The Passion of the Whites
“I can’t half see straight,” Mamie White declared the moment after being handed a microphone Friday night at Johnny & June’s Ultra Saloon. “I’m just kiddin’.”
As much as she might have liked the room to believe her, such expectations were more or less foolish. The tragicomic tale of the offspring of D. Ray and Bertie Mae White was appallingly detailed in the 2009 documentary The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, and given the family’s fondness for meth, pills, cocaine, grain alcohol, LSD and inhalants, the simplest explanation as to why her eyes were reduced to mere slivers was likely the most accurate. The White Family was on tour that night. They had a stage, a band and a lot of paying customers. That sounds pretty implausible given the deficiency in any actual performing talent — or marketable skills, for that matter — among the Whites. Still, would you believe that what they did come up with was sincere and heartfelt, and, in some tiny way, entertaining?
While only three Whites contracted for the appearance — Mamie, Mousie and Derkie — a total of six made the trip. There was to be an unnamed seventh member, but shortly after a 107.5 FM radio appearance, Derkie began receiving text messages detailing an altercation involving that member that included him or her punching holes in the walls of their home and eventually being arrested. In other words, it was a normal day at the office.
The performance, as it was, focused primarily on Mamie. She preened, high-fived, flipped a few birds and took every moment to soak in what was an authentically adoring crowd, at least within arm’s reach. The black cowboy hat she appropriated from a gentlemen in the front row completed her black ensemble that included a Jesco White Highway to Hellbilly tour T-shirt. The famous Dancin’ Outlaw Jesco, as Derkie stated on air earlier in the day, “Don’t do show bizness no more,” but Mamie will sing a little bit if you let her.
Friday night, those selections included Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and Hank Williams, Jr.’s “Family Tradition.” At worst, it was powerfully awful karaoke. At best, it was a genuine expression of the family’s misfortune, grievances and values delivered with the gritty soulfulness of someone who was actually raised the daughter of a coal miner. Derkie and Mousie didn’t offer much to the equation but strength in numbers, though they were instrumental in facilitating the never-ending party that follow the Whites wherever they are. Derkie announced that they were staying at the Innkeeper room 411 (after being corrected by Mousie), for anyone with the notion to come on by and set a spell. According to the show’s promoter, Thomas Urquhart, they did just that.
“Fans were coming by all day coming by to hang out with them. A lot of times when you are a celebrity, you distance yourself from your fans in a certain manner,” he said. “Not them. These just guys wanted to hang out with everyone at any time. ‘You wanna come chill and hang out with me? Come on, let’s do it.’”
Across the pond, they have a nice, tidy acronym for what once described the eldest (and biggest, baddest and meanest) daughter Mamie, and subsequently the rest of the Whites Family offspring: NEET — not in education, employment or training. No one finishes school, no one works, everyone is on government assistance, everyone is almost constantly messed up on one thing or another. Without the documentary film crews or now the audiences, they’re just another shiftless bunch of lowlifes in the eyes of the mainstream. To many, they’re folk devils of the worst kind, while they’re folk heroes to others. Urquhart says that, even though they have a different view of what’s right and wrong, and how they live their lives may be contemptible to the mainstream, they’re all basically good people, deep down.
Country royalty Hank Williams III took it a step further, calling them “the last real American outlaws,” and their lifestyle reflects it. Back home, they live in abject squalor by middle-class standards. Here, they were happy to eat Little Caesar’s pizza and make a Walmart run for lunch meat and snacks while entertaining the endless stream of visitors. They’re celebrities in some twisted sense of the word, but they are so without pretension and conformity. They represent a legacy of interminable social welfare abuse set in place by their patriarch D. Ray, but only after he and countless others like him were exploited to no end by the West Virginia coal-mining apparatus. Merle Travis’s song “Sixteen Tons” was indeed no fantasy. Despite all their ills, they shine a light on everything that’s broken with our system and, by extension, everything that made it that way. It’s a dubious kind of celebrity, for sure, but they’re living the American Dream — at least their version of it anyway