About six minutes into the 1991 documentary "Dancing Outlaw," Norma Jean White, sitting in a lawn chair on her junky yard, stares directly into the camera and introduces viewers to the many sides of her husband, the acclaimed West Virginia tap dancer and cult figure Jesco White.
"Jesse can be three people," she says earnestly. "He is Jesse, he is Jesco, and he is Elvis. Jesse is the most beautiful man that I could have ever loved. But Jesco, he's somebody else. He's the devil in himself. Nothing satisfies him. He can't be happy."
Memphians will get a chance to meet all three personas when White makes a rare tour appearance Sunday at the Hi-Tone Café. The show will be preceded by an afternoon screening of a new documentary about White and his family, "The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia," at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.
White is the son of Donald Ray White, who, before his murder in 1985, was regarded as the greatest practitioner of Appalachia mountain dance, a combination of clogging and tap dancing. Jesco inherited his father's mantle but brought his own unique flair to the art, dancing to rock-and-roll and working his Elvis impersonation into his show.
White's outsize personality first caught the attention of West Virginia public television cameras with "Dancing Outlaw," which chronicled not just his art but also his convoluted home life in Boone County, W.Va., and his personal struggles with drugs and the law. Among other things, White liked to sniff gasoline and lighter fluid and, according to him, met Norma Jean when he tried to rob her.
A sequel three years later followed Jesco and Norma Jean to Los Angeles, where he was scheduled to make an appearance on the sitcom "Roseanne." Over the years, White has also appeared in Beck's "Loser" video and on the Adult Swim animated series "Squidbillies" and has been celebrated in song by everyone from Big & Rich to Mastodon.
"For all the problems there's something very magnetic about (White)," says Rob "Storm" Taylor, a producer on "The Wild and Wonderful Whites" and a longtime friend of the dancer. "There's something about this guy — people just want to see this guy. Part of it's the spectacle. People want to touch him, and girls want to lick his sweat. I don't know why, but it happens."
Taylor, a native of Blount County in Tennessee, first met White when he worked on the Turner South travel show "Yokel." After enlisting his friend Johnny Knoxville as a producer, Taylor and director Julien Nitzberg, an associate producer on the first film and the man generally credited with discovering Jesco, set about filming White and his family for one year.
The resulting film, which was recently bought by Tribeca Films and is currently available for rent on Amazon's Video On Demand, is a much more sobering documentary than the humor-filled early films. Violence, crime and substance abuse run rampant through the family and its community. At one point White's niece Kirk, who has earlier stabbed her husband, gives birth to a baby girl, and as the newborn sleeps beside her in the hospital room, she sniffs ground-up prescription pills off the nightstand.
"The film is really heavy," says Taylor. "You find yourself laughing at things you know you shouldn't be laughing at. But you have hope at the end, and it's informative about mountain culture and entitlement issues and coal mining communities."
The film debuted in Knoxville this week, and next week Taylor is taking it on tour, including the Brooks showing. This venture attempts what few have had the courage to try — a tour featuring White himself.
"There have been a lot of issues over somebody managing, somebody stealing," says Taylor of past attempts to put White on the road. "More than managing him, you've got to treat him like a child, both in terms of helping him get from point A to point B but also to keep the hard liquor away."
Taylor describes the show as "karaoke tap dancing," which he has helped shape into a more presentable format.
"I've gone in and tried to structure something for him where there's a video presentation at first, and then there's some video interspersed between songs," he says. "I just sort of walk people through things and introduce Jesco. Emcee, I guess, or liaison. Whatever you want to call me. I've been called a lot with this family."
Jesco White the Dancing Outlaw with Pick Up the Snake and Joecephus & the George Jonestown Massacre
Sunday at the Hi-Tone Café, 1913 Poplar. Doors open at 9 p.m. Admission: $13; advance tickets available at hitonememphis.com. For more information, call 901-278-8663.
'The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia'
A screening of the film will take place at 2 p.m. at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in Overton Park. Tickets are $6 for Brooks and IndieMemphis members and $8 for non-members. For more information, call 544-6200.