“50 Years Too Late,” the song that kicks off Drake White’s new album The Optimystic, was written many years back, and it’s been percolating in his head even longer. “My grandfather was a preacher and a woodsman,” White tells the story. “He taught me how to grow a tomato, and how to fish and how to hunt. He taught me how to open a door for a woman, and how to treat people with the Golden Rule.
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“He told me that in a fishing boat one day. He said that I was born 50 years too late when I was 12. The reason was is that I didn’t want to go to a video game birthday party because the crappie were biting. He was like, ‘Man, you were born 50 years too late.’ So I’ve always said that since I was 16. We wrote it 12 years ago, and I wanted to get it on the record.”
It’s the perfect table-setter for the album, which is filled with odes to the simpler things in life: love, family, service, faith, and nature. Musically, White, owner of several country hit singles, skillfully inhabits the territory between the rootsier sounds of his Alabama origins and the slicker grooves of modern country music. “Where Muscle Shoals and Nashville meet, that’s where I want to live,” he says of his music.
But The Optimystic is more than just an extremely accomplished album. It’s also the culmination of a story that began with a severe health crisis. While on stage during an August 2019 performance, White collapsed. It was later determined that he suffered a hemorrhagic stroke due to an arteriovenous malformation (AVM).
White had to undergo several procedures and intense therapy just to be able to once again control the left side of his body. Amidst his recovery, he was motivated to create music that would resonate with those who were dealing with their own difficult times. He, his producer Jaren Jonhston, and his co-writers began to construct a song cycle meant to give his fans succor and joy even in the darkest hours.
“The optimism that I practiced my whole life, I had an opportunity to practice that through paralysis and that stroke,” he explains. “If you can get through that and be optimistic, you’re doing pretty good. I wanted to write these songs. When I got out of the hospital, I told my publisher to book me a bunch of writes. And when the pandemic set in, he said, ‘Would you be interested in writing through Zoom?’ I said, ‘I can write in Morse Code, I don’t give a shit.’
“I don’t want to get on a soapbox. But at the same time, I came through that near-death experience, and through this pandemic, as everybody did. But I came through victorious. I came through a better person. The Optimystic is the invitation to come in and have that mentality daily. You can use that mentality daily, and you can make your life better, make the world better. It sounds like this big esoteric idea, but it’s not. It’s the choice of ‘Well, I’m gonna look at the good today.’ Cause the good is right beside the bad.”
The album finds room for uplifting tracks like “Hurts The Healing” and “Giants” alongside heartbreakers like “Best Things In Life Are Free” and lighthearted numbers like “Can’t Have My Dog.” On the title track, White played with the spelling of the word “optimistic” to capture both the mood of the music on the song and his outlook.
“I love the cosmic cowboy side of stuff,” White says. “I think the Grateful Dead is just country music for people that love acid. That spelling for me was the act of remaining positive through the mystery of all of this shit. Through all of 2019 and the stroke and not knowing if my hands and feet were going to work again and just constantly saying we got to keep going, we got to keep working. That’s ‘The Optimystic’.”
Having come through such a tumultuous time, White is both anxious for his fans to hear the results and grateful that they’re even getting the chance. “The timing of this seems right, the momentum of it seems right,” he says. “We came out of a lot of tumultuous rapids the last few years, my wife and myself. Going through that rough water makes you really appreciate smooth waters. I’m going to promote this way of life, promote my maker, and all that this record stands for.”
Photo by Zack Knudsen