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Angela Norris White: The Americana Philosopher

by Donovan Wheeler
photos by T. Preston and Thomas Dove

A maple sapling can spend the next century growing out to a circumference matching a tractor tire, but it doesn’t decide where the wind will drop it as a seed.  It doesn’t control the weather which torments it over time, and it has no say from which branch a little girl’s grandpa hangs a swing.  When this epiphany strikes us—that is, if it ever strikes us at all—we can make one or two things of it.  We can defy it, oblivious to the life of futility which follows, or we can embrace it.  We can use the world around us as a proud marker of who we are and count our blessings for taking root in the part of the world which feels most like home.  This most basic of philosophies is something which Anglea Norris White understands better than most of us.  Musically, her upbringing has sometimes left her sitting in interesting albeit awkward spots as well.  But rather than shy away from it, she understands that our destinies are often mapped out before we even born.  Her roots are hers, and she’s more than proud of them.

“People don’t get just how much of a rock-and-roll girl I’m not,” White explains.  “I suppose it’s probably a sinful thing for me.  But when other musicians sit together and have conversations about one legendary rock band or another…it’s all Greek to me.  I’ll lean in and ask, ‘Now, who are you talking about?’  They’ll look at me shocked and say, ‘The Beatles.’”

“When other people’s parents were listening to The Beatles,” she continues, “my dad was tuning in to Hank, Sr.  And my mom was listening to Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline.  I was never subjected to the rock classics…I just wasn’t.”

This is not to say that White lived in a bubble sealed off from musical genres beyond her own.  She admits to a “heavy metal phase” in her teenage years, and still claims that the band she’s watched live more than any other is Motley Crüe.  But as she says: “traditional country has always been where my roots were planted.  So of course I outgrew my teenage phase and returned to the musician I was always meant to be.”

As we settle into her kitchen somewhere along the county roads off US 40, White fumbles around her cabinets, until she finds her emergency cigarette: the one she keeps tucked away as a fallback for those moments when she’s run out but hasn’t found time for a supply run.  Or when she’s trying to quit, but the stress becomes too much.  And at the time we met—a week prior to the release of her first full-length album, and days before a big premiere in Indy’s Jazz Kitchen—the stress had worn on her.  Despite having a half-dozen lighters laying around the house, she warms up the toaster, leans over, and touches the end of her smoke to the now red coils under the chrome.

The recording, an eponymous collection of traditional country, Americana, and a hybrid mix of the two functions as an autobiography of sorts.  Like most songwriters, every tune White has written has a story behind it.  Like most songwriters, each of those stories springs from a powerfully emotional experience.  And like most songwriters, White is happy to explain the story behind the song, but she’s just as content to leave it as it is, and let us make what we want out of it.

Angela Backstrom listened to my music and happened to love it. She wanted to take me under her wing, and she doesn’t do this for many people. Photo by T. Preston
Angela Backstrom listened to my music and happened to love it. She wanted to take me under her wing, and she doesn’t do this for many people.
Photo by T. Preston

Donovan Wheeler:  So before you got started with your musical career, what was life like for you?

Angela Norris White: “My kids were my world.  If there was anything I ever wanted to do right in life, it was take care of my kids…keeping them involved in school, being there for them emotionally, and being a good wife for my husband.  Eventually my youngest child, my son, reached his junior year in high school, and he sort of drifted off into his own life, as most kids do when they reach that age.  That became a period of re-self-discovery for me, and that’s when I remembered: ‘Oh yeah…I like to sing…I like to play the guitar.’”

On this cue, she reaches past me to a rack of acoustic six-strings—some three or four of them—resting on a circular rack near the threshold to the back breezeway.  She selects what is obviously the most used, most worn, and most sentimental guitar she calls “Lexie Girl” and sets in her lap.

ANW: “This is my ‘writing guitar.’  I don’t know why I have so many others because I never play them.  When I initially let go of Lexie Girl to see if she needed a neck adjustment and fret work, I think it was that next morning when I realized that I had never been away from her.  It was when I got this instrument that everything opened up for me.  I was in the middle of baking some 300 Christmas cookies, and a couple of lyrics to what would become ‘Mama’ bubbled into my head.  I jotted them down, but sort of shrugged it off.  But the next morning it was still in my head, so I put it together.  At the time I thought the whole experience of writing a song was some sort of fluke, but here I am over 200 songs later, and obviously it wasn’t.”

DW:  Where does this musical influence come from? Family?

