Midweek Music Break: Jack White and Margo Price, “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet)”

Jack WhiteThe White Stripes’ music never appealed to me. And I haven’t followed Jack White’s career much otherwise. But he keeps popping up on my radar anyhow, and in the back of my mind I’m Margo Pricepretty sure my inattention is hurting me more than him. My disregard (so to speak) stems almost entirely from media classification of the Stripes’ music; garage-rock is usually the label applied. And I’ve just never taken to other garage-rock performers, and I think, y’know, Why would the White Stripes be any different?

Wikipedia‘s classification of the White Stripes cites not only garage rock, but blues rock, alternative rock, punk blues, post-punk revival, and garage punk as the duo’s genre. I can’t even wrap my head around some of those genres.

But White himself is regularly said to be an aficionado and practitioner of old-time music: country, folk, straight blues… (Favorites of mine, all.) Furthermore, critics claim to hear those influences when discussing the White Stripes’ music.

So much for my critical acuity, eh?

White has appeared here at RAMH once before, as a featured performer (among Dylan, Levon Helm, Sheryl Crow, et al.) on the compilation/homage/archaeological-project of an album called The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams. Of course, Hank Williams’s own bona fides as an icon of Americana music — even from the mouths and instruments of rock, pop, and (yes) garage-rock icons — don’t need any evidence from this quarter. And now there’s very recent evidence that I’m missing a good bet in continuing to ignore Jack White: his appearance a few nights ago on Prairie Home Companion: dueting with country-music star Margo Price.

But consider that duet further: the song they performed, and which (of course) I’d never heard, comes from the White Stripes’ 2005 album Get Behind Me Satan.

As rendered by White, Price, and their backing musicians, it’s about non-garage-rock as one can imagine, right down to the mandolin, fiddle, and bass accompaniment. Even the soul of the song is Americana: a broken heart, family relationships (even hinting, ever-so-carefully, at incest), a touch of wistful wry humor…

Just as a sanity check, I spent several hours’ research looking into others’ reactions to the song, not just as performed on PHC but from its first appearance on the Stripes album. Probably ninety per cent of the results returned were (unsurprisingly) simple lyrics, or MP3 downloads, with no discussion of the song itself; most of the others were just casual mentions (especially of the PHC performance). But here’s a selection of the rest, in no particular order:

  • Reddit: discussion of the song and this specific performance (“Meet Your Theme Song…”)
  • The New Yorker: “The Gift & the Curse: Jack White’s Vexing Brilliance” (“…surely written by Hank Williams… White delivers the kind of compressed and restrained pain that country songwriters spend years trying to perfect”)
  • NME review: “The White Stripes: Get Behind Me Satan” (“a rousing waltz which… Loretta Lynn would have no problem singing”)
  • Slant Magazine: (ditto) (“steeped in heartbroken ‘woe is me’ wordplay but delivered with a solemn sincerity that tells you that Jack ain’t playin'”)
  • The Fader: “The White Stripes Want Truth, Romance and Beauty for a Fallen America” (“a straightforward country-soul-‘n’-gospel ballad on the piano, and Jack almost whispers the third verse”)
  • Baeble Music Blog: Time Capsule, on “The White Stripes ‘Get Behind Me Satan'” (“a piano-heavy, bluesy, stubborn lament, lacking a home yet too proud to look for one”)
  • Google Books: Jack White: How He Built an Empire From the Blues (by Nick Hasted) (“…straightforwardly comic. But the last verse’s barely audible murmur ends with a near-suicide in a river”)

And here, finally, is the video of White’s and Price’s performance on Prairie Home Companion (link to the full lyrics below):

[Video courtesy of Prairie Home Companion; lyrics here.]

And finally, if you’d like, you can listen to the White Stripes’ own version of “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet”) here.

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Addendum: I should also mention the Dwight Yoakam song, “Ain’t That Lonely Yet.” [Video with lyrics here.] It appeared on Yoakam’s 1993 album This Time, and Yoakam’s performance won a Grammy as Best Male Country Vocal Performance. So far, I haven’t seen any evidence that the two songs are related (aside from their titles and the basic message — the tones are very different); no one else seems to have made the possible connection. However, I have found evidence that the two songs can be confused. (Ha.)

