20th Anniversary Release of Jim White's Classic Album

I just bought a 20th anniversary vinyl of one of my favorite albums of all time. A desert island album. An album with deep Pensacola roots. I love Jim White’s “Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See” from beginning to end.

20th Anniversary Release of Jim White's Classic Album
Jim White's Album "Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See"

I first discovered Jim White, and at the same time his connection to the Gulf Coast, while watching a documentary years ago called Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus. I struggled with how to categorize this movie because “documentary” doesn’t do it justice but I guess we’ll go with it because that's what wiki says. Whatever the category, it’s a dark, musical, poetic, experimental, Southern Gothic road trip through the American South with Jim as our tour guide.

I knew nothing about Jim or the movie going in and I don't remember exactly how it ended up in my hands. I do remember I discovered the Gulf Coast connection when in one scene the beat-up Chevy Impala Jim is traveling around in pulls away from the camera and I swear I see Escambia County, Florida plates. Living in Escambia County, Florida, that caught my attention so I paused and rewound the DVD a couple of times, (I did mention this was a while ago, right?) and sure enough I was right. That sent me down a rabbit hole to find out more about this man and what I found was fascinating!

Pitchfork called him an "unclassifiable Southern folk artist" and the sticker on the 20th Anniversary album release describes him as an, “Erstwhile druggie, drifter, storyteller, taxi driver, recovering Pentecostal maverick from Pensacola, Florida.” He was also a pro surfer, fashion model and signed with Talking Head’s frontman David Byrne’s record label Luaka Bop for a time. His life and adventures in Pensacola and beyond would make one hell of a biography but I’ll leave the life story to someone else. This little piece is about the music and the anniversary release of Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See.

And for the music, I’ll continue with the album sticker. The rest of it reads, “It’s the 20th anniversary of Jim White’s haunting outer space alt-country classic that has a title so long nobody can remember it.” 'Bout sums it up.

The album sticker for Jim White's 20th anniversary album release.
The Album Sticker on Jim White's 20th Anniversary Release

He’s been compared to Lucinda Williams, Danial Johnston, Vic Chestnut, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, and other somewhat eccentric artists and I can see places where some of those comparisons fit. For me though, it’s the atmosphere and the layers in his songs that draw me in. The way he uses loops, sound design and even the lyrical style at times makes me think of Jim as an alt-country Beck. That’s especially true on the first track of Drill a Hole, Static on the Radio, which he performs with singer-songwriter legend Aimee Mann. That song was later used on the closing credits for “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie”. 

Several tracks on Drill a Hole have that same atmospheric depth. Bluebird, That Girl for Brownsville Texas, and Land Called Home are dreamy stories of love and loss. But there are also tracks that up the tempo and show off his humor like Combing My Hair in a Brand New Style, If Jesus Drove a Motor Home and one of my favorites, Alabama Chrome featuring the Barenaked Ladies.

And while this album and others are fantastic, his story telling between songs in his live performances is just as compelling. The stories give us glimpses into song origins and seem to ramble and head off on wild tangents but ultimately they connect and for Pensacola people, they often included recognizable people and places. He did an episode of NPR’s Tiny Desk concerts and during the show there's a great story referencing Roy Jones Jr. set in The Coffee Cup restaurant in Pensacola while he's having breakfast with his daughter Willow. Good story on its own but better if you know the place.

(Speaking of his daughter Willow Avalon, she’s also an excellent musician. I photographed her set at Hangout Fest this year and she’s opening for Cage The Elephant on their Summer tour. But that’s a story for another day. In the meantime, here's the second track on Drill a Hole called Bluebird. A song he wrote about her.)

Jim moved to Athens, Georgia a while back but makes occasional trips to the coast. He still tours the U.S. and overseas (He's definitely a big-in-Europe kind of guy. 😄) but the closest date I've seen was a month or two ago at a festival in Tallahassee. Hopefully I'll get to hear him live soon but until then, the new vinyl of Drill a Hole while have to do. It sounds fantastic and it's a double album so we even get three bonus tracks. I’m not sure how widely available it is but I picked mine up from Revolver Records a couple of weeks ago.

It’s been great diving back into this album again. Let's roll out with one I mentioned earlier: Alabama Chrome featuring the Barenaked Ladies.