ANW:  “When I was a little girl my parents divorced, so life with Mom in those years was pretty difficult.  At that point, she had written a song she called ‘I’m Lost Again,’ and she wanted to hear it with some background harmony.  So I sat down with her, and I would repeat the title line after she had sung it.  I think that, in that moment, my mother realized that I could sing and I realized how much I enjoyed singing.  She wrote a few more songs, and I would sing along with her on those as well.  Later we would settle onto the tailgate of the truck and sing in front of small, casual crowds…we were like the Young Judds.”

DW:  When did music move beyond that level?

ANW:  “In the summer of 2012, we threw our daughter’s graduation party here at the house, and quite a few ‘pickers’ came to it.  So later that night we all ended up in the driveway jamming away.  I remember thinking the next morning how happy I was, and that was a moment when I appreciated how much I had enjoyed singing.  It turned out that one man had forgotten his guitar strap, and when he came over to pick it up he brought a friend with him.  We ended up playing again for hours.  When they stopped by the second time, they asked me to join them in a festival they were playing in Mooresville.  At first I was hesitant.  Playing among friends is one thing, but in front of all those people was different.  But they talked me into it, and I still remember how strange it was getting paid to play.”

DW:  After this initial public performance, you took time off to help your husband start a new business.  Were you completely disconnected from music at that time?

ANW:  “No.  I had been going to Ralph Ed’s open mic night in Plainfield.  I would be standing in the back of the room but Ralph would always encourage me to step up to the mike.  I hated it.  I absolutely hated it…being plugged in, the microphone in front of me, sitting in front of those people.  I always thought to myself, ‘Why can’t I play here the way I do in my own kitchen?’  But I used the experience to get over that hangup and get more comfortable on the stage.”

DW:  What else helped you change that?

ANW:  “Months later I ran into a buddy from those open mic nights at a wedding, and he ended up inviting me to sit in with his group, CPR.  He was also a songwriter, and we enjoyed playing each other’s work.  He pressed me to play with his band at Zydeco’s, in Mooresville, and a few weeks after that I learned that the owner was looking for me.  She asked me if I would play a Saturday night for her, and at first I turned her down…told her I couldn’t sing by myself…told her I didn’t have the right equipment.  When I told my husband he said, ‘It’s now or never.’  So I set up at Zydeco’s and plugged in the old dusty amp I had bought when I was 19 years-old.  When I think back on it, how the owner reached out to me, I’m still blown away by that.”

DW:  Who else stepped in and helped you develop musically?

ANW:  “One of the biggest influences was Marvin Parish.  He is definitely to be credited for helping me come out of my shell.  He’s the most fabulous guitar player I have ever had the honor to play with.  He’s a rock-and-roller…I’m a country girl, but he was always willing to sit down and play with me and work with me.”

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DW:  And you spoke earlier of your mother.  Did you father play some role in your story?

ANW:  “My dad always loved to hear me sing, and always told me I was going to do something with my music.  We had a checkered past, because he wasn’t often in my life when I was young.   We got past that, as kids and their parents do when they grow older.  When he was dying I pretty much lived at his place taking care of him, and wrote him a song for Christmas.  It was based on my favorite moment with him when I was a girl.”

DW:  Which was?

ANW:  “It was the Blizzard of ’78 and he and I were on a stroll when we stumbled upon this rabbit, frozen to the ground.  I was crying, and he scooped him off the ground, told me that everything would be alright, and took him to the house with us.  He told me he would thaw him out, and he even put him on the furnace.  I kept getting out of bed that night to check on it, and finally I got up, and the rabbit was gone.  I danced around happily because, in my mind, the rabbit had lived and had gone back out to the woods.  My dad just loved that song.”

DW:  What is your songwriting process like?  Do you follow a routine? Start with lyrics or melody?

ANW:  “There’s no specific rhyme or reason to my songwriting process.  That said, usually it all starts with a phrase or comment that I say, or that I hear someone else say…and it sticks with me.  After a really bad night caring for my dad, I was talking to mom, and I told her that I had ‘smoked a cup of coffee and drank my last cigarette.’  Soon as I uttered the words, I knew I had a song on my hands.  Sometimes the phrase hits me, and the whole process stops there.  I’ll write it down and maybe come back to it…maybe not.  Other times, such as the case with this one, the first lines leads the next and so forth.  As soon as I hung up the phone with mom, the second line hit me…then the third.  Very rarely does any of this come with a melody.  But usually, by the time I’ve finished writing the song lyrically, I can sense that, ‘This is an A-minor song…this one’s a darker song, an E-minor…or this one is classic country: G, C, and B…’  So I kind of have an idea for what I want for the sound of the song once I’ve reached that point.  But it’s on very rare occasions that I write the lyrics with the melody…those are gifts.”