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Midweek Music Break: Jack White, “You Know That I Know”

Hank Williams fell off this mortal coil, unconscious in the back seat of a Cadillac, on New Year’s Day, 1953. (You can read the story of that ride here.) Not even 30 years old, he left in his wake a trail of hits which almost single-handedly remade the standard by which country-music songwriting would be judged.

But his songs’ story didn’t end there. Aside from their gazillion cover versions to follow, he was also survived by a clutch of handwritten but unfinished lyrics, left behind in that Cadillac and recovered by police at the scene. Somehow those sheets of paper found their way into a dumpster outside the offices of Sony/ATV Music Publishing, where they were discovered by a janitor. After a little legal rough-and-tumble (you can probably imagine), they ended up in the hands of Bob Dylan.

I’ve seen debates whether anyone at all should have attempted to finish these songs. Some comments have questioned whether Dylan should have been that someone. Maybe he anticipated these arguments; maybe he also felt that even his large, multitude-containing self couldn’t contain Hank Williams. In any case, Dylan himself finished and recorded only one, turning the rest over to an interesting handful of collaborators: Jakob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Norah Jones, Sheryl Crowe, Levon Helm, Hank Williams’s granddaughter Holly Williams, Lucinda Williams (unrelated), Alan Jackson, Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell, Patty Loveless, and irrepressible indie chameleon Jack White. The result: a recently released album, The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams.

Williams is often regarded as a troubadour of heartbreak music, based on songs like “Cold, Cold Heart” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” But he also injected into some of his tunes a healthy shot of wry-and-bitters — witness, for instance, “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” Witness, for another instance, Jack White’s interpretation of “You Know That I Know” on the Lost Notebooks album.

White’s take springs, obviously, from the original (a fragment of which appears at top left of this post). He set it all to a whimsical swinging rhythm, filled in the gaps in the lyrics, and — well, listen for yourself.

[Below, click Play button to begin You Know That I Know. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 3:53 long.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Lyrics (this very generous transcription courtesy of children’s author and music aficionado Brenda Hollyer; read her own post about the song here):

You Know That I Know
(Hank Williams/Jack White)

Now you know that I know
That you ain’t no good
And you wouldn’t tell the truth
Even if you could
Lying is a habit
You practice wherever you go
And you may fool the rest of this world
But you know that I know

Now you told some of my friends
That you turned me down
But I wouldn’t take you
If you’re the last gal in town
If I had a-wanted you
I could have got you long ago
You may fool the rest of this world
But you know that I know

So baby when you pass me
Don’t you give me the run-around
’Cos if you recall correctly
I’m the guy that brought you to town
To some folks you may be
Mrs So-and-So
But don’t turn your nose up at me
’Cos you know that I know

The last time I saw you
Your pretty hair was red
But today I see you’ve got
Black hair on your head
You say you’ve got you a new man
With plenty of dough
But baby you may fool him
But you know that I know

So baby when you pass me
Don’t you give me the run-around
’Cos if you recall correctly
I’m the man that brought you to town
To some folks you may be
Mrs So-and-So
But baby you may fool them
But you know that I know

Yes you may fool the rest of this world
But you know that I know

Williams’s music is covered in what appears to be an idiosyncratic tome from Harvard University Press (!) called A New Literary History of America, specifically in an essay, “The Song in Country Music,” by Dave Hickey. I haven’t read the essay, and the book’s contents aren’t visible via Google Books or Amazon preview. But that essay — especially its appreciation of Hank Williams’s songwriting — is quoted widely. One place to see the relevant passage: writer Maud Newton’s blog, in a post from 2009.

And what the heck, now that I’ve mentioned it… here’s “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” too (no cover or “interpretation” this time: from the man himself):

[Below, click Play button to begin Your Cheatin’ Heart. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 2:44 long.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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Update: Here’s a “making-of” mini-documentary about the album:

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