Originating in the 19th century, “Beulah Land” is a popular gospel song based on the biblical reference of Israel. It’s a hymn that Alabama singer-songwriter John Paul White grew up hearing (his dad’s side of the family is Southern Baptist), and one that sparked a familial namesake.
“My dad called my little sister Beulah as a term of endearment and I noticed that I do it, too, with my daughter and with my wife,” White explains. “It’s just another way of saying ‘honey.’”
Beulah is also a term unique to the world of William Blake, one of White’s favorite poets.
“He was a very spiritual guy and he had his own little mythology for what he believed, and one of the things that he did believe was that there was a place that you could escape to through meditation—a place you could go to heal and to re-center to just relax and get your life back together,” White says. “And then you had to come back to earth. You couldn’t stay there. It wasn’t heaven; it was just a little place, a little oasis.”
It was Blake’s usage of the word that inspired the title for Beulah, White’s solo album that came out in August.
“There’s no better term for the process I’ve been going through and how these records were born, and what state they were born in, than that,” he says.
White’s referring to the quiet years he’s spent since the dissolution of The Civil Wars, the celebrated harmonious duo he formed with singer Joy Williams. Once the pair called it quits in 2013, White returned home to Florence, Alabama, to recharge and focus on his family.
“I was so blissfully happy at home being husband and dad and also label owner and studio owner that when [these songs] started popping into my head, I really wanted to ignore them because I knew that once I wrote them, I’d have to record them,” he says. “And as soon as I did, all I could think about was playing them for other people and wondering what their reaction would be, if they would connect with it.”
Just as White couldn’t resist these songs, they also beckon to the listener. Part swamp, part twang, and all soul, they’re sonic enchantments woven together by White’s hypnotic acoustic guitar. Released on Single Lock Records, the label he co-founded with Ben Tanner of Alabama Shakes and local businessman Will Trapp, he split the recording process between Single Lock Records studios and the legendary Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, where he grew up. It’s an area steeped in a storied musical tradition, known for producing its own distinct sound and caliber of artists—some of whom make up the rhythm section on the record.
“When I was coming up through the ranks…that was the level that you had to come to to be able to get a job around here,” he says. “So I always had that bar set, which was a really great thing for me as a musician. But these guys all became my close friends and heroes and confidants and they’ve all been extremely supportive of what my generation and the generation behind me is doing and they’re all very proud and we’re proud to carry on the legacy.”
An allegiance to his roots combined with a tendency to stay humble is quintessential to White’s approach to music, as evidenced on his latest single “What’s So.”
“The way that I was always raised is you know don’t put on airs, don’t act like you’re better than anybody else,” he says. “Any time that I would have some sort of success, I’d always just kind of ‘aw shucks’ it away…And I’m still kind of that guy and I’m okay with that.”