names and a bunch of paranormal shit.  You’ll have to wait for the book to come out to read that one.)

AH: If one CD is stuck in the player in the van for the entire tour, what do you hope it is?  And why?

JW: Soon as I reached the age of legal autonomy I fled my troubled family and the Deep South.  Eighteen year old me high-tailed it westward nonstop for roughly forty three hours straight until I ran out of America to flee across. This was back in the 8-track cassette days. I had one 8 track tape with me. It was Cat Stevens’ Teaser and the Firecat, which is a lovely record.  That said, to this day if I hear “Moonshadow” I get a little nervous homicidal twitch in my face and dark thoughts threaten to take the steering wheel of life and do crazy things.  I guess I heard “Moonshadow” one too many times.  Or maybe it was one hundred too many times.  So it definitely wouldn’t be Teaser and the Firecat, no offense to Cat Stevens, who made some gloriously beautiful records.

So with that in mind I’ll opt for no CD, because if I love a record, I don’t want to end up getting a homicidal nervous twitch from it.

AH: What’s one personal item you must have with you on your road trip?

JW: I’m not sure what you mean by personal.  But in the deepest sense of that term, I need to have pictures of my kids with me.  I miss them when I’m gone.

AH: What is your relationship with food?   How do you handle this on the road, and what’s your favorite dish on the road, (or restaurant, and what do you order there)? 

JW: One thing I’m not is a foodie.  Eating to me is much akin to going to the gas station and filling up the gas tank.  Texaco is as good as Speedway.  That said, I’ve been a vegetarian/pescatarian type person my entire career as a musician and it’s hell trying to find decent vegetarian food on the road.  Not so much these days but long ago there were places in the midwest and south where it was nigh unto impossible to find things that had not been prepared with meat, meat juice etc.  I folk-sing, so that rules out pricey high class dining, so I need cheap reliable sustenance when I’m traveling.  That means eggs when they’re not prepared on a common griddle with the bacon (after some years of not eating meat, if you get even a little bit of the juice in you it’s not a pretty digestive picture, if you read my meaning).  Subway tuna sandwiches have always been a fallback. Other than that I don’t give food much thought on the road.

AH: If you could pause your life for a few weeks and spend some time living in a place you only have passed through, which would you choose, and why? 

JW: New Zealand.  I toured there about ten years ago.  At one point long ago I was a professional surfer and New Zealand has an abundance of amazing beaches and surf breaks.  Other than the waves, with the exception of the capitol, the various towns I visited felt right sized, and there seemed to be an abundance of like minded souls thereabouts.  People seemed to understand my way of talking, which is not always the case, even here in the good old USA.

AH: What quote or piece of advice have you gotten from someone on the road that has really stuck with you?

JW: I drove a taxi in New York for over a decade and this incident happened then. We were driving so that qualifies as the road to me.  Midway through that gauntlet of troubled years I was hailed by an attractive woman in an elegant suit.  She was a business executive headed to a meeting in midtown Manhattan, I learned. Despite her mainstream trappings there was a curious shine about her—she was somebody special, you could tell.  We got to talking and she asked about my other life, knowing right off the bat I wasn’t your typical cab driver.

I told her I’d endeavored for years to become an artist and felt so capable of offering something of value to the world, but I had no conduit of delivery to present it and so labored in total obscurity.  I told her I felt discouraged recently because it seemed I’d never get my shot. She gave it some thought then said, “It’s crucial that you understand this: you can’t force opportunity, you can only be prepared when it presents itself.” She let that sink in, then added,  “And it will present itself, not when you demand it to, but in its own time. All you can do is keep preparing, then act when that moment arrives.”   I did so, and several years later the moment did present itself—I was “discovered” and signed to a six record deal by David Byrne. And here I am nearly thirty years down the line being interviewed by an interesting publication, my music and writing known all over the world.  I wish I could thank that business woman for that timely word of knowledge she so generously offered.  But she was a stranger, so I can’t.  The next best thing I figure I can do is pass her advice on to others.  So there you go.

Find all things Jim White here: and his new album, here:

See other Key to the Highway interviews here: (click here for: Danny Barnes  Patterson Hood Jerry Joseph BJ Barham Rodney Crowell Todd Snider Elizabeth Cook Tommy Womack Eric Ambel, Dan Baird, Robbie Fulks, Malcolm Holcombe Jon Langford Steve Poltz, Lilly Hiatt  Sarah Shook & the Disarmers )

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