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Jack White got his first real taste of Nashville more than 20 years ago, when the White Stripes played at The End on a steamy night in September 2001.
The duo — he on guitar, Meg White on drums — were touring behind their third album, White Blood Cells, which had been released two months earlier and was already hailed as a colorful reimagining of rock and blues. Playing in Nashville was a big deal for the duo: They had dedicated that album to Loretta Lynn and were covering Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” in their sets.
“Someone might correct me and say, ‘Actually you played in Nashville when you were 19 and you were the drummer in Goober & the Peas,’” he allows, referring to his first, regrettably named band. “If we did, it would have been one of those nights when we hopped out of the van, played the show, and hopped right back in the van. That show at The End [in 2001] is my first memory of playing in Nashville.”
It was a memorable show, to say the least. In cities where ticket sales hadn’t yet caught up with the buzz, the duo played several venues at half capacity, if even that much. Nashville, however, understood that this show was an event, selling out The End and packing it to bursting with fans screaming for every song.
White admits he was baffled at the time. “We’d always heard it was hard to get a rock & roll crowd in Tennessee, and especially in Nashville. It was supposed to be hard to get people to come out to shows.”
What they found instead was a warm and welcoming city that has only grown warmer and more welcoming over the ensuing 20 years. That 2001 show marked the beginning of a long and productive relationship between musician and city, one so close you might consider it a collaboration.
As White has established himself as one of the most original and imaginative rock stars of the era — an era, it should be noted, with few true rock stars — Nashville has been both his loudest crowd and his toughest audience: a sounding board for wild ideas about how music can be ethically and creatively made and disseminated.
In addition to putting out adventurous solo albums — such as Fear of the Dawn and Entering Heaven Alive, both released this year — White oversees what can barely even be called a label anymore. Third Man Records encompasses the weirdest record store in town, a music venue and event space, a publishing firm, a design and upholstery service, a record-pressing plant, and whatever other new enterprise White happens to be cooking up right this very second.
And none of it, White says — the music, the design, the business, and everything in between — would have been possible anywhere but here. “Everything has been a baby step to get to this point. Every time we would try something out, the city received it very enthusiastically — even the bad ideas or the really strange ideas. After a while, Third Man became what I was hoping it would become, which is its own breathing hive of creative people who are working to foster the arts in as many ways as possible. I’m very inspired by it all. I’m very inspired by Nashville.”
"Nashville is great because of how much they respect and admire their history. Seeing that was very heartwarming to me."
When Jack and Meg played The End back in 2001, they were already renowned for their playful approach to … well, everything: They adhered to a strict red-and-white-and-black color scheme, made creative videos with Legos, and routinely confused the press about the nature of their personal relationship. (Siblings? Spouses? Depended on the day.)
Yet the scene in their hometown of Detroit was growing claustrophobic, to the point of stoking cynicism toward anything resembling “fun.” White realized he had to get out, but he wasn’t sure where to go. He needed a promised land, a place where he could tinker with his guitars and rethink how his music was bought and sold.
He was drawn to the Deep South, the wellspring of so much of the music he loved. White sampled several cities in the Bible Belt, but Nashville stood out to him for several reasons. First, as a huge country music fan who had produced Loretta Lynn’s 2004 album, Van Lear Rose, White loved the idea of being close to so much rich musical history.
Second, Nashville was a beautiful city, which appealed to the designer in him. “I was always attracted to the old train station, the old Hermitage Hotel,” he says. “I love those kinds of places, that kind of architecture, old churches from the 1800s. I even like some of the new buildings, and my hope is that with all the construction happening, maybe there will be some new and even better-looking buildings going up.”
"That was something I didn’t expect—this humongous embrace from the music community in Nashville to me being there and to Third Man being there."
But the biggest checkmark in the plus column was also the unlikeliest draw: Nashville already had a massive industry devoted to a style of music White did not make, and he thought that might actually be an advantage.
