Dee White, an Alabama native with a preternatural gift for hardcore trad-country, happened to catch the ear of Dan Auerbach, who stepped up to produce White’s debut record, Southern Gentleman. Auerbach brings a more diverse sonic palette to the mixing board than reigning country it-boy producer Dave Cobb might have. That means Southern Gentleman is awash in as many soul signifiers as it is traditional country instruments, and those production choices are often foregrounded throughout the album’s brief 33-minute running time. Southern Gentleman works as an assured debut, then, because White’s voice is so arresting that it isn’t smothered by Auerbach’s more show-offy flourishes. Indeed, the first impression that White leaves is that he sounds like no other contemporary country singer; at no point does he embarrass himself by trying to rap, and he actually has both a chest voice and a head voice, and can transition between the two without straining like he’s passing a kidney stone.
White’s every note lands in the dead-center of the pitch, and his tone is that of someone who sings through his vocal cords and not his adenoids or nasal sinuses. He doesn’t affect an unnatural rasp in an attempt to imitate Stapleton, but he brings an unforced soulfulness to his delivery on “Old Muddy River,” and on lead single “Wherever You Go.” He legitimately croons on “Crazy Man” and “Oh No,” and he engages in a simply lovely call-and-response with Ashley McBryde (!) on “Road That Goes Both Ways.” There’s no getting around the extent of Auerbach’s influence on Southern Gentleman, given the man’s role as producer and as co-writer on seven of the ten songs here. And while that might be a red flag for those who view the Black Keys as rockism’s last dying gasp, Auerbach is typically at his best when working with collaborators who hold their own with him. White proves himself more than capable of that, and he already seems fully at-ease in his “southern gentleman” persona. So long as White continues to choose his collaborators wisely, he’s posed to build upon this stellar debut.
Published as part of Rooted & Restless | Issue 2