Original

How Jim White Helped His Bluebird Spread Her Wings

An outsider artist's odyssey to the center of his daughter's life.

This story includes references to suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Are you or someone you know in trouble? Or feeling alone? You’re not alone. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline numbers is 1-800-273-8255. For the National Text Hotline, text the word TALK to 741741. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has additional resources at www.AFSP.org/find-support.

 

Fifteen years ago, on the outskirts of the tiny railroad town of Winterville, Georgia, Jim White bought a run-down house. It needed a fresh coat of paint and a new kitchen floor. But the bones seemed strong. 

Down the gravel driveway past the tall pines, he could stare out at a secluded acre of land backed by hayfields. In the quiet night of the country, he could see the stars shining like lights through heaven’s floor. When dawn gave way to morning, the songwriter heard the chirps of bluebirds. 

When he first moved there, Jim’s 7-year-old daughter, Willow, ran freely and fearlessly below their wings. Of the many nicknames Jim had for her — Charmetta, Belly-rina, Tiki-bird — one stuck out: Bluebird. Early on, he spotted the birds flying to the top of a pole near the end of his driveway. Curious, he propped a ladder against the pole and scaled its rungs. Three powder-blue eggs rested inside the nest. The sight of them got Jim thinking about how he and Robin, his new wife, were trying to have a child of their own. When he looked at the nest, he didn’t just see the bluebirds. He saw the sanctuary of family. 

For much of his adult life, Jim searched for his place in the world while making art from the trash other people left at flea markets. As he wandered the country, talking with people on the margins of society, he sketched their worlds into backstories of his song’s fictional characters — fugitive preachers, silver-tongued saints, and lovesick murderers. 

Over time, Jim had learned to stand tall during his personal storms, drawing artistic inspiration from them. The writing had comforted Jim during his many personal and professional crises. When he bought the Winterville house, he was in the midst of a protracted custody battle with Willow’s mother. The fight, fierce as a Category 5 hurricane, would shape his daughter’s upbringing and his identity as a parent. This struggle, and untold others to follow, would test the limits of the bond between father and child.

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Jim White has made his home in Winterville, Ga., since 2005.

As a father in his late 40s, he felt inspired to help Willow through the darkness of their family wars. Maybe, if he tried hard enough, she might find a peace that had long eluded him. Maybe, if he successfully navigated the maze of fatherhood, he could find peace himself.

Jim eventually noticed the bluebirds catch the eye of a scruffy tomcat that wandered around his land. Concerned, Jim built a barrier of chicken wire around its base to shield the birds. 

That spring, fledglings hatched from the eggs, chirping blissfully as their mother carried food and fresh bedding to the nest. One day, when Jim checked the nest, the fledglings were gone. The cat was there, prowling, before it heaved a slimy mass. Six pairs of wings. Feathers and feet. Beaks and bellies. Heads but no heartbeats. 

Jim tried to keep a stoic front. But it was as if that tomcat had dug his claws deep into Jim’s brain, ripping his fantasies of future peace to shreds. Jim didn’t turn to prayer in dark times, not after growing disillusioned with his upbringing in a Pentecostal church. Searching for comfort, he’d sing the words he’d once written about Willow, finding solace in his lyrics.

Yes, salvation wears a thin disguise

’Cause I can see the heaven in your eyes 

I thank God them years I searched were not in vain

Finally found someone to love more than the rain

Bluebird, I love you more than the rain

1997

The year before Willow was born, Jim was turning a corner as a professional artist. After cycling through a half-dozen occupations — from landscaper to surfboard laminator — to sustain himself while making art, he convinced a boutique label run by the Talking Heads’ David Byrne to release his debut record, “The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted Wrong-Eyed Jesus” in April 1997. 

His sparse, country-tinged folk songs caught the ear of a New York Times critic, who praised his surreal tales “about angels and murder, telekinesis and chasing tornados, exploring the gaps between reality and revelation.” Despite only selling 4,000 copies, some of his earliest fans played in one of England’s most popular bands of the moment. Morcheeba, a trip-hop group, wanted to collaborate on Jim’s next record. But given their hectic schedule, they could only lay down tracks in August 1998. With any luck, the collaboration could transform his critical acclaim into commercial success.

Jim had developed a cult following, captivating fans with his knack for telling stories about the strange circumstances that inspired his songs. And one night in late 1997 he caught the eye of a woman named Lori, who was in the audience at New York’s Red Room, where she originally showed up to see the other act on the bill. A south Georgia native with long blonde hair and dreams of veterinarian school, Lori says that she was struck by Jim’s “Nick Cave hair” and textured songs about the true South, which prompted her to approach the songwriter after his set. After talking for a while, they shared numbers. Then dinner. Then dates. 

In early 1998, after a few months of dating, Jim didn’t see much of a future in the relationship. But as the two seemed to be drifting apart, Lori found out she was pregnant with his child.

Fatherhood had never figured into Jim’s plans. Just as he had caught a professional break, his personal life threatened to impede his artistic career. After all, how could he take care of a child? He could barely care for himself. 

His latest gig, driving a cab, brought him face to face with strange and sleepless nights in Manhattan. Depression’s claws dug into his mind. One sudden personal crisis, the disappearance of an earlier girlfriend, pulled him to the brink of insanity. Uninsured and five figures in debt, he couldn’t afford to see a doctor. Suicidal thoughts filled his mind. The plans followed. The confluence of it all left Jim feeling, as he would later describe himself during this era, like “a ruined husk of a human being.”

In Jim’s darkest hours, he found a well-worn copy of Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, which he read over and again, clinging to it like a preacher to a Bible. He also came across a Japanese surf guitar, on which he wrote songs. 

Jim had first played guitar when he was 18, but stopped after injuring his hand on a table saw. When he picked up the guitar again, years later, he made up chords, picking his own fingering until he found interesting new sounds. As he wrote songs in the ‘80s and ‘90s, he eschewed the traditional structure of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus. “They’re more like these weird Dr. Seuss–looking bonsai-type things,” Jim once said in an interview. “Most people…would start with the roots and then a trunk and then add branches and twigs and leaves. What I do is I start madly throwing leaves in the air, then twigs, then branches, and so forth, and somehow hope they’ll all get attached.” 

His unorthodox songwriting had led to the chance of a lifetime working with a chart-topping group. So he had a choice: He could fly to London, or stay stateside in the event his daughter was born early. Though she was pregnant, Jim broke up with Lori. 

“I acted like an asshole,” Jim said. “I was a mess, she was a mess, so to me that seemed like a terrible foundation for co-parenting.” 

But he intended to be there in person for her due date in late summer 1998. 

Instead of playing it safe, building time in his schedule for the possibility of a premature delivery, he booked a flight overseas to record with Morcheeba. It was August 20, 1998, with two days left of recording, when the studio’s phone rang: Lori had gone into labor. Jim caught the next available flight to Atlanta, and raced his two-tone beige Econoline van to Valdosta. 

Staring into the nursery, where the babies seemed indistinguishable from each other, he couldn’t identify his daughter. When he eventually held Willow, brought to him by a helpful nurse, he felt only two things mattered: He needed Willow — and she needed him.

Late 1998 

Anxious about fatherhood, Jim wrote a song called “Sweet Bird of Mystery.” It had all his signatures — moments of self-deprecating wit (“By the time that you hear this, I’ll be wearing store-bought teeth”), layers of evocative imagery (“a suitcase full of smiles”), and bittersweet musings on the brevity of life. With fictional characters stripped away, Jim spoke directly to Willow, something he wasn’t sure he’d be able to do much given their complicated family dynamic:

The days of our lives are numbered.

They’re like leaves on a tree.

But I will not give into fretting about the cold and coming winter.

From a far and lovely distance, I see you standing by the sea.

You’re my photograph of heaven, so darling, keep on smiling at me.

Whenever he tried to practice “Sweet Bird,” he became a ruined husk again. His emotions were so raw that he couldn’t bear to think of sharing the song with others. Instead of slotting “Sweet Bird” for his next record, he indefinitely shelved it.

Of the many hats Jim had worn in his life — military brat, Pentecostal apostate, junk collector, raconteur, Western-wear aficionado, fierce progressive, David Byrne stalker, artist — he now felt compelled to be a present father. If only he were prepared. 

The youngest of five children, he’d spent little time around kids since leaving home as a teenager. He was now scrambling to learn how to feed, cuddle, and change diapers. Every month he’d make the over 500-mile round trip from his hometown of Pensacola, the popular vacation town on the Florida panhandle, to Valdosta and back. He thought about working things out with Lori. When they argued, he fought his urge to flee, tossing drafts of goodbye letters in the trash.

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Jim holding Willow during the first year of her life.

Jim, though, could be stubborn. A self-described hothead, he’d argue in circles with Lori. That Christmas, he stormed out of the house — he doesn’t remember, years later, what the fight was about. But he walked to the Greyhound station, ready to return to Pensacola, ready to give up on Lori and Willow. 

He waited at the station for over an hour for a bus that had broken down outside the city, with nothing but James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” to keep him company. Then, just before the bus arrived, Lori appeared with Willow and placed Jim’s daughter into his hands, gave him a kiss, and asked him to stay. The three left the station together, a family in full.

“My family said to give him a chance,” Lori said. “He loved Willow. So we tried to be a family.”

Not long after that Christmas, Lori and Willow joined Jim in Pensacola. Around that time, his financial luck suddenly changed. His manager had recently called with some good news: Jim’s song, “Heaven of My Heart,” was chosen for the closing credits for “Home Fries,” a major motion picture starring Drew Barrymore and Luke Wilson. The fee covered a down payment on a house. But the family wasn’t a unit for long — a couple years later, Lori and Jim split, and she moved across town. 

