Music

Calgary’s Bella White the New Queen of Country Awaits Her Coronation

A sweet, rippling perfection shines in the music of Calgary born and raised Bella White. 

From writing her first song in her journal at age seven to experiencing her first heartbreak from unrequited love in Grade 4 to her first public performance at 12 years of age, her music ensnares the eternal, universal recurrence of heartache and longing in a matter-of-fact manner that’s anything but mundane.

At the beginning of White’s professional career she wore grooves into The Music Mile as a member of Red Hot Hayseeds, then earning a solo deal with illustrious roots flame-keeper, Nashville’s Rounder Records (Dr. John, Alison Krauss, Sierra Ferrell), before she was even of legal drinking age in the label’s home state.

White’s had abundant practice at it all. 

Which no doubt led to her first album, 2020’s Just Like Leaving and this year’s Among Other Things, being, well, pretty much perfect.

And in April of this year, White made her first appearance at The Grand Ole Opry. 

White’s pathway to success may seem like it was short, but actually started earlier than most — in pre-school even, when her Virginia-born, North Carolina-raised dad, William White, ran into Craig Korth as they were picking up their kids. The dads ended up playing music together.

“I remember going to all the little bluegrass festivals in Alberta and sitting on the side of the stage watching him play just like thinking he was so cool,” White said in a phone interview from her boyfriend’s home in New Orleans, where she will be moving from her Victoria digs once she gets off the road in October. “He was in that band with Craig Korth and Julie Kerr (Kerr and Korth had Jerusalem Ridge, William White’s was Widow Maker) and their daughters Ella and Amy are like sisters to me and my sister”

It was barely a half-decade before White was on the stage in her own right.

“I think the first thing I ever did was play one of the open mics at The Ship and Anchor. Do you know the band The Lovebullies? You know, Joni (Brent) and Chantal (Vitalis) and all of them. They were, like, family friends of mine and I’ve known them since I was a little kid and Caroline (Connolly) had me come and sing there one day when they were hosting it. I think I was maybe 12 at the time.” 

White went on to play all the beloved venues of Music Mile and beyond, often as part of Red Hot Hayseeds, so by the time she finished William Aberhart High School, she was set on music rather than post-secondary. She moved to Boston at 19. 

“It’s kind of random. I feel like I was kinda surprised by it too, but there’s a music school in Boston (Berklee) and I did not attend it but they have this really cool American roots program that teaches you about a lot of old country music and bluegrass and old-time music and kind of folk music of America if you will. A lot of my peers at the time were either finishing up their time at Berklee or had attended Berklee or were living in Boston creating music. There was a really rich music community in Boston, and it was a scene I wanted to be a part of so I figured I would insert myself. I was there for about a year. It was a really special time.”

White wrote the songs for her first album, and gathered some of those peers to record at Guilford Sound in Vermont. When White self-released Just Like Leaving in 2020, Rolling Stone picked The Hand of Your Raising as a must hear country song. Pretty soon, White was on Rounder Records with a world-wide release. Fast forward a couple of years to White onstage “in the circle” at the Opry.

“It was really a special experience. It was something that I’ve always, of course, revered the idea of. I don’t even know if I really considered that I would actually get to do something like that or if it was an option but I just kind of was like, ‘Oh yeah, The Grand Ole Opry, that’s an institution and that’s amazing.’ I never really thought, ‘Well, I’ll play that one day,’ so when I was offered the performance I was kind of like, ‘Oh, shit, that’s cool.’ ” 

She adds, “You really do feel like you’ve become part of this family and that was really neat to feel so at home at somewhere that’s very intimidating but they just do a really great job or making you feel really welcomed.”

Some people have already started calling White the next queen of country, an accolade that can create pressure. But she takes it in stride. “I kind of chuckle. I mean I appreciate that so much because that’s a label that I don’t take lightly. I think so many of my biggest musical heroes at times have been referred to as the queens of country music like Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris and Loretta Lynn — you know, all these badass ladies. 

“And I also know some of the badass ladies that are making amazing music in country music right now that are, you know, people that I really admire and who I’m really lucky to know.”

Her own list of the next queens of country include Sierra Ferrell, whom she toured with, Erin Rae, Melissa Carper and Mariel Buckley. “I’m happy to be in the mix. And I think it’s one of those things where I’m like, OK, I’ll take it, I can’t turn that down, but I don’t know if I necessarily feel like I am that.”

With White’s penchant for capturing a candid moment and emotion in a single lyric line, she might, indeed, be headed up Queen of Country Road. 

Although she’s still young (she’ll have just turned 23 when she plays a hometown show at Dickens this month), the heartache in her songs feels ancient, perhaps from channeling that Grade 4 unreturned love and having added a few breakups along the way. 

“I feel like I can tap into those feelings pretty quickly. I’m a very positive, happy-go-lucky person I would say, but you know, there is a side or an underbelly that’s raw and emotional and it’s very sensitive and feels things very big.  

“I would love to be able to write or practice writing with a more positive outlook because I think that is a gift and I love to hear music like that. 

“But I wouldn’t say that I’m necessarily wallowing in it and I’m not always writing the songs, I’m not always in tears or, like, upset in the moment but I think I can go back and a lot of the times really look at the feelings I was experiencing or if (the songs) are written present tense they’re about past experiences that maybe happened a long time ago.”

Bella White plays Dickens Aug. 9. and the Edmonton Folk Music Festival Aug. 11. Learn more and listen at bellawhitemusic.com