David White was playing Texas dives.
So many musicians started like that. They work the toughest rooms first, singing cover songs while people talk and drink and walk around. In a just and righteous world, it wouldn't work this way: You'd start at Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall or the Ryman Auditorium, on a spotlit stage with polite people seated in chairs that face the performer. Then, when you got really, really good, you'd play the honky-tonks and frat parties.
But, no, music gets easier as you work your way up. The hard stuff comes early. You have to knock out Mike Tyson before you get to pummel some tired old tomato can.
So, White was in the Tyson stage when he decided to use it to his best advantage. Told to play cover songs — material popularized by other singers — he looked around some dive and figured that nobody would notice if he slipped in some of his own songs. It worked out well enough to encourage, and White was able to keep getting those dive bar gigs.
Which is a good thing because he needed the money: He was paying his way through medical school.
"People have a picture in their head of what a starving songwriter should look like, or what a good songwriter should be like," White says, realizing that those pictures don't involve licensed pediatricians.
"It's not a big deal that I do both of those things," says White, who has had two Music Row publishing deals and who practices medicine at the Brentwood Children's Clinic. "I've wanted to play music as long as I've lived, and wanted to be a doctor. I've always done both."
White did not earn his doctorate in pre-school, so it's actually not true that he's always done both. But it is true that music is of monumental importance to him, so much so that his biggest challenge in medical school was feeling like a part of himself was dying because there simply wasn't time enough to concentrate equally on music and medicine. He vowed to himself that he'd try for a residency at Vanderbilt, so he could be in Nashville, where the music is. He got here in 1996, signed on with Brentwood Children's Clinic in 1998 and eventually became a partner.
He also became a student, not of medical texts but of a select group of hyper-literate songwriters, among them Wayne Kirkpatrick, Skip Ewing and Marcus Hummon. He played shows around town and got publishing deals with DreamWorks and Universal.
What he didn't do, for a long time, is the first thing on most Nashville singer-songwriters' minds: make an album. He wanted to make one, but he didn't want to do the "Good job for a first try" deal. He needed time to find his voice as a writer, and time to master studio techniques, and so he gave up his Children's Clinic partnership and scaled back his work schedule.
He also needed time to locate and enlist the virtuoso players that populate the songs of his finally completed debut album, "Long Roots." The album features Chris Thile, Jerry Douglas, Paul Franklin, Bryan Sutton, Dan Tyminski, Stuart Duncan and other jaw-dropping talents.
White emailed Douglas, who has elevated the tough-to-wrangle resonator guitar into an instrument of grace and elegance, to ask if he'd participate, and Douglas responded with gentle discouragement.
"He emailed back and said, 'I appreciate you asking me, but I'm not really playing on anybody's records besides Alison Krauss' and my own,' " White says. "But he wrote, 'I always like to hear good music, so if you want to send me a copy of what you're working on, feel free."
So White emailed him a copy of a song he'd written with James Otto, a gentle reflection called "Long Roots." An hour later, Douglas wrote back. With material like that, he'd love to be on the album. Now, he is, and "Long Roots" is the album's title song.
Gary Paczosa, who has contributed to pristine works by Krauss, Dolly Parton, the Dixie Chicks, Nickel Creek and many more, mixed the album, arriving at a sound reminiscent in places of prime White influences James Taylor and Lyle Lovett.
"Nobody handles the delicacy of acoustic instruments like Gary does," White says. "I'm a fan of sonically beautiful albums, and I knew getting that sound was every bit as important as the quality of the songwriting. I was going to go all in or not go in at all. If this is my only record, I want it to be something I can be proud of, forever."
"Long Roots" won't likely be White's only album. He's emerged from the Tyson fight of those Texas dives and from the fatigue and anguish of his medical school studies and is now playing the easy places, like the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and the Kerrville Folk Festival. People hear his songs and cheer them. He's not the singing pediatrician, he's the musician who works with Jerry Douglas. He beat Mike Tyson. Now, it's tomato can time.