The Whites spend a lifetime making music

George Hauenstein, October 2000

Family groups have long been a staple of country music. Throughout its history, the art form has been especially fertile ground for family musical groups. The Carter Family is perhaps the earliest and most prolific of these. Today, groups like The Wilkinsons, The Kinleys and Jerry and Tammy Sullivan carry on the tradition.

Buck White and daughters, Sharon and Cheryl, otherwise known as The Whites, have enjoyed a good measure of success over the past 25 years and are back with a new album.

Originally a bluegrass outfit, The Whites have combined tight harmony singing and an acoustic-based sound resulting in Top 10 country hits like, "Hangin' Around," "Pins And Needles" and "I Wonder Who's Holding My Baby Tonight." All were in the '80's.

"When we first came to town, we were strictly an acoustic band. We had a fiddle or a banjo," says Sharon White, 46, who plays guitar.

Father Buck, 70, plays mandolin and piano while sister Cheryl, 45, plays the bass.

"We did country and folk type songs," says Sharon. "When we first started trying to get a record contract, they said we were too bluegrass, and when we were trying to get on bluegrass festivals or shows, they told us we were too country. We've always been in the middle somewhere."

As pre-pubescents, Cheryl and Sharon performed with their father on the bluegrass festival circuit. In 1971, they moved to Nashville to pursue music full time.

They debuted on vinyl as Buck White & The Down Home Folks on County in 1972 and resurfaced eight years later on Sugar Hill with "More Pretty Girls Than One."

Their first country chart song was "Send Me the Pillow You Dream On" in 1981. The next one, "You Put the Blue In Me" hit the top 10 the following year.

The Whites were off and running with a number of singles charting.

Chart success, radio airplay and a recording deal have eluded The Whites in recent years after deals with Capitol, Elektra, Warner and MCA in the '80's.

Their new project, "A Lifetime in the Making," their first since 1996's "Give a Little Back" on the small Step One label, was recently released on Ceili Music/Skaggs Family Records.

As one might expect, it's a very special project for the father-daughter trio.

"It's special to us cause it's a return to our roots," Sharon White explains. "We wanted to go back and record another acoustic album. We had it in our hearts to do. We started talking about it four years ago. Before Ricky's label formed."

Ricky is Sharon's husband, Ricky Skaggs. He is co-owner/co-founder of the record label. The Whites are among a number of bluegrass and acoustic-based artists recording on the label, including Del McCoury, The Sullivans and Skaggs himself.

Sharon White says, "A few months later, my grandad died, and (that) took steam out of it. That put plans on hold for a while. In the meantime, Ricky started a label."

"The family element is special. It's special because it's on Ricky Skaggs' label. Jerry Douglas is on it...he's like family." Dobro ace Douglas was a member of The Whites' band in the '80's. In addition to playing dobro on the album, he produced.

"It was a pleasant, pleasurable experience to do the music we used to do together. We're proud and excited to do it, Dad was saying I just about choked up. It's such a good feeling to put your record on and be so proud of it."

She says that reaction to the album has all been very positive. "Great reviews. I haven't seen a bad one yet. We're pleased."

She says that unlike the groups' previous records, "A Lifetime..." was a project that had to satisfy each of the family members first and foremost.

"We want people to like our music, but it's most import to us that we really like it. And we really like this."

"This was the first time we went to do a record and didn't say 'this isn't a commercial song that's going to appeal to the public, this is a song we like, they moved us emotionally.'"

All three members participated in choosing songs.

"We listened to songs separately, Jerry (Douglas) included. He brought tapes and said here are some things I think you might like. We put out word that we were looking, and some things were submitted."

"Some things I'd have loved to cut, but Dad said, 'I can't hear it.' It's not a rule, but if one of us doesn't like it, it probably isn't going to come out."

Sharon White says the album represents The Whites and their music about as well as anything that the group has ever done.

"This album is so diverse, we didn't have a concept or a direction. But when it came out it portrays us and our music and our musical history together, I think we didn't make a plan, but it has fallen together nicely, everything we love is there."

She credits producer, Douglas for encouraging the group to try different things for the record.

"Jerry stretched us out on some things. He encouraged us to do different arrangements and different things."

Among the diverse material on the album are two gospel songs, "Key To The Kingdom" and "Jesus Is The Missing Piece." Gospel has long been part of the group's repertoire.

Buck White contributed one of his own instrumental's, "Old Man Baker," a tribute to legendary fiddler, Kenny Baker.

Sharon White says her dad had to be persuaded to include this one. "We all had to talk daddy into doing it. He said that it didn't fit. (But) Jerry Douglas liked the song. He said, 'I think you ought to do one of your songs, Buck.' Jerry said, 'I just really like this song.'"

Three of the tunes came from a relatively unknown Oklahoma writer/musician, Billy Joe Foster. He is a former Bill Monroe sideman who also spent time in Skaggs' band.

When asked why they chose the three Foster songs, "Texas To A T," "Apron Strings" and Before The Prairie Met The Plow," Sharon White says, "He sent us a tape early on with a lot of great possibilities on there. It wasn't a plan. Those were the ones we liked and all agreed on."

"'Texas To A T' was a natural. We said, 'Daddy, that's your kind of song.' It just fit his kind of playing. 'Apron Strings' is a beautiful, well-written song about a mother-daughter relationship. It touched us. We tried to sing songs that meant something to us."

The Whites also chose to record the classic "Fair And Tender Ladies." Sharon says, "It has that old world feel to it." She adds that she and her sister both wanted to sing a song with Emmylou Harris, with whom they had collaborated on many occasions over the years. Harris first heard The Whites in 1975, and they provided backing vocals on her "Blue Kentucky Girl" four years later.

"When we started talking about his album, Cheryl and I said we'd like to have her sing something with us. We saw her at Opry said, 'we'd like to have you sing with us. ' She said, 'sure, just call me.' (It was) a wonderful experience. She was icing on the cake for Cheryl and I to sing again with her."

In addition to the song selection, the look of the album is also in keeping with the project's title. The album cover and booklet include photos and sentimental items.

"We were trying to say something with the art too. Stan Strickland, (a partner at Skaggs Family Records) wanted for people to understand even by looking at it that it would say something (about us and about our music). We've never worked so hard on art."

The Whites are regulars on The Grand Ole Opry, where they've been members since 1984. Despite the new record, Sharon White doesn't see a heavy road schedule to promote the project, something that would be mandatory for many artists.

"We haven't toured a lot in the last few years. We're never gonna tour like we used to. (But) we're willing to work more dates to promote the record. We're doing the Opry on regular basis and some TV shows around town."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •