Four years ago, The Whites — father Buck and daughters Cheryl and Sharon — set out to do a new album. Jerry Douglas, highly respected in acoustic music circles and a former member of The Whites’ band, agreed to produce. The family trio planned to record the project for Sugar Hill Records.
Then life threw them a few curve balls, and the project stalled. Buck’s father became ill and passed away in January 1996. His death knocked the family for an emotional loop. “We really didn’t have the heart to get the songs together and work on it,” Cheryl remembers.
Next, the cartilage in Buck’s thumbs began deteriorating, making it painful for him to play mandolin, his primary instrument. The group’s regular segments on the Grand Ole Opry, where they’ve been members since 1984, were difficult for him at times.
More recently, events again set the wheels in motion for making the album. Buck’s cartilage problem improved some. Ricky Skaggs, Sharon’s husband and former producer for The Whites, formed his own bluegrass-based label, Skaggs Family Records, and a subsidiary, Ceili Music, in 1997. Doing a little A&R work in his own backyard, Skaggs encouraged Sharon and her family to record an album in the studio he owns, with Douglas producing. Working intermittently over an extended period of time, they finished the album in May 1999. Finally, on Tuesday (Aug. 15), A Lifetime in the Making will be released on Ceili Music. The Whites will join country.com for a live chat about the new release at 7 p.m. ET/PT Tuesday night (Aug. 15).
“We believe we have a fan base out there that wants to hear our music,” Sharon explains, “and that’s probably one of the main reasons we went back in and cut [the album]. Ricky said, ‘You guys have always wanted to do this, you’ve been talking about it for years now with [Jerry]. I’d like to give you that opportunity.’”
A Lifetime in the Making incorporates all the influences they have absorbed over the course of their nearly 30-year musical career, say The Whites. Known for their powerful three-part harmonies, they had seven Top 20 country hits in the early ’80s including “Hangin’ Around,” “I Wonder Who’s Holding My Baby Tonight,” “Pins and Needles” and “If It Ain’t Love (Let’s Leave It Alone).” Their sound later grew to reflect their gospel influences.
This new set is more eclectic. The bluegrass, country and gospel stylings commonly associated with The Whites are present, but so are elements of the blues, boogie woogie and western swing music Buck played in the dancehalls of his native Texas shortly after World War II. On the swinging crooner “Texas to a T,” one of two songs Buck sings, he sounds right at home, and his jazzy piano and mandolin blend nicely with the work of fiddler Aubrey Haynie and guitarist Bryan Sutton.
Buck’s first instrument was the piano, and Cheryl remembers seeing her father play when she was a young girl. “He was in a group called the Volcanoes that was rock ‘n’ roll, and they had the hot yellow jackets with the skinny black lapels. He would lay back on the piano bench with his feet in the air like he’s riding a bicycle and play boogie woogie all at that same time,” she laughs. “We just thought, he’s got to be the coolest dad in the world! He was also in love with the mandolin, and with Bill Monroe.”
The bluegrass mandolin would come later. “I couldn’t play like Bill Monroe and play that kind of music,” Buck admits. “It had to have more of a swing to it. There was a mandolin player that played with Bob Wills named Tiny Moore, that had some influence on me.”
The elder White’s natural enthusiasm and love of music has rubbed off on his daughters. During a conversation at the Country Music Hall of Fame, the three banter good-naturedly, recalling how far they’ve come since 1971, when they did their first bluegrass recording session in a Nashville motel room with mattresses on the walls as sound buffers.
Fiddling legend Kenny Baker, one of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, introduced The Whites to Dave Freeman of County Records and helped them make that early album. On another session the same week, The Whites backed Baker on a fiddle album. On A Lifetime in the Making, Buck, now 69, pays tribute to Baker. With his mandolin, he imitates the syncopated, melodic phrasing for which Baker is known.
“We’ve been good friends a long time — his dad was a good old-time fiddler. And so that’s why I named that tune ‘Old Man Baker’ — in memory of the two of them,” Buck says about the instrumental track.
Both Sharon, 46, and Cheryl, 45, credit producer Douglas, a close friend since the early ’70s, for some unusual arrangements on the new album. Douglas pushed the envelope, they say, but it served them well. They cite the gospel song “Key to the Kingdom,” in which Cheryl sings a stunningly soulful lead vocal, as their most experimental song. They had worked up a more traditional arrangement, but Douglas asked them to try it with just his Dobro and Bryan Sutton’s guitar as accompaniment. Cheryl added a touch of her bass, affectionately named “Ed,” later in the overdubs.
“It starts off with really no rhythm at all, and she sings,” Sharon comments. “And it really gave her an opportunity to vocally show what she can do. She’s a wailer.”
The Whites’ song selection covers a lot of ground. Three tunes are co-written by family friend Billy Joe Foster, who grew up 50 miles from Buck, across the border in Oklahoma. Baby sister Rosie White Franklin joins Cheryl and Sharon on “Old Hands,” written by country songwriting duo Max D. Barnes and Leslie Satcher. Emmylou Harris joins the sister duo for Maybelle Carter’s “Fair and Tender Ladies.” Harris and The Whites go back a ways, too — she featured their vocals on her 1979 album, Blue Kentucky Girl, and later they toured as her opening act. Sharon married Skaggs, then Harris’ bandleader, in 1981.
The Whites are coming back strong from their recording hiatus. In addition to A Lifetime in the Making, they have a track, “Used to Be,” on Skaggs’ next bluegrass project, Big Mon, a tribute to Bill Monroe, to be released Aug. 29. They are featured on the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, an upcoming film by Joel and Ethan Coen. They make a brief appearance in the movie, singing together, and were part of a companion concert documentary shot in Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium. Buck, never a quitter, has seen the condition with his thumbs improve as he’s continued to play. Douglas and Skaggs are pushing for him to record an album of the original tunes he’s written over the years.
All in all, it’s a good time for The Whites. Sharon believes destiny is in their corner. “It wasn’t planned,” she says. “I tell you what, we’ve found so many times in our lives and in our career, you let things happen the way they’re supposed to, the way they will, and it’s better than if it was planned. There’s a divine hand in it — it’s like you couldn’t stop it if you wanted to.”