While Jim was disappointed, he was relieved that Willow remained close. Between writing songs and practicing guitar, he picked up Willow from school. He took Willow to the pool. He made her favorite foods, grits and macaroni and cheese. When he headed on tour, he carried a photo of Willow affixed to his banjo, a reminder of who he was working for each night. 

As the years passed, Jim felt that Willow had become a “bargaining chip” in the estranged parents’ feud. He remembers having to complete odd jobs for Lori, from feeding animals to making home repairs, in order to see his daughter. And he worried about Willow’s well-being without easy access to her. After returning home from a tour with Lucinda Williams, he was angered by his impression that Lori was downplaying an injury to Willow, whose arm was rolled over by her mother’s car in a freak accident. 

Lori denies that she downplayed the injury, or threatened to withhold visitation on other occasions, as Jim alleged. Of these claims and others, Lori later said that “the truth seems to be irrelevant to Jim.” 

But the biggest threat to Jim’s relationship to Willow arrived in September 2004, when Hurricane Ivan killed dozens and caused billions of dollars in damage across the South. After the storm, Lori decided to move closer to her family in Atlanta. A fan of R.E.M.’s music, Lori was drawn toward the band’s hometown of Athens, and settled a short drive away in Carlton. If Jim wanted to visit, he would have to drive nearly seven hours there to see Willow.

So Jim decided to pack his belongings, hit the road, and search for a house near Carlton. He ultimately settled on his fixer-upper 15 miles away in Winterville. 

He hardly fit into the town of 1,000 residents, most far more conservative than he was. But he wouldn’t dare break his promise to Willow: Wherever you go, I go. 

2006

Before Georgia, Jim parented without worry. As he followed Willow, Jim feared Georgia law might not recognize him as Willow’s father, because she was born out of wedlock. So he changed his world to counteract society’s ideas of what it meant to be an artist. He scheduled tour stops around visitation dates. And he married Robin faster than he might otherwise have, figuring a judge would look unfavorably on a non-traditional living arrangement.

Perhaps most, Jim feared parental alienation — when one parent plants seeds of doubt in a child’s mind about the other parent. However strained their relationship was, Lori insists she refrained from talking poorly about Jim with Willow, and Jim claims the same regarding his discussions with Willow about her mother. Still, their mutual animosity was not lost on their daughter. “My mom told me that my dad was the devil,” she said. “He was never to be trusted.” 

Willow was caught in the middle of a family war that at one point worsened so much that the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services visited Lori’s house. Jim and Lori have differing versions about how DFCS ended up there. And both parents accuse the other of smaller, more subversive actions that influenced Willow. Lori claims Jim prioritized his touring life over Willow’s life at home, Jim says Lori talked negatively about his music in front of Willow. 

Deep down, Jim desperately wanted to bond with Willow over music. He wanted to introduce her to his favorite albums. He hoped they could sing along to the car radio. He longed to teach her an instrument. Instead, he had to defend the craft that gave his life meaning. One day when Jim picked up Willow from Lori’s, he remembers Willow getting in the car and telling him: “Mom says your music is really cheesy.” 

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On a doorframe in Jim’s Winterville home are marked-off heights, including many from Willow.

Besides defending his craft, Jim clashed with Willow when she stayed with him. At Lori’s, Willow had the kind of freedom that another child might envy. “I could do whatever I wanted,” Willow said. “I could eat whatever I wanted.” Going to Jim’s was the exact opposite. He had worked to establish house rules that construct order from the chaos in his mind. These applied to her bedroom, the kitchen, and every room in between. Jim limited the amount of sugar she could eat, pushing her toward healthier foods. Willow often pushed back, believing her father’s rules were too strict. In particular, she felt it was unfair that she could only eat a single Chips Ahoy cookie after finishing her whole dinner, while Jim would finish off the pack without eating all his vegetables. 

Willow felt whiplash going from one home to the next, at a time when she desperately sought stability. “I never figured out the transition [between my mother’s world] and his world,” Willow later said. “It was his way or the highway.”

Though Jim disagrees with Willow’s recollection, he nonetheless second-guessed his parenting decisions. He wanted to provide clear structure for his daughter, but also knew that such rigidity could push Willow away from him and her half-sister, Sadie, born that summer. 

Fearful that Lori would move again, potentially leaving him with no easy way to establish his parental rights, Jim petitioned for joint custody in late 2006. During the proceedings, Jim’s lawyer offered $500 a month in child support, and pledged to pay for half of Willow’s medical bills, education, and extracurricular activities. Beyond that, he wanted Lori to agree not to speak ill of him in front of Willow, according to court filings. 

The March before Willow’s ninth birthday, Jim put on his dark blue suit and drove to a custody hearing at the Madison County courthouse. The old-school judge reviewing the case seemed surprised to learn a touring artist like Jim was living anything but a rock and roll lifestyle. He didn’t spend lavishly. He paid off his debt. The only way he had been able to afford his 2001 Ford Sportrac was to drive a Geo Metro around for the previous five years. Because of that sacrifice, one of many he made to provide for Willow, he was able to pay for the truck in cash.