“At the time, I thought Nashville was very Hollywood and very plastic,” he admits now. “What I was interested in doing was totally off the radar from that, so I thought maybe I wouldn’t get chewed up and spit out by the hipster intelligentsia. The industry here was like a smokescreen. I could live in my own little universe off to the side and not be swallowed up by a scene. Nashville seemed big enough that I could dissolve into it a little bit.”
Fortunately, that’s not what happened. Rather than working in the shadows — like the mysterious Harry Lime in The Third Man, White’s favorite film and company namesake — White was immediately welcomed into the local music community, hailed by his heroes as a unique artist and curator. Porter Wagoner, who’d opened for the Stripes at Madison Square Garden in 2007, took him to lunch at Arnold’s. Marty Stuart gave him a private tour of his memorabilia collection, then on display at the Tennessee State Museum.
“I was just trying to be a good neighbor, sticking my hand across the fence,” says Stuart. “It was just the two of us hanging out at the museum for an afternoon, going through the collection piece by piece, telling stories and talking. We both just turned back into kids and marveled at the suits these people wore and the instruments they played. Jack’s a fan at heart.”
“Those kinds of things didn’t happen to me in Detroit,” White says. “The city has an incredible music history, but it doesn’t always get the same kind of love that music gets here. Nashville is great because of how much they respect and admire their history. Seeing that was very heartwarming to me. That was something I didn’t expect — this humongous embrace from the music community in Nashville to me being there and to Third Man being there.”
Third Man Records was born out of necessity. When White migrated south in the mid-2000s, he stashed all his stuff in storage units around town, which he quickly realized wasn’t exactly efficient. So he purchased an old office complex/photo studio on Seventh Avenue South, primarily as a personal warehouse and occasional practice space.
It soon became something bigger, though, as he suddenly found himself holding the vinyl rights to the White Stripes’ back catalog. Vinyl records were oddities at the time, a curio on the merch table at best, and certainly nothing on which to build an empire.
His initial goal was therefore modest — just to get the catalog back in print, on colored vinyl if possible. He hired two old friends and former tourmates to run this one-artist label: Ben Swank (of The Soledad Brothers) and Ben Blackwell (of The Dirtbombs).
Gradually, things took off, one harebrained scheme after another. “There was a little space at the front of the building,” says White. “I thought, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be fun to have a little shop in that room at the front of the building? Not a real store, more like a little place where a fan or collector could stop by, ring a bell, and look around.’ But once we opened, that was not the case. We very quickly had to hire a clerk and a manager. It became a real store real fast, which was surprising to us.”
“That’s how Jack is,” says Swank. “He gets an idea and just wants to build off of it and watch it grow. Ben Blackwell and I are good henchmen, because we get excited about those ideas, too. Those first three years, the three of us were just having a lot of fun. We were trying to get things going but really, we were just enjoying ourselves and enjoying being outside the traditional indie community. That’s why I don’t think Third Man could have thrived just anywhere. Nashville gave us the time and space to really focus on figuring things out. It was a welcoming community for us.”
“Back then, if you had asked me if I wanted to start an actual official record label, I would have said absolutely not,” says White. By “official,” he means an enterprise that would scout and promote new artists not named Jack White. “I didn’t have time for that, and I didn’t even know how to run a label.”
But Third Man’s early successes and Nashville’s continued support allowed him to take one baby step after another and grow in ways even he hadn’t anticipated. One of the most important baby steps came in 2016, when the label released an album that would launch an artist into the limelight.
Margo Price had been gigging around town for years, first with the gospel-soul outfit Buffalo Clover, and then with her country backing band the Pricetags, yet the industry had more or less ignored the local badass.
By the time Ben Swank caught one of her shows, she’d been doing $2 Tuesdays at The 5 Spot for years. Third Man was the only label in Nashville that would agree to release her solo debut, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, with no changes. In a matter of weeks, she was playing Saturday Night Live and earning international acclaim. In a matter of months, White was eating Thanksgiving dinner with Price’s family.
