A Rock Star Changes His Stripes

Jack White has sold millions of records. Now he owns the store

  • Photograph by Grant Cornett for TIME

    Jack White works in an office. Until the White Stripes' formal dissolution in February, White was the singer, guitarist and songwriter for one of the biggest rock bands in the world. Now he sits at a desk. White, 35, owns and operates Third Man Records, a music store, concert venue and record label in Nashville. He spends his days clicking away at a Mac desktop and talking on a landline phone with too many buttons.

    This particular Saturday, though, White wasn't in his office. It's Record Store Day — a national celebration of the increasingly archaic concept of a record shop — and this morning he's running all over Third Man, preparing for the fans lined up outside the store (they're waiting to buy limited-edition White Stripes rereleases) and for the arrival of Jerry Lee Lewis, who is set to perform in a parking lot across the street in a few hours. The concert will be recorded directly to analog tape, produced by White and released on the label as a seven-inch vinyl record. But it's unusually cold for April in Nashville, and the wind keeps knocking over the band equipment of the 75-year-old rockabilly legend.

    White talks to Third Man employees near the office kitchen. He's thinking about canceling the show. "I just don't think we can do it," he says, and frowns. He is tall — well over 6 ft. — with inky black hair and ivory skin, and though he's dressed in pinstripe pants and a bloodred shirt and he's wearing a bowler hat indoors, he manages to look unassuming. White consults with one person and then another, trying to figure out what to do about the 700 ticket holders expecting a concert. Does he move it indoors? Reschedule? Make an elderly man play in near freezing weather? He walks into his office and shuts the door.

    This is mundane business for someone who is supposed to be a rock star. After the White Stripes formed in Detroit in 1997, he and his then wife, drummer Meg White, became known for their candy-cane-colored outfits and for trying to convince the public they were actually siblings. (They later divorced; he is now married to supermodel turned singer Karen Elson.) White's distorted, purposely primitive guitar playing and his ability to reimagine bluesy rock 'n' roll without a bass led the White Stripes to sell 5.5 million albums over their 14-year career. Rolling Stone named White one of the top 20 guitarists of all time, a list that included the rock legend to whom he's most often compared: Jimmy Page.

    But even before the Stripes' last release, 2007's Icky Thump , White had begun to distance himself from the band that had made him famous. "I started doing all of these side projects that I really cared about, but all people would say was 'That's great, but when is the next White Stripes album coming out?'" he says. He produced a Grammy-winning album by Loretta Lynn. He formed a second band, the Raconteurs. Then he added a third, the Dead Weather. White also provided the vocals for Rome , the new album from Danger Mouse (a.k.a. Cee Lo Green's other half in Gnarls Barkley). Rome is out May 15, and White says he hopes to tour for it.

    Whenever White starts a new project, he says, he is "told things like 'You're changing too fast. People aren't going to like this. They don't even know what band you're in anymore.' ... But I'm making a record because it needs to be made." The first show Dead Weather ever played was at Third Man in March 2009, on the day the business officially opened its doors.

    Third Man is run out of a former warehouse across from a homeless shelter in an industrial part of Nashville crisscrossed by railroad tracks. Walking into the store feels weird at first. It's as if Keith Richards had opened a bandanna shop. But the shop is a natural culmination of its owner's eclectic interests and tastes, down to its restricted color scheme (everything is painted black, red, blue or yellow) and its name, which holds talismanic significance for White. "Three is the minimum number required to hold anything together," he says. "When I write songs, I write three notes. I use three chords, three lines, three verses. That's all you really need."

    So far, Third Man has 93 releases, almost all of which were recorded live and issued on vinyl. "We provide the finest that mid-1960s technology has to offer," says Ben Blackwell, 28, White's nephew and Third Man's second in command, who used to run his own record label in Detroit. There's no digital recording equipment at Third Man; everything is done the old-fashioned way, on big reels of analog tape. White invites artists he admires — some, like Conan O'Brien, aren't even professional musicians — to play the Blue Room, which he claims is the only performing venue in the world set up to record a live show directly to tape. White personally mixes and produces all the albums, then sells them online and in Third Man's tiny storefront.

    Third Man may appear to be merely the vanity project of a wealthy vinyl obsessive. But White is actually on trend: according to Nielsen SoundScan, vinyl sales rose 14% in 2010 and even more the year before that. These days, listeners want their music one of two ways: fast and portable or slow and cherished.

    White decides to postpone the Jerry Lee Lewis show till the next day, which is fortunate: by then, sunny weather has returned. Lewis takes the stage on Sunday afternoon to play a collection of classics, including "Great Balls of Fire." His voice is shaky, but the notes are clear. As he performs, a handful of men from the homeless shelter gather just outside the security gates to listen. White stands in the audience, tapping his foot to the music and brushing strands of hair from his face.

    He knows Third Man's releases won't be as popular as the music he made with the White Stripes — there's just no way that a seven-inch vinyl record will ever go platinum — but that's not the point. "There's nothing as reverential as putting on a vinyl album and manually flipping it," he says. "You can't fast-forward. You can't pause. More than likely, you are going to let the whole thing play. I don't want to say that's the way music should be experienced — because I have an iPod too — but it is something that matters to me. That's the kind of music I'm interested in making."

    This article originally appeared in the May 9, 2011 issue of TIME.