Maybe it’s a response to the meat-and-potatoes austerity of guys like Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell; or maybe it’s simply a case of history being cyclical. Whatever the reason, there’s been a low-key renaissance of the classic “countrypolitan” sounds, which posits simply that the directness and plainspeak that are at the core of country songwriting can be well-served by lavish studio productions, even symphonic opulence. There was Alison Krauss’ Windy City in 2017, and Ashley Monroe’s Sparrow just a year later. Now comes The Hurting Kind, from John Paul White — and if his take on Nashville studio craft isn’t quite as plush as those other records, it’s certainly full-bodied and lovingly textured. Guitars and drums share space with twinkling piano, high-and-lonesome pedal steel, and on a few songs, some subtle string cues; these arrangements are employed not to submerge or dilute the brazen emotion in White’s writing, but rather to draw it to the surface.
It’s a work of excavation, and White rises to the occasion with some of the sharpest writing of his career, finding space for creative expression even in shopworn tropes: “I Wish I Could Write You a Song” plays like the writers-blocked negative of Elton John’s “Your Song,” and Lee Ann Womack stops by to trade lines in an elegant and quietly devastating duet of two ill-fated lovers, “This Isn’t Gonna End Well” — the whole story given away right there in the title. White’s playing with familiar forms, but also showing how well he understands what traditional country craft is good for — namely, capturing emotional acuity with storytelling that’s sharp-edged and close-to-the-bone. The title track is one of the best examples, recounting a love that’s left the narrator battered and bruised but unwilling to walk away. And in the opening “The Good Old Days,” the singer traces his long road through ruin without anything like remorse. “Tell me what’s so good about the good old days?” he shrugs — but of course, the triumph of The Hurting Kind is how it shows how much the language of the past still helps us make sense of the bleary present.
Published as part of Rooted & Restless | Issue 3