September 13, 2015

An Interview With Hearty White


Author’s Note: A heavily condensed version of my interview with Hearty White appeared on another website several months back, but I always felt the full interview should run at some point, so here it is.


With the radio dial so clogged with the rancor, vitriol and ill-reasoned diatribes that have come to represent the Vox Populi, Kentucky-based Hearty White is, well, hmm. Let’s just say “unexpected.”

            At first blush, the title of White’s weekly radio show, “Miracle Nutrition,” sounds like a load of New Age quackery, and its host like a talkative, enthusiastic Southern evangelist with early-onset dementia. Listen carefully, however, and you realize neither is true. There is a unique, even enthralling genius afoot here as, for an hour every Thursday on Jersey City’s WFMU, White offers up a seemingly disjointed swirl of asides and detours, a blend of self-help, cultural references, non-sequiturs, surreal metaphors, memories, fantasies, observations, and the occasional impromptu song. It’s been called Southern inspirational Dada, reminiscent of Paul Harvey or Joe Frank, but more insightful, more off-balance and much, much funnier.

            It always struck me that what the show did was mimic the human thought process as an idea triggers an aside, which triggers a parenthetical and another aside, which triggers an unexpected notion which triggers another memory which reminds you of that song you hate and that movie that song was in (even though the movie was pretty good), which in turn reminds you of that thing your dad said when you were ten, which calls to mind a metaphor which may or may not make sense depending on how far you decide to push it.

            The astonishing thing is after all that wandering around he’s able to come back and offer a cogent closing message. Ironically, in a radio landscape drowning in so much shrill outrage, White’s gentle, self-effacing, and at times baffling wisdom makes him the medium’s true iconoclastic voice.

            “Miracle Nutrition” first appeared on Tallahassee’s WVFS in 2003 and aired weekly for the next eight years before moving to WFMU in 2012. I recently contacted White via email to ask a few questions, and thought I’d share the exchange here in its entirety.

Jim Knipfel:        You’re a man of many and varied talents (musician, writer, artist). What nudged you toward becoming a radio monologist, and how did you get started?

Hearty White:     I let other people decide. I just generally never say no. So if someone asks, “Would you like to be on the radio?” I instinctively say yes. I don't have to be good at it, as long as it sounds like something I'd like, I say yes, and then cram. If someone asked me to compose a symphony or paint the Sistine Chapel I'd say yes. They'd regret asking me maybe, but I never turn down a gig. Every time I've been on the radio it's because I've been asked. I'm not confident enough to ask to do something, but I have enough confidence not to question you if you think I can do it.

JK:       For all the asides and detours and unexpected connections, the shows seem to flow so effortlessly. How long do you prepare for an hour-long monologue each week?

HW:    I love to share whatever I learn. Rather, I love to share so much, I have to learn something every week to have something to share. So I go looking for something to obsess about, something to occupy my thoughts all day, everyday until I speak to you. Sometimes I'll read books or just go on a walk or to a museum. It's like if you limited a chatty relative to just one, one-hour phone call a week, so he has to tell you everything about his trip AND what happened to the neighbor in an efficiently distilled monologue. I try to come up with one true thing to tell you, then use everything that happened to me that week, or whatever I've read or seen, as evidence.

JK:       Although the show is called Miracle Nutrition and you often begin by saying you’ll be discussing spirituality and nutrition, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard you say all that much about nutrition. Unless you mean “nutrition” in spiritual as opposed to edible terms. That’s not really a question.

HW:    I did literally talk about exercise and nutrition when I started years ago, but since I've lately had less first hand experience with either, I have shifted their meaning. I can eat a whole box of those fat pretzels. You don't want to get nutrition advice from me.

JK:       In contrast to all the outrage and anger you hear on the radio today, amid all the asides and stories and references and songs, your ultimate weekly encouragement that listeners simply be more decent to themselves and each other makes you an ironically iconoclastic voice in the world. That’s not really a question either, but I’m curious how you respond to that idea.