“Working with Third Man was so inspiring,” says Price. “The way they made the music and the art and the fans come together was effortless and creative. Jack gave me lots of invaluable advice and encouraged me to always give lots of effort into my songwriting craft and my stage performance. Everything he touches and supports gets a little bit of that magic sprinkled onto it. That thread still runs through my work.”
Since then, Third Man has expanded its roster considerably, signing an array of local artists (Rich Ruth) and national acts (The Paranoyds). Rather than specialize in one style or genre, the label reflects the wild diversity of the local music community. “Those scenes existed before Third Man set up shop here,” says Luke Schneider. The pedal steel virtuoso played in The Pricetags before releasing his 2020 solo debut, Altar of Harmony, on Third Man.
“Some people were a little suspicious of [Third Man’s] intentions, but they did a good job of reaching out to people,” Schneider recalls. “They had a genuine appreciation for the local DIY scene, and I think they’ve created an outpost for the kind of culture you could only experience in London, New York, or Chicago. Their contributions to the cultural fabric of this city have been invaluable.”
"... I don’t think Third Man could have thrived just anywhere. Nashville gave us the time and space to really focus on figuring things out."
Just as Third Man has worked to reflect the full spectrum of music made in Nashville, the city has had a similar impact on White, stoking his imagination and expanding his vocabulary. The White Stripes operated as though a thundering drumbeat and a towering guitar riff could be combined in infinitely different ways, but White’s Nashville output embraces a more maximalist kind of whimsy. Whether he’s playing solo or with side projects such as The Dead Weather or The Raconteurs, White builds up, rather than strips back.
His most recent records are chockablock with sounds, as though his adopted hometown has inspired him to incorporate any and every idea that passes through his brain. It might be a buzzing-bee guitar tone, or a disembodied voice straight from a giallo soundtrack, or a scrambled sorta-cover of “Minnie the Moocher.” It might sound very different from the duo that played The End, but his solo material conveys the same intense joy in creating music.
Most Nashville residents have learned to ignore all the billboards and posters advertising the latest country acts, but White still pays attention to them. They fascinate him and remind him of all the different possibilities in music and business alike.
“When I first got to Nashville, I saw a billboard on the side of a bus for Garth Brooks or somebody like that. You would never have seen that in the rock & roll world at the time, with its ridiculous rules about ‘selling out.’ To me, it was a real eye-opener. Back then I thought there’s no way I would ever put myself on the side of a bus. Now it’s no big deal. I’d do it in the blink of an eye.”
And that opening of attitude may be the biggest impact Nashville has had on Jack White. The industry he once thought of as “Hollywood and plastic” in fact makes the argument that art doesn’t need to be protected from commerce. It’s not that fragile.
Instead, the two can be combined in bold, outrageous ways, whether that means putting someone’s favorite singer on public transportation or releasing a flexi-disc single via helium balloon (which Third Man did in 2012).
That artistic freedom makes Nashville a safe haven against the cynicism that drove White out of Detroit and still infects so many rock and punk scenes.
“Mixing art and business can be scary,” says White. “People don’t like to see that. We like to think our artists have no concept of business. We like to think they just stumble into a room with their art, and somebody grabs it and figures out how to sell it to people.
“We want Elvis to just be Elvis. Let’s blame all the commercialization on Colonel Tom, right? But people would be surprised to see how often those ‘idealistic’ artists were very much involved in everything, even if they pretended they weren’t. So I was very happy to learn a different way that people combine music and business here in Nashville.”
Jack White's Fear of the Dawn (left) was released on Third Man Records April 8, followed just three months later with Entering Heaven Alive (right), on July 22.
Both are available from fine independent record stores and thirdmanrecords.com.
Jack White's Fear of the Dawn (above) was released on Third Man Records April 8, followed just three months later with Entering Heaven Alive (below), on July 22.
Both are available from fine independent record stores and thirdmanrecords.com.