It was shortly before Christmas when Gary Atkinson met Jack White just after the latter came off stage at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool, north-west England. Atkinson runs vintage-blues reissue label Document Records with his wife Gillian in Galloway, south-west Scotland. He and White, whose most recent album was a UK and US No 1, had previously corresponded by telephone and e-mail, but Atkinson fretted that, in the flesh, White might be “one of those shy, Prince types, who recoil at every comment.” So when the former White Stripe bounded across the room and hugged him, he was taken aback.
As stars tend to do on these occasions, White asked his visitor, at 57 two decades his senior, and a musician himself, what he thought of the show. “I said: ‘Well, you’re good and you know you’re good,’” remembers Atkinson, a wry and cheeky Yorkshireman. “’But you’re a bit loud. And you could do with one or two numbers that everybody can sing along to.’ And we just killed ourselves laughing.”
In fact, the pair got on so famously that they spent the remainder of he evening listening to obscure 1920s blues recordings on White’s laptop, until eventually White’s entourage had to drag him away with the star pleading: “Let’s just listen to one more.”
So began the unlikely coupling between the superstar’s Nashville-based Third Man label and Bladnoch-based Document. This month, White’s label begin releasing out-of-print selections from Atkinson’s mammoth back catalogue of 1920s and 1930s Mississippi Delta blues — what they call “vital, breathtaking recordings; the building blocks and DNA of American culture. Blues, gospel, R&B, soul, Elvis, teenagerism and punk rock” — on vinyl, a format Document abandoned 20 years ago.
The linkup was first mooted months earlier when Atkinson had taken the sort of call any smaller label could only dream of. His wife shouted upstairs: “Jack White’s on the phone!” However, as both men remember it, it was — implausibly — White who seemed overawed, gleefully confessing: “I can’t believe I’m talking to the people who own Document Records.”
While Atkinson listened intently, White told him that the first records he had ever bought were on Document, and they became the major influence on his career. The White Stripes even covered songs by Blind Willie McTell and Son House, who had come to his attention via the Scottish-based imprint.
“We even had a Document Records tribute on the White Stripes’ album Elephant,” White remembers. “The same distinctive black-and-white artwork, the fonts, everything. Vinyl was the romantic side of listening to blues, because it involves the listener from the smell of it to the process of dropping the needle on the record.”
Ever since becoming a star and setting up a label of his own, White had wanted to make those recordings available on vinyl again, and in Atkinson recognized someone he could work with.
“There are a lot of people around you who can be negative, and not understand what you’re trying to accomplish,” says White. “Especially in folk and blues. It’s not a popular artform, or easy money. You don’t determine whether you want to work with someone based on what they can do for you or how much they can namedrop. It’s on how much you can tell that they love what they’re involved with.”
It is obvious why the pair hit it off: both are blues enthusiasts, not purists, and combine an encyclopedic knowledge with a lot of mischievous laughter about the music they love. White remembers how the White Stripes had so many “obfuscations” — their costumes, their raucous guitar and drums — that people didn’t consider them a blues band at all.