HW:    Anger is just awesome in small doses. But I think it's like sugar; it can become poison. You can get anger fat and rotten teeth of fear, so to speak. It's overrepresented as a rhetorical technique. So even if your anger is righteous, from a practical stand point, it's difficult to change hearts that way. And it also makes me feel bad. I am a convert to kindness. I'm gentle by choice. It was a health decision. I felt it was bad physically, mentally, and spiritually. I'm not a Pollyanna or blissed out or in love with everyone, but I try to see that others are confused and fearful like I am, so I try to be patient and let them know I am like them so that we might recognize the humanity in each other.

JK:       I noted you posted a song online yesterday. Do you have any plans to record a solo musical album?

HW:    No, I just like pretending I already have. These days I start with an album cover and a story and work backwards.

JK:       Along similar lines, last year you did some promo spots for “Adult Swim.” Any current plans (or desires) to do more television or other media in general, or do you prefer to remain in radio exclusively?

HW:    Again, I only do what I'm asked. So at no time do I ever make plans. However I am committed to absolute freedom of thought and expression and radio, although there are some language restrictions (which I am fine with. It's like writing poetry in sonnet form; there are rules), is a great place for that. It's intimate and boundless. And for me broadcast radio is the freest form because it's free. Most internet radio is not theoretically available on other planets. Radio is.


In truth, Hearty White is the creation of artist, writer, and musician David Morris (formerly of Cold Water Army and Bag We Bag), who admits these days the line separating him from his alter-ego has become awfully blurry. His first foray into alternate radio personalities began at Florida State University with a character he called Lee Harvey.


JK:       When did you start doing Lee Harvey, and how would you say Lee Harvey and Hearty differ?

David Morris:     I started doing Lee Harvey in 1989 on WVFS at FSU. It was sort of an anarchist Paul Harvey and it was a three minute or so song-length enhanced monologue, then it evolved into more sound effects and other voices. They were all prerecorded on two track tape machines mostly.

            Lee Harvey also did live commentary for the FSU homecoming, and it was after saying something on air that triggered an angry confrontation with members of a fraternity who had previously been kicked off campus for a brutal gang rape and then reinstated, that I realized that you could be morally correct but ultimately cause more harm instead of solving a moral problem. And satire, even surreal and silly, has to have some sort of moral and ethical standard from which to criticize the culture and society.

            When I dug deep for my own, I realized that it required a vulnerability and honesty which would take more courage then being clever, snarky, or sarcastic. I knew I would have to find a simple part of myself that was completely at ease with its limitations and shortcomings. And then make that look like a character. I wanted to erase my pretense by having just pretense. I found a way to be more comfortably myself.

            I was fascinated by a guy who used to take tickets at a local theater who had a great manner of speaking and was able to speak to anyone without being self conscious. There was also local religious radio on which I would often hear talk shows seemingly obsessed with colon health and such things. But often the science was sketchy. I thought it would be great if I could address physical issues like diet and exercise married to ethical or religious systems but without the exclusivity or divisiveness. I figured if I could speak in some religious terms, instead of alienating those folks, I could just speak in their language, not as a way of besting them, but as a way of being inclusive.

            What I would become was a sort of combination of Andy Griffith, Mr. Rogers, and a rabbi. That's how I would feel most comfortable expressing love and vulnerability. I didn't want any religious message though. No propaganda. I wanted to just express one thing and it has something to do with fear and the problems it causes. Probably close to, let's be less angry. You can be right, but say it wrong. If we think about consequences, things can be better.

            By 2003 (I think) this congealed into Hearty White, and I did a live hour in WVFS in Tallahassee, Florida, for eight years or so then stopped. I thought I'd never do it again and then WFMU called.

JK:       Are you still in your own band, or are most of your energies these days geared toward Hearty?

DM:    Most of my energies are geared towards Hearty. Because I can make an excuse to record music anytime; my desires are sated easily without being in a band. I have always written songs and performed them as an excuse for a show. I am only a practical, pragmatic musician: I do it so I'll have something to perform. I wanted to pretend to be a musician, so I learned enough to pretend convincingly. I always saw the kind of music scene I was in to be performance art, because just based on musical skills alone, there are far better artists among symphonies and jazz bands. So what this must be is musical theater. That's why rock bands always act like it's super hard to play what they are playing. Like it's killing them! I love that, but if I was doing it as a group it would take all my energies. And I like the simplicity of a voice on the radio more than any instrument.


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