TLR Interview: Drake White – innovator and creator

Drake White on stage at TLR
Drake White headlined the Interstate on Friday night at The Long Road

For the final gig of his UK tour, Drake White headlined TLR’s Interstate stage on Friday night and, judging by social media, he made plenty of new fans along the way.

We spoke to him a few hours before he took to the stage, to find out just how special his return to these shores has been, and what he has planned for the future.

First things first, I asked him just how much fun he’s been having since he cracked off at Millport Country Music Festival, and what the response from UK audiences has meant to him.

It’s been amazing, you know, I’ve always had desires and been a nomadic spirit so coming over here has always been my plan. We embarked on those plans early 2014/15 when we came here for the first time.

To go through what we’ve been through and then come out the other side, not knowing if that was ever going to happen, or if I was going to walk again, much less play and sing and get to travel. I had made some really good friends over here and I love these fans. I was, you know, sad, that I had stuff lined up in Australia and here, I had to get through that mentally and it wasn’t easy, so I’m pretty proud of the fact that me and my family and my band, we got through it.

I think the absence of not being here, I have really, really felt the fans at the shows. And yes, they’ve sung every word of every song, but it has felt genuine when I’m shaking their hands and looking them in the eye and they’re saying ‘we’re so glad you’re back’.

That’s life-giving you know and it helps me. I talked about that purpose, that purpose was to get back to the stage after a massive haemorrhagic stroke that could have – and probably should have – killed me.

But by the grace of God I was saved, I’m here to do something and that’s to help other people and to serve these fans and that’s what I’m going to do. So to feel them reciprocate that love and go ‘you helped me through that’; with the barn shows; or coming back and proving you can do this without a big label deal or something like that, it’s just we’re doing it on our own. And I’m doing it for others, it’s bigger than I am.

My favourite thing has been seeing those fans, seeing my guys have these experiences. I love Thai food, we ate at a great Thai restaurant, just watching them…for some of them it’s their first time to be overseas. They’re young and they came up to me and said thank you so much for bringing me over here, so it’s been pretty special.

You were meant to have some time off last week but you were in London and popped up at Nashville Meets London and did Hurts the Healing. You can’t keep away…

I got some good sleep and yeah…what else are we going to do. I like to be around people, I recharge being alone, I love to be in the woods, or on the creek or on the lake or whatever, but I love talking to people.

I got to talk to Ruthie Collins, I had a beautiful conversation with her, one of my dear friends is Sarah Darling. It was good to meet Priscilla, I’d never met her. And seeing Sam Palladio….me and Sam and his girlfriend Cassadee are good friends. I just love the camaraderie of it.

Drake’s ongoing recovery from his brain injury in August 2019 has been well-documented and he is very open and honest about just how hard that struggle has been. What is perhaps less well known is that his wife Alex – a veritable tower of strength to him – also suffered her own ill health problems. And, as they were both working towards recovery they also faced rebuilding both the team around them and the challenges of putting their Whitewood Hollow events venue on the map.

I had to rebuild my team completely, from the ground up. I’ve got a line in Hurts the Healing that says ‘In that midnight cold sweat, shaking’, and there was a lot of that. You just surrender, you realise you can’t control any of it, I know I’m meant to do this, so it feels amazing to come back and finally come through and everything always works out, it really does. It’s hard to hear that and if somebody had have told me that, I would have probably have punched them in the face ‘cos it didn’t seem as if it would work out.

When you’re having to have help, my mum and her (Alex’s) mum had to move in for a period of time. I was paralysed, Alex had type 1 diabetes that triggered an auto immune disorder that paralysed her, so we were both just ripped. And you know how energetic we were.

We had just built that barn (Whitewood Hollow), we were trying to have a family and it was just like what is going on…the label, management, everybody left… I think the Maker – you know what an Etchasketch is – it was literally like the Etchasketch had gone (a brushing motion).

Sometimes I get frustrated, it’s just like you have to start all over and remind people hey, we’ve been in Europe, we started something here, we had something really, really good, we are worth something in Europe. You have to get the Mark Hagens and the Bob Harris’ to come in and say ‘oh yeah, we want to have him…’.

Did you feel you have to prove you’re stronger than you were before. Your voice and your presence on Monday (London gig at Islington Assembly Hall) was phenomenal, the energy…

Yeah, there is something that’s happened you know, I love playing guitar, I can’t do that right now. I can play some power chords and I do. This hand, at first, I was self-conscious about that because when you’ve been playing since you were 12-13 years old, it becomes a bit of a shield.

And so, I didn’t have my shield and I was like, well, I’m just gonna walk out there with it and that will create brain passageways and help my brain to heal and my hand to heal, so that’s what I’ve started doing and…you know, you’ve just got to – not reinvent yourself – but go out there and I’ve chose to focus on what I do have and not what I don’t. I’ve got this….

I go about four-six hours a week with some type of physical therapy. You know with brain injuries, it takes time…I’ll never quit repairing and getting better, it’s just part of my life now. I came a long way.

The WNT sessions are available on YouTube

Drake’s Wednesday Night Therapy (WNT) sessions during the pandemic from the couple’s Whitewood Hollow barn, connected him with fans worldwide and he says they meant something really special.

Oh yeah, that was built out of necessity. I just wanted to do it, I wanted to play, to sing, I feel like that’s my purpose and when you’re going through something like as tumultuous as we did, you have to just grab on to that purpose and say ‘you know what’ I got something to look forward to and that’ll be Wednesday in the barn, and you guys showed up and it was great. We did 80 weeks in a row.

