Based in the wonderfully named town of Poetry, Texas, when I reviewed White’s 2021 debut I said it was a good bet for the album of the year lists. Well, history repeats itself now with this fine and at times deeply personal follow-up, Even Better On The Bad Days, which features several co-writes, four with Helene Cronin who also provides harmonies on some of the tracks.
The result of a songwriting session with Ben Roberts and Adam Wheeler, the album opens in solid style with the piano, banjo and resonator guitar backed ‘Pulling Weeds’, a slow march rhythm that ebbs and flows on a song about putting yourself in order (“anything that chokes the life outta who I wanna be/gonna plant new seeds/but first things first/get my hands down in this dirt/‘fore the roots get too deep/I’m pulling weeds”) and saying “goodbye fear, goodbye doubt, and things I can’t do a thing about/goodbye guilt, goodbye shame, it’s time I make a little space and say hello to grace”.
Holding on to grace and innocence is at the heart of ‘Hope You Never Do’, a folksier pedal steel streaked co-write with Eric Erdman and Radney Foster that stemmed from the one of the latter’s kids remarking “Dad, I don’t even know what it’s like to ball up my fist to hit someone” and his father replying “I hope you never do”. That’s the underlying sentiment of doing the right things and never finding yourself taking compromised short cuts to solving things (“You can make an extra hundred if you cut a couple corners and no one will know but you…You can drown in the bottom of a Kentucky bottle ‘stead of asking for help/Skip the I’m sorry’s and blame everybody ‘stead of owning it yourself/Slam down the phone on the only one with the stones to tell you the truth/but I hope ya never do”), the message being “sometimes you make choices boy/but sometimes they make you”.
A solo composition, lightly strummed with a handclap rhythm ‘God Is Good’ is rawly personal. Written on April 2, 2021, just a week or so after his second oldest brother Daniel, suffering from dementia, passed and the same day he learnt his remaining brother, Kirk, wasn’t going to make it, dying two days later on his 72nd. It’s a song that mingles grief and praise as it reflects on his own life, a survivor of domestic abuse (“Daddy drank a fifth every morning just to stop shaking…Beat my mama half to death while she was pregnant …Doc told her that baby boy might not be alright …But here I am 55 years in to a pretty sweet life”), of how “Mama had a stroke when I was right outta high school …I took care of her and my brother cuz somebody had to”, of suicidal thoughts (“One night I thought about running my truck into a tree”) and unintended pregnancy (“I was just dating this girl when we made a baby…I remember thinking that’s it my whole life is wasted”). You might think that repeating the phrase ‘God is good’ after each mention is bitterly ironic but in fact it’s a statement of faith (“Turns out He had a plan my church eyes couldn’t see”), White emerging from the darkness and finding salvation (“That’s when I went looking for Jesus just to find out he was already looking for me”) and his belief that “God is good on the good days, even better on the bad days” as it builds to a gospel choir finale.
The first of the Cronin co-writes, Ross Holmes on fiddle and Dave Brainard on dobro, the quietly aching ‘People’ started out cynical but ended up as a celebration of the human spirit (“Fragile as a dandelion weed strong as skyscraper steel/Been scraped up from the dust of the earth shaped like clay on the Potter’s wheel”), of the differences that form us (“We’re story tellers, and ocean crossers, belly laughers, baby makers and moonwalkers/So many kinds of different, so many ways the same”) and the complications of our lives (“Always wanting more than what we got but scared to let go of what we have/All walking down a road that won’t make sense til we’re there and looking back/born to stand out in a crowd and dying to fit in”), in short “Such a mess but so beautiful”.
That positivity also anchors ‘Keeper’, another Cronin collaboration but here with Victoria Rudd on harmonies, a simple love song for his wife Brenda who “keeps me honest as an Alan Jackson song… keeps my demons away from the places they hurt/She keeps me humble like the grace I don’t deserve/She keeps her foot on the pedal, don’t let up when I lose my nerve/She keeps holdin’ me till the lonely crumbles off my soul like dirt”. Mind you, I’m not sure what she might think of him singing about their sex life – “She keeps me wanting her til my thirst is crawl across the desert strong then she keeps me up, keeps me up, keeps me up all night long”.
