For pretty much his entire career as a singer/songwriter, Jim White has approached the stage with the same pessimistic trepidation that Navy SEALs-in-training feel leading up to Hell Week.
“I tend to play solo with a lot of loops, and the veins are sticking out on my head to trigger this loop and that loop,” the Athens, Ga.-based country/folk artist explains. “I’m not a great singer, and I’m not a great guitar player. Performing has always been a chore for me.”
And that’s why he had mixed feelings when he first heard bluegrass whiz kids The Packway Handle Band.
The five musicians, also of Athens, were wizard-fast and exuberant. Shockingly, they had fun onstage. Even worse, they were doing it while playing music White says he’d felt drawn to his entire life but had never been able to convince labels to let him record.
It was simultaneously maddening and inspiring, White recalls.
“Seeing these guys’ wildly exuberant, unhinged performance of the music I loved made me very envious, and I wanted to be able to do that,” he says. “
Last year, he got his chance. He’d worked with Packway Handle a couple of times in the past, first to back him for a cover song recorded for a music blog and later to contribute to an album he was producing for Oak Ridge, Tenn.-based folk duo The Skipperdees.
The next day, the guys in the band asked White to help produce their next album. He wanted to open the door a little wider than that.
“My original idea was, ‘I sure wish I could do music like this, and here’s the opportunity,’” he says. “I had this pile of bluegrass songs that had been lying around for 20 or 30 years, so I said, ‘Let’s dust these off and see what you think.’”
The result of their collaboration, “Take It Like a Man,” was released Jan. 27 under the combined moniker Jim White vs. The Packway Handle Band. It’s a name that implies more friction than they experienced in the studio, White says.
“It was tremendous fun, and very quick, I might add,” he says. “When I make my personal records, it’s a slow, painstaking process. This was just fun.”
The combination of White’s career-long fascination with maudlin, blue-collar ballads was an unlikely — yet surprisingly compatible — pairing with Packway’s upbeat, up-tempo approach to bluegrass. In his review of the album, Allmusic.com’s Mark Deming says the final product “brings out the best in all parties concerned.”
On Saturday, Feb. 21, White and his newfound bluegrass compatriots will take the stage for a joint performance at Barking Legs Theater. The show will feature a combination of material off “Take It Like a Man,” spoken-word stories by White and bluegrass numbers from Packway’s catalog.
And for once, White says, he’s looking forward to the experience.
“It’s incredibly liberating,” he says. “It’s so much easier than my shows. I feel like I’ve run the gauntlet when I do one of my shows. Every night, I’m done. With this, it’s pleasant.”
Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.