Regular viewers to his social media will also know that Drake likes to support US troops by visiting them overseas to play gigs. We wanted to know if, because of what he has been through, that helps him empathise with some of their experiences.

Yeah, it gives me the authority a little bit, and I’m getting into that, some speaking engagement type of stuff, we did the TedX talk, which was great.

A soldier battling PTSD, he or she can’t really talk to somebody that’s never been through war or through something…I didn’t know if I was going to walk again, I talked with multiple people on how I dealt with that mentally, because that’s what PTSD is. It’s in your head, it’s mental, and you have to battle those battles in between your ears.

I’ve always been optimistic and that gets an eye roll every now and then from a sceptic or a pessimistic, because they’re like ‘who is this kid who’s full of energy and jumping around all over the stage, telling me tomorrow is going to be better than today. He doesn’t feel my pain and anger, he doesn’t know that I have cancer and my guts are rotting out, he doesn’t know that I can’t walk or my wife cheated on me or left me, he doesn’t know that my pension’s busted to nothing and I don’t have any insurance….’.

I have realised that everybody has something they are going through, and this has taught me to be more emphatic towards mankind and you can’t just tough it all out.

Drake’s The Big Fire band has been through its own changes, Dylan and Preston have moved on and Seth and Graham have joined as more recent recruits. We asked Drake if, when that happens, the music evolves too.

Dylan is still part of The Big Fire you know. He is still my brother, everybody is going through something and you never know what a man is going through.

There are some bands, I understand, that stay together for like 30 years, but my door is open. I didn’t like that Dylan had to leave, that Preston chose to go another route; but being resilient is something I’ve been learning to do and it just means God has got something else for you, somebody else you will influence or who will influence you.

The Big Fire is a family and all the people that have been in it, all the way back to Phil and Adam, those guys, they are part of The Big Fire family and when I’m playing Wembley Stadium and Madison Square Gardens, they will be part of that. They are part of the marrow that helped me get to my places and when we feed over a million people and when we build over 100,000 houses they will be part of that journey.

Drake White The Optimystic
The Optimystic – Drake White’s latest album

It’s been a hell of a year so far. You’ve had The Optimystic tour in the US, you’ve supported Whiskey Myers, you had the new album out, you’re touring here, what comes next?

I’m about to go into the studio with my really good buddy Jonathan Singleton. We’ve been friends for 15 years, and he’s a good southern dude that gets what I want to do.

I’m going to go in and record a record that is going to be my sound – that Appalachian soul, country, funky blues thing – and I’m just going to step into it. We’ll continue to tour and look for where the opportunities go and continue to tell this story.

I want to write a book about it, we want to produce a documentary called Hurts the Healing, like a Netflix-type thing. We want to do a children’s book, me and Alex want to have a family, we want to start a whiskey company, I’m going to do a lot of hunting and fishing.

With music, the sky’s the limit. We’ve got new management. I am from Alabama and I am country, so my words are gonna come out country, but we play all different kinds of music – whether it be funk or soul, or rhythm ‘n’ blues even.

I think there’s a renaissance coming of real music and you’re seeing it and I really feel I am just at the beginning. I think why would God have brought me through that if he didn’t have something massive planned on the other side.

I can feel – and it’s not my ego, I have no ego any more, it gets stripped when my wife is having to help me wipe my ass – your ego is gone, so it’s like I can feel something massive coming. I don’t know what that is. It’s in this music, but me and Jonathan are going to produce a great record and we’re going to tour the shit out of it and come out here and keep loving all these people and keep putting the fans first.

So does that mean coming back to the UK soon?

Absolutely, I would love to. I would love to come to Europe during Christmas time.

You mention new management and that’s the WHY&HOW team, what appealed about working with them?

I’ve been working with them about a year or year and a half. Bruce Kalmick (CEO and founder) is an innovator and I need innovation. I have so many ideas, I do this every day because I’m in love with the process.

I love to write, I love the thought of owning clothing lines, whiskey lines, I love the thought of build a fire, change a tyre, helping kids realise their passion. I love the motivational speaking aspect of what I want to do.

I just spit out eight things, I have so many ideas it takes a special day-to-day top manager and a hungry manager to be able to do that. And I think Bruce and WHY&HOW have that hunger. You’ve got to innovate, no-one is going to go out there and do it for you, you have to go out there and create, and do it because you love it. ‘Cos that’s what we do.

Are you talking to labels or do you see yourself remaining as an independent artist?

You know, if the right deal comes along, absolutely. It’s all about partners and people enriching the songs and the art and the music. If they can do that….(but) I’m not signing a traditional 360 85/15 record deal, that would be crazy…we’ve had opportunities to go and get record deals.

There’s something that God’s doing that he did to me, he just told me you can do it on your own. He said all you need is me and the ability that I gave you so. So, where it would help my pride, it would probably be more comfortable if I signed and they took some of the financial burden…I can go and make money any day, it comes and goes like the wind.

I just want to be confident that tomorrow is going to be better than today and right now, I’m enjoying being independent. I just want to release a lot of music.

I’m not one of those people that’s like ‘oh, independent, I don’t want to mess with the machine or whatever’, the music industry is a bit crazy but it has been good to me at times and I’m good with that.

That seems like the perfect note to end on, Drake White, thank you.

Alison Dewar and Drake White
Six Shooter Country’s Alison Dewar with Drake White at TLR

Keep up with Drake at www.drakewhite.com

All TLR photos: Craig Dewar

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