That’s how we always did it,  Jim recalls the judge remarked. You didn’t buy things on credit.

That’s how I look at it, too, Jim replied. 

Before that day was done Jim got the news he’d been waiting for: In the eyes of the court, he was fit to be Willow’s father.

2010

As Willow neared her teenage years, life in rural Georgia left her wanting more. She remembers sleeping with Lori in the living room, huddled near a space heater, during the winters. She was doing poorly in school and wanted a fresh start. So one night, 12-year-old Willow asked her mother if she could move to Hilton Head, South Carolina, to live with Jim’s sister, Jeannie, a fifth-grade science teacher whom Willow visited on multiple occasions.  

Lori balked. But Willow pushed back. Their war of words escalated. Willow claims her mother told her she wished Willow had never been born. Feeling unwanted and unloved, Willow says she headed to the kitchen medicine cabinet, grabbed a “fuck ton” of Tylenol tablets, and swallowed them. She stayed up all night, drawing to pass the hours, while dark thoughts raced through her head. In the morning, she told her mother about the pills, and was rushed to St. Mary’s Hospital in Athens. The staff pumped her stomach and monitored her vitals so she wouldn’t go into septic shock. 

Lori, for her part, disputed Willow and Jim’s accounts of the fight and aftermath. As Lori recalls, Willow got herself hospitalized to catch a boy’s attention. As someone who lost her father to suicide, Lori insists she’d never wish death upon the child she brought into the world. 

Willow felt hopeless about the future. The culmination of a series of suicidal thoughts, her hospitalization triggered another visit from social services. Willow’s faith in her mother was shattered, particularly after Lori told social services that her daughter tried to end her life because of a boy’s unrequited affection. 

Willow remained wary of Jim. But she needed someone, anyone, to believe in. So she went to stay with him. 

2011 

When Jim enrolled Willow in Camp Amped, a summer program where Athens middle and high school musicians learn life skills by playing together in bands, he didn’t know what to expect. Willow was thrust into the role of frontwoman for a band called Corrosive Kiss, which recorded a version of the Black Keys’ bluesy summer anthem, “Tighten Up.” The head of Camp Amped later called Jim to ask: Why didn’t you tell me Willow could sing like that? Jim hadn’t heard her sing since she was a little child belting on the toy karaoke machine. He was dumbfounded. She sounded like a star. 

Jim still hoped to foster Willow’s musical talent. His made-up chords were too avant garde for her. So he showed her a couple of beginner guitar chords. He paid for drum lessons. He scoured record stores for music by female artists with whom she might identify and brought home albums from the women he toured with — independent artists like Laura Burhenn of the Mynabirds.

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Jim poured his energy into connecting with Willow over music.

“I was trying so hard to create foundational trust,” Jim told me. “I wanted to say, ‘See, Dad’s world isn’t cheesy, and isn’t worthless.’ I couldn’t do it with my own words. So I tried to show her my world had some value.”

It didn’t always work. Sometimes, when Jim asked Willow if she wanted to sing on his records, she resisted. When they clashed over house rules again, Willow retaliated by asserting the only power she had — leaving Jim to move back in with Lori

On lonely nights at home, Jim sometimes watched old home videotapes of Willow strumming a fake guitar and speak-singing into a toy microphone. He thought about “Tender Mercies,” a movie where a young daughter grows up unable to know her father, a washed-out country singer, severing their adult relationship. In his darkest moments, Jim would ask: Is that what my future holds with Willow? 

In early 2011, an Atlanta promoter, Matt Arnett, asked Jim to play at the Grocery on Home, an intimate venue Matt managed. While Jim agreed to play, he made a small request.

Can I bring my daughter?

Jim and Willow barely talked on the 80-mile drive from Winterville. As Jim dropped off his gear and talked with Matt, Willow absorbed the room. Brightly colored folk art adorned the red brick walls, framing mismatched chairs and sofas. A small wooden stage stood in the corner. On a metal cabinet, she saw her dad’s name spelled out in colorful magnets for the evening’s bill.

Matt came downstairs to greet everyone and shake Willow’s hand. Lonnie Holley, a world-renowned Atlanta visual artist whose career Matt managed, took a seat next to Willow and struck up a conversation with her, inviting her to twist old metal wire into sculptures shaped like faces. After Willow bent the wire into various shapes, Holley grabbed some paper, and challenged Willow to draw an original work of her own. She had no idea his sculptures stood in museums around the world.

In this artistic space, the kind Jim found comfort in, Willow felt a sense of belonging. Later that night, Jim took the stage with his four-piece band and charmed the packed house with his weirdly shaped songs and wild stories. Willow was among them, smiling as she watched her dad in his element. 

“I didn’t really know about him beforehand,” she later said. “Seeing him really do his thing was definitely eye-opening. It helped me get a lot about his personality.” 

