John Paul White speaks in soothing Southern tones. Hearing his unhurried conversation, you’d never guess he can be a cauldron inside. Reflecting that interior life, White’s songs — both solo and with the now-disbanded Civil Wars — quake with emotion.
“I tend to stay calm, at least on the exterior,” White said from his home in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. “I probably sound mellow no matter what. And it serves me well when things are hectic and stressful. But on the inside, just like anybody else, I can be screaming like a little girl.”
Six years after The Civil Wars, White’s Grammy-winning Americana duo with Joy Williams, halted a tour, citing “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition,” he’s making fearless solo music. The sublimely expressive Patsy Cline is among his inspirations for the album he’ll release sometime next year.
“I didn’t want to be too overt about it, and make it on the nose, but Patsy is definitely a touchstone,” White said. “I don’t know of any male singer who made records quite the way she did. She just goes for it, straight to her heart. Honest is a great word for it. Because I see people try to do it, people who have chops, but I don’t believe their hearts are really breaking.”
When White composes a song, he must believe every word.
“If I don’t feel it, then it’s not a song for me,” he said. “I have to write songs that I can feel every night when onstage — or people will see through it.”
Not being an “act,” as they say in show business, is demanding.
“It would be a less strenuous if it was an act,” White admitted. “At the end of every night, I’m exhausted. But that’s the only way I know how to do it.”
White’s most recently released song — a bittersweet country-pop waltz released in October — beautifully illustrates his musical direction. Arranged in the smooth countrypolitan style associated with Cline and her likewise gone-too-soon contemporary, Jim Reeves, the song bears an ironic title: “My Dreams Have All Come True.”
Sad and beautiful are probably his favorite words, White said. “I don’t know why I’m like that. I just love a sad song. It seems like that emotion is most readily accessible to me.”
So far, no one in White’s audiences has waltzed to “My Dreams Have All Come True.”
“In the places I’ve played, they totally could have,” he said. “I need to go out to Texas and play it. My heart beats in three-quarter time.”
In reality, most of White’s dreams have come true. After years of work as a solo artist and Nashville, Tennessee, tunesmith, he and Joy Williams formed the Civil Wars in 2009. The duo won four Grammy Awards, toured with Adele and Emmylou Harris and collaborated with Taylor Swift and T Bone Burnett. But following their public creative differences and nearly two-year hiatus, they formally announced the end of the Civil Wars in August 2014.
Settling down with his wife and four children in Alabama, White stayed relatively quiet. He released some solo songs and recorded a duet with Emmylou Harris prior to his first post-Civil Wars album, 2016’s “Beulah.”
“I was in a place of, like, ‘OK. Why do I do this? Is it what I’m meant to do?’ ” White said of the downtime.
The answers came after a few years of simply living, happily playing with his children, attending dance recitals and basketball games.
“And then lines that could be songs started popping in my head,” he said. “Melodies started showing up. And when I finally wrote a song or two, I wondered if they would move someone or break somebody’s heart or make their hearts heal.
“A lot of me had been ego-driven. Let’s climb that ladder. Let’s play a bigger show. Now, I truly want to connect with people through songs and performance. That was a good realization for me. It made me make a lot more sense.”
John Paul White / Caleb Elliot / Anne Elise Hastings
3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday (evening show is sold out)
Dyson House Listening Room, 7575 Jefferson Highway
$30 advance; $40 door; $60 VIP