Drake White -the optimist- proves that second chances are sometimes the best kind.
When he was 12 years old, Drake White was faced with a choice: Hit the Coosa River with his grandfather for the crappie bite or join his buddies for a birthday party and video games.
It was an easy decision.
Still, the choice amused his grandfather, who made a comment that remains an accurate characterization of the Nashville-based musician. “When I told my grandfather ‘I’m skipping the party because the crappie are biting,’ he told me ‘Your ass was born 50 years too late,’” White says. “I loved that. All I ever wanted to be was an old man with overalls and a good rifle in my hand.”
His grandfather’s comment became the title of a song on White’s latest album, The Optimystic, which is full of lyrics that are a true reflection of his character, his bout with a major health issue, and, of course, his love of the outdoors.
While taking a break after a performance at Elevation Beaver Creek in western Colorado in October, White soaked in the mountain scenery cloaked with yellow aspens and reminisced about his roots as a hunter and angler. Growing up in the small town of Hokes Bluff, Alabama, White’s teacher was his grandfather, and the classroom was the woods and water. “He taught me how to trap, how to run a trotline, and all the stuff that Hank Jr. talks about in “A Country Boy Can Survive.” How to build a fire, how to treat a lady, how to rebuild a 350 engine. I still have that with me to this day,” White says.
He also has his music, a first child on the way with his wife, Alex, and a farm they call home
Beyond that, however, there is one more thing that White has that, until a few years ago, was in doubt: A second chance at life.
On August 16, 2019, the 39-year-old suffered a hemorrhagic stroke and collapsed on stage during a concert in Roanoke, Virginia. Months earlier, he was diagnosed with arteriovenous malformation (AVM), a mass of abnormal veins and arteries on the brain.
At the time of the diagnosis, White was in the middle of a hectic tour and had already logged nearly 70 shows. While he toured, White had to undergo a monthly surgery to treat the mass on his brain. The procedure took place on a Monday, he says, and by Thursday he was back on the road to perform during the weekend. There was only a two percent chance of the mass rupturing, so White continued to tour undaunted by the risk. Why stop? White’s career was quickly gaining momentum after the success of his 2016 debut studio album, Spark, and the mass on his brain wasn’t going to slow him down.
“And then it ruptured during that show in Roanoke. The stroke caused my whole left side to be paralyzed,” he says. “It was a huge rug being pulled out from under us.”
Doctors didn’t know if White would walk again, much less perform. He couldn’t hold a guitar, had trouble speaking, and it was impossible to write songs.
And then, as he pushed through rehabilitation and began to make slight progress by getting movement back in his hand, White was dealt another blow when the 2020 pandemic shut everything down.
Any hope he had of resuming his blossoming career after the stroke was put on hold.
But just like the title of his recent album, White found a reason to be optimistic despite the stroke and career setback that forced him to start over from rock bottom. “The pandemic stopped everything and gave me a chance to slowly heal,” he says. “It was a super humbling time. We went from songs on the radio, Zac Brown tours, Eric Church tours—all that stuff—and then we’re back to asking for Venmos and Paypals during concerts in my barn on Wednesday nights during the pandemic. “The stroke and pandemic gave my ego a check, and I was just thankful to be out there singing again. I could’ve, and maybe should’ve, died.”
While it took about five months for White to learn how to walk again, he augmented his medical care with plenty of time outside. He planted his shoes on the dirt of his farm and pushed himself to be active. The woods, fields, fresh air, and sun proved to be the perfect remedy for White’s recovery. “I just started working outside in the sun and let that vitamin D do what it does. I don’t mean to talk all hippie-dippie, but I am a holistic, hippie cowboy believer that God put everything on this earth that will heal and help us,” he says. “We have to respect it.”
Although he still walks with a limp and his recovery continues, White is now healthy enough to tour again in support of The Optimystic, which is his first album in five years. Releasing new music and returning to the stage is a victory lap of sorts for White, who admits he’s in an exciting place in his life. But the music isn’t all that returned after the stroke. White is also back to hunting and fishing, both on his farm and anywhere he can find the time while on the road.
Combine it all with the upcoming birth of his first child, and White admits he’s pretty fulfilled. It wasn’t all that long ago that he had every reason to give up, but now he has plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future. And he owes it all to family and a lifelong love of the outdoors. “I lived through something that not many people would’ve come out on the other side and been optimistic. But it was the woods, the dirt, that’s what brought me life again,” White says. “Outdoors is where my heart is calm and where I feel peace.”