On the ride home, Willow opened up to Jim for the first time. They talked about the most fundamental details of her adolescence, including her favorite musician, Kimya Dawson, whom she had discovered from the “Juno” soundtrack. That night, she had noticed similarities between the songs played by her father and Dawson — how their poignant lyrics made up for their lack of virtuosic guitar playing. Jim was glad to hear her blunt take. The ice was finally melting between him and his daughter. Spring was coming, and he hoped he would finally spend it with his Bluebird.

“We started talking like family,” Jim said.

2012

The following year Lori moved to Johns Creek, an affluent Atlanta suburb located 90 minutes west of Winterville. Despite Willow’s budding relationship with her dad, she was happy to go with her mom, whose relationship had improved since their blowout fight. She hoped her decision might lead to new friends, a nicer school, a better quality of life. 

But she struggled in her new world, losing touch with old pals, and getting bullied by new peers on Yik Yak, an anonymous social media app. To offset some of her living costs, Willow worked after-school shifts at a hibachi grill. Her lack of focus on school, along with untreated health issues like pneumonia and an abscessed tooth, caused her to fall behind in the classroom. After failing classes her freshman year, social workers interviewed Willow, looking for potential red flags about her life at home and school.

“I wouldn’t tell my dad about anything that was going on,” Willow told me. “I felt any information that I would give him he would use against my mother.” 

Feeling isolated, Willow stayed in her bedroom and focused on her music, building off those Camp Amped lessons. Eventually, she set up a camera to film and record an original. 

On YouTube, she posted a song titled “Your Not Mine,” writing, “This is a song that I put a lot of heart into.” Viewers responded warmly: “You’re going to be famous,” one wrote. “I expect to see your name on the top of the charts one day,” another said. She kept posting videos of her singing and playing an acoustic guitar. The most popular one was a soulful cover of Bright Eyes’ “First Day of My Life” that was viewed 32,000 times.

As Willow grew more confident, she took her songs from the bedroom to the stage. She performed on the kids stage at AthFest, the city’s largest annual music festival, and later played keys in the Camp Amped band at the 40 Watt, opening for the Drive-By Truckers. 

Some of her most memorable onstage performances weren’t covers but collaborations with her dad. In December 2012, on one of her first visits with Jim since moving to Johns Creek, Willow returned for another show at the Grocery. On Jim’s song, “Fruit of the Vine,” she sang harmonies from her seat on a couch next to the stage. Her dad strummed his guitar, tapping his brown shoes to keep time, while she belted out the chorus. 

The next time they returned, Willow brimmed with confidence, backing up her dad on another one of his songs, “If Jesus Drove a Motorhome.” She was starting to steal his thunder — and Jim, always a reluctant performer, didn’t mind. The Grocery shows had become their equivalent of a father-daughter dance. 

Willow began spending more time at Jim’s house again. With each visit, she left more of her belongings — clothes first, then guitar amps. In the summer of 2014, just before Willow’s 16th birthday, Jim registered Willow as a student at Cedar Shoals High School in Athens, a short drive from Winterville. Lori strongly objected, as Willow would be moving out again. But Jim felt it was time for Willow to start charting her own course.

2014 

To guide Willow through the darkness of mental illness that ran in the family, Jim felt he needed to be her guardian. So he sued for primary custody of Willow, claiming that Lori had grown “emotionally and mentally unable to adequately care” for their daughter, according to court filings. 

Lori balked, responding that Jim had violated their previous custody agreement. She alleged Jim had underreported his songwriting income — skirting his past obligations to pay child support — and downplayed how often he was touring, accusations Jim denied.

In an affidavit, Willow weighed in: “I want to live with my father and for him to have custody of me. I want to make my own choice when to visit my mother.” That winter, a Fulton County judge made Jim her primary guardian. Lori would have to pay Jim $265 in monthly child support, and would have custody on some weekends and holidays. In exchange, he bore responsibility for Willow’s education, health care, and extracurricular activities. 

His world further changed to accommodate Willow. He scaled back tour dates. He urged his neighbor, who owned an Italian restaurant, to hire his daughter. His Facebook profile became a forum for parenting advice: Anybody know where Willow could find some Polaroid 600 film? Anyone here know a tutor to help Willow prepare to take her geometry test? Anyone know how to stop Willow’s room from being invaded by horseflies?

But as Jim’s world changed, some things remained the same. The early pattern of clashes between Willow and Jim resurfaced. Not only did she again take issue with the logic behind his parenting, she struggled with her father’s inability to articulate that his choices were acts of love, not acts of punishment. 

Jim could be stoic, tough even, Willow felt. They tried adjusting to one another, but their disputes, even small ones, grew worse. They barely spoke. “Where we were at the time, it was toxic and uncomfortable,” Willow said. “I needed to be independent.”