Their third co-write, this time in tandem with Lisa Carver, ‘Not The Year’ was born from spending two days stuck in a snowstorm on a mountain in New Mexico, spurred by a conversation that became the opening line “What if you were told on the day you were born/the day would you would die just not the year?/Would it make you think would it make you change what you push away, what you pull near?”, the song unfolding into a musing on what you do with the time you’ve been given (“Would it be a birthday party or would you wear black?/Would you spend the day looking up or looking back?/Would you beg would you pray would you try to be brave for the ones you love and if you weren’t would you let it show?”). Of course, there’s an upside to knowing your allotted span and you can “take any damn chance you wanna take the other 364 days”.
Written with John Baumann not long after White lost his brothers, Brainard on piano and Carole Rabinowitz playing cello, ‘Small World’ returns to a theme of family history and loss in the passing years It opens with a childhood memory (“There were nineteen of us in that Olan Mills photograph/everybody say cheese on the count of three in Mrs Yates first grade class/all of us boys were thick as thieves, knew we’d always be/By senior day some moved away and some just drifted off/I got a picture of the last six of us stuck up on my wall/just a couple of ‘em now ever even come around”) and moving to recollections of discovering a newspaper photo while sorting through Daniel’s house that had five generations of Nolands (the brothers had different fathers), starting with him as an infant prompting the line “Now my grandpa’s only been gone for a week and my great grandaddy passed away in ‘93/my old man’s still here I pray to God we get 20 more years”, the final verse recalling his wedding (“Must be 300 people here tonight but I swear when you came down the aisle in that angel white they all disappeared, it’s just me and you here”. The refrain is full of poignancy as he sings “some things ya get to keep and some ya leave behind/friends I’ve had, loves I’ve lost, bridges burned and rivers crossed/the older I get, the more I find/it’s a small world and getting smaller all the time”.
Almost inevitably, there’s a lockdown song, that being the circling figerpicked folksy notes of the summery dappled ‘Same Street’ and how it changed the way we saw things when we emerged (“some see cracks where the cement broke/some see a chance for a flower to grow/Arta sky half full of clouds, half full of sun all depends on where you’re coming from… Same world different lives/same view different eyes”).
The final Cronin co-write, she on harmony and Ross Holmes on mandolin, the gently weary ‘Just Not Today’ is again rooted in personal family history, the opening line “I don’t much like hospitals and I hate this one tonight/the last couple years of your 80 years has been a long hard ride” referring to his Downs syndrome brother Joey who, at 55, had two years of recurring pneumonia, the doctor explaining that his body was that of an 80-year-old. The last verse drawing on his final days but the lyrics replacing him with a grandfather figure, it’s a song about facing the inevitability of death but not wanting to face it yet (“you said someday when you got to heaven – you couldn’t wait/To wrap your arms around Jesus’ neck like a little boy missin’ his soldier dad/close your eyes and just soak in him huggin’ you back/to fish God’s river with your grandpa/hear grandma say “dinner’s ready y’all”/sit at the table have a cold beer with the apostle Paul/yeah I know the time is coming you’re gonna head that way/but I’m beggin’ you – just not today”).
Sweepy Walker on harmonica and Brainard adding djembe to his instruments, it ends, namechecking Dylan and Lennon and McCartney, with an ode to the magic of songwriting on the lyrically and musically upbeat slow walking sway and catchy chorus of ’12 Notes and 26 Letters’ (“It’s just a pawn shop rescue with rusty strings/Barely stays in tune, but man it sings/It’s just a blank sheet of paper, waiting on ink/and a line in your head ya got from some wake you up dream”) and how, “depending on how ya put ‘em all together/you can make somebody dance, make somebody smile/take their mind off of life for a little while/Start a revolution that’ll change the world/and if ya get it right you can get the girl/turn 3 minutes into something that’ll last forever”. As this album ably demonstrates, White puts them together just fine.
Artist’s website: www.scottseanwhite.com
‘God Is Good’ – official video: