These days Ralph White does all his own booking. “I’m not very good at it,” White tells me with humility, cut by an edge of Texan charm.
White’s perhaps best known for his work with Bad Livers, a now defunct Austin-based outsider string band. In 2007, The Bad Livers were inducted into the Austin Music Hall of Fame.
Needless to say, White’s tour schedule is pretty lax. But that’s just how he does things. The night before we spoke, White played a show in L.A. with alternative country singer Jolie Holland, and unless something comes up, he’s scheduled to play Portland next, he says. White plays Eugene on Feb. 3 at Old Nick’s.
White’s latest recording project was made on his cell phone at Silo City, a historic grain elevator complex turned art space in Buffalo, New York. “I live in my van,” White says. After a night spent camped out next to Silo City, where White had recently played a show, he decided to try playing inside one of the silos.
“I got up and had a cup of coffee and started playing. The sound is so awesome. I thought I might as well record it,” he says. The finished project is available for sale at White’s current run of West Coast dates.
Self-taught, White plays a dizzying array of instruments — from guitar and banjo to kalimba, mbira and accordion. In total, White’s work is a kind naïve folk art, touching on everything from punk, blues and bluegrass to African music.
In doing so, White’s music builds a vision of America that’s almost Lynchian in scope — a deceptively accurate portrait of American culture that R. Crumb might find familiar, though White feels no real cultural affinity here in the States.
“I’m just a white boy from the suburbs,” he says, adding he’s always been turned off by academic ways of looking at expression, despite the fact his father was an art professor.
“There’s this idea you don’t play with the music,” whether that’s Irish music or bluegrass. “You don’t make it your own. I could never do that. I don’t have a traditional way.”
When White first started performing he suffered from stage fright, but it’s become easier as he’s learned to set aside his own ego.
“I’ve gotten better because it doesn’t really matter so much,” he says. “The stage fright has to do with knowing that you are really not that great, and knowing that will come through when you play.”
“Turn it around: What if you knew you were great? Then it will probably be great,” he says.
At his recent shows, White simply lays his instruments out around him on the stage and takes it from there. “No telling what I may play. I don’t have new things planned out. Everything’s always new. There’s no way it could be anything other than that.”
Ralph White plays with Edward Mainwaring 8 pm Monday, Feb. 3, at Old Nick’s; $8, 21-plus.