The tension grew to the point where Willow, now 16, asked her dad if she could get a place of her own. Looking back, she doesn’t exactly remember how she made her case to Jim, perhaps something about moving closer to her job at the Italian restaurant. As Jim recalls, Willow had asked to enroll at Foothills Education Charter High School, which offered night and online classes for at-risk students in Athens. 

At first, Jim said no; recently divorced, he couldn’t leave Sadie alone to pick up Willow. Jim didn’t think his 16-year-old daughter should live on her own yet. But Willow argued it might help get her through high school, especially after she had continued to fail classes in tenth grade. Since then, Jim felt she had been showing signs of progress in the classroom. He countered: If you keep making progress, maybe when you’re 17, we can rent a house for you. 

When that birthday came, Willow, as many teenagers do, held her dad to his word. Jim worried he might push her away for good if he put his foot down so in that summer of 2015, he offered a compromise: Willow could get her own place if she spent a few nights a week at Jim’s. 

2015

Willow’s housing search was underway. Soon, she found a red brick ranch with a large enough yard for her dog, Gucci. She found a roommate, a 26-year-old Apple technician, to sign the $1,000-a-month lease. After moving in, she turned a spare bedroom into a small recording studio she filled with her father’s old equipment. 

Willow’s freedom, however, didn’t free her from struggle. Her grades slipped. Her mental health regressed. She was fired by her boss at the Italian restaurant: Willow had her shift covered so she could go to the Atlanta airport to pick up Jim, but her coworker didn’t show up. Then Willow’s roommate moved out because of a drinking problem — leaving her responsible for the full $1,000 rent payment each month.

Willow filled out scores of job applications, including at fast food restaurants like Arby’s and McDonald’s. No one called back. Following a bout with tonsillitis, she sold leftover prescription hydrocodone painkillers to a drug dealer to pay her bills. When that money dried up, a friend recommended a website called Seeking Arrangements, a matchmaking service once described by the New York Times as a “down-and-dirty marketplace where older moneyed men and cute young women engage in brutally frank transactions.” 

Willow didn’t want to be an escort. But she lacked self-confidence, in part because she remembered her mother’s conservative family long ago writing her off as bound to be either addicted, pregnant, or homeless. As she later said: “I didn’t have any affection coming from anywhere, and these men were giving me affection while also helping my financial situation.” Curious but reluctant, she signed up, drawing a red line at no sexual encounters, and soon saw easy money come her way. One man gave her two months’ rent for sharing a meal at a Waffle House. That fall, whenever Jim asked about her house, Willow evaded his questions. But right before Christmas, Jim discovered she had been fired from the Italian restaurant months earlier. When he confronted Willow, tears ran down her face. To cover the rent, Willow explained, she had been drawing from her savings. 

When Jim pressed, Willow accused him of not trusting her but kept her Seeking Arrangements work a secret.

In January 2016, five years after her first visit to the Grocery on Home, Willow returned with Jim, excited to share the stage again. This time, she played a few songs of her own before Jim took his usual seat onstage. After a few songs, he opened up to the audience about their relationship, something he rarely discussed on stage. 

“We didn’t have much opportunity to find love when she was growing up for complicated reasons beyond both of our control,” he said.

She quietly listened to her father tell the story of the first time they’d come here together five years earlier. 

“She was kind of standoffish, and wouldn’t tell me about her life, and had secrets to keep because of some unfortunate situations,” he told the crowd. “Everyone came and talked to her and welcomed her, and the father who was her monster seemed to be a pretty nice guy. 

“I remember her sitting in the front row smiling at me,” he continued. “I had not seen her smile at me in years. On the way home, she started telling me about her life, and it was a watershed moment. I felt like I got my kid back.”

After a few more songs, Willow joined her father on a song in tribute to Kimya Dawson. Then he ended with “Sweet Bird of Mystery,” finally playing it live after letting it collect dust for so long. Willow learned how Jim once thought he wouldn’t be part of her life. Picking simple chords on his electric guitar, he closed his eyes and sang, going back to the nervous days before his Bluebird was born. 

I hold a snapshot of you darling, of course, you’re still quite young. 

You’re not ready to present yourself to this big old, bad old world. 

I know I’ll have to pinch myself at the beauty of your innocence. 

How can I let anything so wondrous slip right through my fingertips? 

Early 2016

On a Friday night, three months after the Grocery performance, Jim opened a Facebook message from a stranger. He figured it might be fan mail. Instead, he stared into his screen in disbelief. The stranger wrote: “My husband is a lot of things, but he’s not dangerous.”

She explained how her 50-year-old husband had met Willow through Seeking Arrangements. After discovering his emotional infidelity, she warned Jim about Willow’s actions — she had a child who was the same age. 

“Many of the men on this site probably are [dangerous], and this is no place for a teenage girl,” she added.

Sadness, terror, anger, guilt all flooded Jim’s mind. He thought about the little clues — the takeout meals Willow always seemed to be eating, the vintage clothes she was always wearing. Willow’s finances didn’t add up, launching him into a spiral of questions: How did she pay for it all? How did I miss the signs? Is she okay? 

