Jim White is used to thinking on his feet. He spent most of his youth grifting his way through a series of odd jobs, including fashion model in Milan, New York City taxi driver and professional surfer. He graduated from New York University’s film school, grew depressed and became a professional musician, which did not help the depression.
But he kept dodging and weaving, looking for ways to express his singular aesthetic to a public he felt certain was out there. White, 55, is an outsider artist, whether he’s writing, making music, taking photos or creating art from found objects. His enduring perspective, always from the fringes and wholly evocative of a time and place of his own design, is filled with a skewed but vibrant humanity.
White has released seven albums, made a film and been the subject of two gallery showings, and is a published essayist. He also cannot pay his bills. Stellar reviews and faithful fans, when in smallish numbers, do not generate much income, especially when the music business continues to break down.
“I looked at my income level recently and was stunned to find out that I’m qualified to live in poverty,” he said, adding a dark chuckle. “That kind of made my head spin. It’s an interesting place to be at 55, but I know guys who have worked at factories for 20 years and they’re in the same position. I’m a little more resourceful than them because I’ve been living hand to mouth all these years.”
White’s music traces a path through the stranger parts of town, merging qualities of experimentation with Southern-splashed Americana. A musician with his resume and critical weight could once count on being thrown a few bones, but the days when Warner Bros. records went out searching for fringe artists is gone. Records aren’t selling in the same numbers as even 10 years ago, when a handful of multiplatinum acts could bankroll a label.
The irony, as White sees it, is that there is more and better music floating around than ever before. It has never been easier for bands to record an album at home, release it on a small label or simply online, and then take to the road. It’s also incredibly easy for anyone with Internet access to hear White’s music without him getting any meaningful compensation. Last month, his song “Ghost Town of My Brain” was streamed 8,100 times on Pandora — and he made 47 cents.
So more opportunities doesn’t always mean better opportunities.
“You remember when Americana consisted of, like, 15, 20 bands? And now there’s 15,000, and they’re all pretty good,” White said. “At least twice on this tour, I’ve had people open for me who were better than me, and they were completely unknown. It used to be one out of 20 opening bands were any good. So something is going on, and it’s great for the listener, but it’s hard for the middle-class musicians. The road is just flooded with great bands, and they’re all saying the same thing. They just don’t know what to do.”
White is on the road now, touring behind two new records, and performs tonight at Uncle Slayton’s. One album, “Where It Hits You,” was released domestically, and the other, “Sounds of the Americans,” in the United Kingdom. Both are excellent.
He figures to break even on this tour, which is a win, but he has a family and rent. So what’s a man to do? Everything, pretty much. White has interest in a book of essays he’s finishing, called “Incidental Contact,” and last year sold $2,000 worth of art. He’s begun producing other artists, too, in a small home studio, and enjoys that.
He’s thought about retiring from music, but anyone who has released two good albums within a year of each other can’t do that.
“A lot of people I know have quit, and I’m thinking about it,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out a way to stay in a business where I enjoy what I’m doing. It’s all about cobbling things together at this point. You’ve gotta get your flashlight out and look in the corners.”