I’m always listening, and I’m easily inspired when I hear something clever. Photo by Thomas Dove
I’m always listening, and I’m easily inspired when I hear something clever.
Photo by Thomas Dove

DW:  The first time I saw you play was at an early evening songwriters showcase at DePauw University last March.  What is it like to play in that setting as opposed to playing in a bar?

ANW:  “I love that.  I live for it.  I was just recently playing a house concert for my promoter, and I just live for opportunities like that.  Not all of those pay like a bar concert would, but boy are they so fulfilling.  That moment when you’re playing to a listening crowd…which is not exactly what you get in the bar scene.  I put so much of myself into my songs, and I have this collection of them that I know would touch people and speak to them.  They’re personal, and I know that this makes them more relatable to people because when you share those difficult experiences in life, you can see people connecting with that…realizing that the troubles they’re going through are not exclusive to them.  And in a bar…I can’t share all of those songs in that setting.”

DW:  Do you prefer to play your own work?  Do you enjoy covers, or are they a necessary concession you have to make?

ANW:  “You sometimes find yourself hanging out with songwriters who don’t want to play anything but their own stuff.  And I’m to a point now…some three years into this…where I’ve decided that nothing will ever trump my gut instinct.  Once I used to let people make me feel bad if I wanted to play a cover, but I finally reached that point where…this is my gig.  If I want to play Waylon, Hank, Willie, Cash, Angela Norris White, Patsy Cline, or even Prince…then that’s what I’m going to play, and all of it is going to be my show.  For me, that’s what works.  I’m not playing the same sort of covers that a lot of other people are playing.  Mine go a bit farther back, and I think that’s what makes me a bit more unique.”

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DW:  Prince?  Really…that’s an interesting choice given your repertoire.

ANW:  “I was in Brownsburg, and I saw an acoustic Prince cover which blew me away.  He was a young kid—he didn’t look old enough to be in a bar—and when I talked to him after his gig, I told him I was going to home and learn a Prince song.  Within a few hours I could hear my own version of ‘Purple Rain’ in my head.  So I sat down and worked it out.  My husband comes out of the shower and says, ‘that’s the first time I’ve ever really listened to that song.’  And then I’ll be damned if Prince didn’t die, and now everyone wants to play that song.  It’s the same thing which happened with ‘Wagon Wheel.’ I had a good take on it, and it was my number one requested tune. But Darrius Rucker ruined it.”

As I closed my notebook, I turned to her with a standard question: “Is there anything you would like to say which I failed to ask?”  Smiling she repositioned Lexie Girl and told me she wanted to end the interview with a song.

ANW:  “I had recently lost my father-in-law to cancer, which was painful enough in itself, but it also brought back memories of losing my dad a few years ago.  Well, my father-in-law underwent radiation and chemo, and endured a miserable quality of life in those final weeks.  He basically sat in a chair and withered away into nothing.  His grandfather was a preacher who used to host tent revivals and such, which is an example of how deep faith runs in our families.  In one of the last conversations I had with him I asked, ‘Kevin, if you could go anywhere in the world, and sickness wasn’t an issue, where would you go?’  He grew up on the Mississippi and said, ‘I would go to the river and watch her roll on by.’ 

Then, close to the end of his life, he told us that he had talked to his late son, who had died of liver cancer years earlier.  He announced that Cory had told him they were going on a journey to a place that was very blue.  Some of the family thought he was hallucinating due to the morphine, but I understood this as a spiritual matter.  So one night, when I was driving home after midnight from a gig, the melody for the song I’m about to play hit me.  And it wasn’t three hours later that we got the call telling us Kevin had passed away.  I knew it that moment, that this song was a gift.”

Listening to White sing “Watch the River Roll By,” I found my thoughts returning to that notion she has so gracefully made peace with: the idea that there’s no use fighting what life throws at us.  The trick she’s mastered, the lesson she shares with anyone who is really listening to her work is that trying to hold onto the moment in its tangible form is a waste of time which does little more than create a missed opportunity.  No, instead White reminds us that the best thing to do is live the moment.  Live it up completely.  And when the time comes to hang onto it, it’s the less-tangible ways—a song, a painting, or a memory behind a pair of closed eyelids—which not only preserves the moment but allows us to fully live it again, time after time.

“Watch the River Roll By (Live)” Angela Norris White

About Donovan Wheeler

Wheeler proudly teaches AP Literature and AP Language to some bright and lovably obnoxious kids in a small college town. He is the senior editor for the craft beer website Indiana on Tap and writes for ISU’s STATE Magazine. Since putting in a pool he can now dive in head first (with goggles), and he has mostly stopped throwing golf clubs, but he still hates to fly.

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