In way over his head, Jim called his ex-girlfriend, Megan, whom he had dated after divorcing Sadie’s mother, Robin. Jim and Megan, who had developed a close bond with his daughters, had split up a few days earlier. Nevertheless, Jim hoped Megan might help for Willow’s sake. The next morning, as Jim walked the aisles of a local flea market, trying to calm his mind, Megan called back and agreed to help. They drove over to Willow’s place and knocked on the front door, which slowly cracked open.

“I need to come in,” Jim said.

“Why?” Willow asked.

“I need to come in,” he repeated. 

He pushed open the door, kicked out one of Willow’s best friends, who had crashed on the couch, and instructed his daughter to sit down in the living room. He asked: “Do you want to tell me about where the money is coming from?” 

“My savings,” she said, shaking slightly.

“You’re lying. Where is the money coming from? You have a chance to tell the truth.”

“Seeking Arrangements.”

Willow broke down. She admitted to seeing 15 clients, some multiple times. They were doctors and construction workers, fathers and husbands. From what Jim gathered, each one paid at least $200 a visit — sometimes 10 times as much — netting her more than $20,000 over eight months. Willow explained that these men came to her looking for emotional companionship, not sex. 

In a cascade of confessions, Willow opened up about her other troubles. She had bought knives, concerned about a sex offender who lived across the street. Her suicidal thoughts had returned.

Jim was speechless. At Megan’s insistence, Willow gathered a few belongings, and moved back to Jim’s, sleeping most of that day. In the coming days, Jim cooked healthy foods instead of ordering takeout. When she needed a ride, Jim drove her to school. 

Jim called the nonprofit that hosted Camp Amped, Nuci’s Space, whose primary mission is to help musicians at risk of suicide, for advice. He also called free mental health providers. But most said their services couldn’t handle Willow’s complicated case. Some health experts told Jim to consider committing Willow to a mental health treatment program. He kept searching and kept calling, explaining Willow’s long, trying saga. Eventually, he found a psychiatrist who would help Willow, starting with an antipsychotic drug to help steady her mind.

As they cleared out the rental house over 10 days, Jim saw the trappings of his daughter’s mental illness. Dishes stacked in the sink. Vintage clothes in piles three feet high. A hundred pairs of scattered shoes. Behind on her rent, Jim forced Willow to hold a yard sale to sell those belongings bought with money from Seeking Arrangements. As he cleaned the house, Willow sorted clothes. On one of the final days at the rental house, as Jim cleared debris from the backyard, mulling dark thoughts about his daughter’s future, he caught a glimpse of Willow standing outside in torn blue jeans, staring into the distance, beyond the life she was purging. A few feet to her right, a lone bluebird landed on top of a chain-link fence. The bird perched there for a while, looking around, chirping blissfully. Before the bird flew away, Jim took a picture of the two side by side, a reminder of the sanctuary that now seemed so far away.

Late 2016

Not long after the yard sale, Willow told Jim she was moving to Atlanta. Mom was sick, she said, and needed her help. Plus, Willow was nearly 18, and ready to leave home. After a dispute on Father’s Day 2016, Willow left home with Gucci, sleeping in her car or on the couches of boys she met on Tinder, before eventually finding a place in Atlanta.

As he tried to imagine the next few years of Willow’s life, Jim remembered his own teenage years and how badly he wanted to escape the South. In “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus,” a 2003 documentary about him, he recounted how he had to leave the South before he could love it. Only when he returned, many years later, did he recognize the complex beauty of the pine trees, the boggy swamps, the rusty cars, the junkyards full of hidden art. Similarly, he knew Willow had to go her own way if his Bluebird were to spread her wings. 

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Sure enough, the following winter, after briefly holding down a retail job in Atlanta, Willow drove out to Southern California. She found a place in Los Angeles, bought an old Mercedes, and got a job at a trendy restaurant. Willow had started to grasp the advice Jim had given in her worst moments, and it helped her become a better version of herself. 

In particular, Jim always reminded her to be aware that she had “tunnel vision” that led her to, in good times and bad, think too narrowly about a specific task at hand. He urged her to channel that part of herself into building a new life that made her happy. 

“It kept me from going down a darker path than I was already starting out on,” she said of his advice. “I didn’t make the same bad decisions out here.”

The first time Jim and Sadie visited Willow in California, six months after she’d moved there, father and daughter played a house show at Willow’s place in East Hollywood. Jim snapped a photo of Willow singing to share on Facebook. 

Though Willow had struggled with the fact he didn’t always say ‘I love you’ in person, she was starting to see that her dad had a different way of expressing his fatherly devotion. A month later, on her 19th birthday, Jim posted a portrait of Willow in a floral-patterned dress staring off into the distance. The photo, taken during a shoot at Vasquez Rocks just outside Los Angeles, has a mystical quality to it. Her eyes appear as blue as those bluebird eggs Jim once saw back in Winterville. 

