BY BOB TOWNSEND
Call it a collaboration or a collision. “Take It Like a Man,” the new album released under the group name Jim White vs. the Packway Handle Band, joyfully juxtaposes jaunty bluegrass and Southern Gothic sensibilities.
Think of John Huston’s film version of Flannery O’Connor’s “Wise Blood” and its ironic vision of characters obsessed with suffering and redemption, including a human cavorting in a gorilla costume set to a whirring, banjo-warped version of “The Tennessee Waltz.”
Jim White is originally from the Florida Panhandle, where he fled Pentecostalism to try out being a pro surfer, fashion model, taxi driver, and filmmaker, before David Byrne of Talking Heads discovered the wild sparks of his music and signed him to a six-record deal.
Three of the five members of the Packway Handle Band, Josh Erwin (guitar/vocals), Tom Baker (banjo/vocals) and Michael Paynter (mandolin/vocals), grew up playing garage rock around Atlanta. They joined with Zach McCoy (bass) and Andrew Heaton (fiddle/vocals) to form a new-grass ensemble that features tight four-part harmonies and a driving array of acoustic and electric instruments.
But “Take It Like a Man” is rooted in Athens, where White now lives and works as a producer, and Packway was born in 2001. How they all came together to record an album and embark on the tour that will bring them to Eddie’s Attic in Decatur on Thursday and Friday is complicated, according to White.
“I produced a record for a band called the Skipperdees, these twin sisters who write songs like Sylvia Plath and play and sing like the Everly Brothers,” White said. “That’s actually how I got to work with the Packway guys. I asked them to back up the Skipperdees on a song.”
Packway leader Erwin remembered being first struck by White’s style when Packway performed at the 2006 Burning Man festival, where a DJ was playing songs from the singer’s seminal “Wrong-Eyed Jesus” album.
“We thought it was awesome,” Erwin said. “Then we watched the ‘Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus’ film and we were really blown away.”
Years later, the idea of hiring White as a producer came up mainly because the Packway members decided they needed to try something new.
“We put out four albums on our own and we’d never had a producer,” Erwin said. “We finally realized we were not going to get much of a different sound or personality. We didn’t want to make a Jim White record. We couldn’t if we tried. We were looking for direction.”
As it turned out, White was more than willing to sign on, but he had his own agenda, and a secret stash.
“I had all these bluegrass kind of songs that had piled up,” White said. “And when I heard they wanted me to produce their record, I thought, this is my chance. Let me get these songs out there with a bluegrass band. So I said, rather than just produce, why don’t you just let me join the band. And they were all for it. They’re wide-open, hardy souls.”
“Take It Like a Man” features 11 songs split between White, Packway members, and one mash-up somewhere in between.
Among the highlights, Paynter’s “Not a Song” is an infectious singalong that reels you in from the opening line: “This is not a song, this is a cry for help.” White’s cleverly heretical “Jim 3:16” declares “a bar is just a church where they serve beer.” And Erwin’s “Gravity Won’t Fail” is a satirical lament about always being let down by a lover.
Punctuating everything, though, is White’s penchant for mixing in odd bits of percussion from unlikely sources.
“One day, we went to his house to pick up gas cans, cookie jars, boxes and chains, and he told us we needed to play around with all that stuff while we were playing these songs,” Erwin said, still seeming surprised. “That was an approach I don’t know if anyone could have expected. Load up the dump truck from ‘Sanford and Son’ and let’s go play some music.”
White allowed that the Packway guys taught him some things, too. “They’re coming from a very different direction than me,” he said. “I’m an introspective, navel-gazing kind of guy. And they’re ‘where’s the party’ kind of guys. They’re fiercely focused and crack musicians. But it’s sure fun with them. They just enjoy themselves.”
Jim White vs. the Packway Handle Band. 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 9:30 p.m. Friday. $15 advance, $20 at the door. Eddie’s Attic, 515 N. McDonough St., Decatur. 404-377-4976, eddiesattic.com.
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