“At 19 you’re on the move, all indications point to a restless soul,” he wrote in a Facebook post that included that photo, along with a line from “Sweet Bird of Mystery.” “…We can only wish you a big blue suitcase full of smiles for the miles of open road that stretch out before you.”

When Willow returned home that Christmas, she felt at ease in her old bedroom in the Winterville house. Sadie was around, and the sisters wandered through the nearby woods. Before flying back, Willow gave Jim his Christmas gift: a Western-style shirt, along with a small card cut into the shape of a heart. Below a set of her doodles, she wrote a simple message that was enough to bring Jim to tears. 

“I am the person I am today because of you. I couldn’t and wouldn’t ask for anything more.

“I love you, Bluebird.”

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2018

On a freezing November night, Jim stood in the back of the Grocery on Home, watching Willow onstage. Dressed in all black, she sang into the microphone, sounding like the star he’d heard years earlier. 

In her nearly two years out in California, she had not only grown more responsible, finding jobs and apartments, but had rediscovered her love of music, writing songs and practicing the guitar. And she had fallen unexpectedly into a contract with Big Deal, a publishing company whose roster includes Rosanne Cash, Sharon Van Etten, and St. Vincent. 

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For Thanksgiving, she brought home her partner, Andrew Wessen, the long-haired guitarist of Grouplove, whom Jim affectionately described as a “23-million-YouTube-view rock star willing to wash the dishes at my house.” The best Jim could tell, Willow seemed happier than ever, now smiling back at Andrew, who accompanied her on acoustic guitar. 

When Willow’s set ran long, cutting a bit into Jim’s, he let her take all the time she needed to finish.

“This will officially be the last time that she opens for me,” Jim quipped on stage. “I’m working on being her roadie, later on, when she’s making hits.”

With Willow on her own, Jim had finally mustered the courage to put “Sweet Bird of Mystery” out into the world. The final track of his latest album, “Waffles, Triangles & Jesus,” opens with an old recording of a two-year-old Willow singing the hymn “Jesus Loves Me” into her karaoke station. 

But on that chilly night at the Grocery, Jim would revisit his oldest songs, playing his debut record, “Wrong-Eyed Jesus,” in its entirety for the first time since its 1997 release. When Jim sang, he shut his eyes, as if trying to mentally picture the photographs that accompanied those songs. There was “A Perfect Day to Chase Tornados,” one of the songs he often played around the time he first met Lori, and “Heaven of My Heart,” which covered a down payment on his family’s house in Pensacola.

When Jim finished the final notes of “The Road That Leads To Heaven,” the final track of “Wrong-Eyed Jesus,” he went to pack up his gear. Before he could, Matt Arnett, the Grocery’s owner and promoter, asked if the crowd wanted to hear one more song. As a father who understood Jim’s parenting struggles, Matt usually asked Jim to play the same encore.

“It wasn’t the first song by Jim White I loved,” Matt told the crowd. “But when I started having children, it became the most meaningful to me. … I’ll let him talk about it.”

“When you raise kids, they teach you a lot,” Jim told the audience. “Thank you, Willow, for what you taught me. I learned to be a better person because of my daughter. I lived a very solipsistic life up until when she was born. I decided that wasn’t going to work anymore. I decided to try and write her a love song.

“She was a little thing, about 2 and a half, when I tried to write the song. I kept trying and it didn’t work. Nothing worked. Finally, I played what I had for her. She set me straight. It’s good to be set straight. If you’re aiming for straight, and your heart’s designed to be crooked, you need all the help you can get.”

He strummed the opening melody of “Bluebird,” making his way through the first few verses. As he picked his guitar, he looked at Willow, who had rested her head on Andrew’s shoulder. 

Long ago, Jim had realized that while he would never be a perfect father, he could be one who persevered. Now, if he reflected long enough, Jim could see how his world had changed. He had grown more patient, and learned to be less selfish. He understood that, even when he made mistakes, the journey of fatherhood had brought him closer to the sanctuary those bluebirds once symbolized. 

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His willingness to try, in spite of his failures along the way, had brought closer the peace that had long eluded him.

Onstage, he sang, “Me, I’ve found someone to love more than rain,” to finish the third verse of “Bluebird.” Halfway through the fourth, he blanked on the lyrics. He kept strumming, trying to remember the words he’d written years ago.

Then, from the crowd came Willow’s voice. 

From her seat, she sang the words softly, hoping to jog her dad’s memory. Jim seemed comforted by the presence of her voice. He looked at her and leaned into the mic. 

“Come sing it with me,” he said.


Photography by Dustin Chambers. Funded by support from Sunday Long Read members. 

About Max Blau

Max Blau is an Atlanta-based journalist who writes narrative and investigative stories, which have recently appeared in the Atavist, the Atlantic, ProPublica, and the Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @Max Blau, or send him a line at maxcblau@gmail.com.

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