We faithfully spend an hour every week with Hearty White’s “Miracle Nutrition” podcast. It’s kind of like going to church, except the minister admits that he is as confused about what to believe in as you are. Read, watch, and let your heart be blessed this holiday season.
Story by Robert Rushin | Photographs by Colin Hackley
Who the Hell Is Hearty White?
If he is real, Hearty White is probably the only Southerner alive who is always sincere when he says “Bless your heart.” No sly shade, no ironic smirk.
Imagine Mr. Rogers crossed with Andy of Mayberry. Maybe a blend of the visionary folk artist/preacher Howard Finster, mixed with a dollop of the anti-shame guru Brene Brown. The speech rhythms are pure country gospel, and the recurrent mantra of "Ohhhh, my frriiiiiiiiiendz" is Hearty’s version of "Somebody say amen!"
He’s maybe even a little like Santa Claus. Or not. You could be sure he’d eat your cookies and drink your milk. But the only present he’d give you is one that — at this age, anyway — you need more than a toy: He’d just ask you to be kind to yourself.
“There's no one quite like you exactly, though you are a type,” he would tell you. “Bless your heart.”
But who is he really? And: Can he be trusted?
I’m from far, far away. Look, if I told you I was from another planet, would you hold that planet against me?
But would you think I was crazy? Would you think I was crazy if I told you I was from another planet?
Some of you would, and some of you wouldn’t. Some people would actually go ahead and believe, because they would realize that the belief actually had no cost. There was no cost to believe, or at least to believe that I believed I was. I mean why is that belief more absurd than anybody else’s belief. I could very well be from…
First of all, I dunno…prove to me beyond a shadow of a doubt I’m not. From another planet.
You never will. It’s already gone to a part of my brain, it’s already done. I’ve made the museum of me. The statues are carved. The exhibits are up. I’ve done the research. I know who I am.
But you say, “BUT THEY’RE ALL LIES, HEARTY!”
Oh, woops! I guess I’m gonna have to work with the lies. I guess I’m going to have to get intimate with the lies then. And maybe at some point I will accept they were lies, but I’ll keep going on anyway.
— Excerpt from Hearty White’s “The Sermon on the Fly,” Miracle Nutrition, August 4, 2016
If he is real, Hearty White is a writer, a performer, a musician, a painter, a philosopher. A New South Buddha, the world’s foremost proponent of Southern Existentialist Dada. He's corny, profound, juvenile, deceptively erudite and/or simple, and often plagued by self-doubt and an overwhelming fear of being ostracized.
Do you believe in that middle-aged greybeard — wearing suspenders and flannel shirt while dispensing life wisdom from behind a desk out in a pasture — filling time between cartoons on “Adult Swim”? Is that YouTube tutorial explaining the martial arts form of “Tai Chi Shemp” just your imagination, running away? Is Hearty sharing life lessons from his father just a dream?
Hearty White (or someone who looks just like him) spends a lot of time alone in a little hut made of twigs and limbs and moss, tucked in a corner of a Lexington, Kentucky, backyard, where he ponders the meaning of it all — life, friendship, the inherent tragedy that is our fear of looking stupid in front of others, time travel, and the collected wisdom of the ages. His greatest desire is for true connection, so every week (for 220-plus weeks in a row and counting) he creates a new, hour-long fantasia/morality play/absurdist excursion in a tiny basement studio, where he imagines himself talking with you — his "friiiiiiiend" — directly.
You almost have to envision Hearty as some kind of amalgam, some kind of composite, because it’s possible that Hearty White doesn’t really exist, that his existence depends upon us, the listeners of the WFMU-FM broadcast/livestream/podcast of “Miracle Nutrition” — one of the funniest and most humane hours of radio on the planet — to give him shape and form.
Take a minute to introduce yourself to Hearty in this short clip.
Sandwiched between the skewed urbanity of WFMU’s “The Dusty Show” ("street interviews, listener call-ins … blatant talking over songs, politix, tenderness, and a vague undercurrent of angst") and the almost impossibly appropriate “Sinner's Crossroads” ("scratchy vanity 45s, pilfered field recordings, muddy off-the-radio sounds, homemade congregational tapes and vintage commercial gospel throw-downs"), "Miracle Nutrition" delivers homey humor, multi-character mini-dramas, obscure puns and literary references, and exhortations to listeners to love themselves and each other because, really, what else could be more important than that?
"Miracle Nutrition" bears a surface resemblance to an old-timey Southern tent revival or a fervent brimstoner on a rural AM radio station, but the show’s appeal is not restricted to the faithful by any stretch. If the audiences at his rare, sold-out appearances at Jersey City's Monty Hall are any indication, he draws as much from the hipster community as anything else. Some kind of meta-recursive loop of the non-ironic sincerely appealing to the ironically meta-ironic? Bless your heart.
Maybe "Miracle Nutrition" fills the inspirational gap for people who can't bear the thought of watching a TED Talk or reading a pop-psych self-improvement manual. Hearty White leaves room for doubt — he doesn't know anything, he tells you over and over as he tells you what he knows, and it's really OK if you don't know anything either. (Heck, he might not even exist.) Unlike TED, where the Answer™ is packaged into 18-minute servings of pre-digested certainty, Hearty leaves you at the end of an hour with something to chew on. It's White’s blend of inspiration with moral and ethical uncertainty that sets "Miracle Nutrition" apart from the babbling gaggle of self-help snake-oil grifters. Bless their hearts.
Hearty doesn’t do hard-sell.
I’m humble, not by any effort on my part. You see, sometimes you’re lowly against your will. And what a blessing that is. I haven’t chosen to be humble. Humble chose me. So, I’m gonna count that among my blessings, even though, technically, it might be a downside, kind of a red mark, but I like to think of it as something I’m proud of.
“When I started, I was doing something like pleading my case for my own humanity in front of people who might be tempted to reject me,” White says. “I also used the Bible as a way to bridge gaps instead of divide.” It’s not that the Bible has disappeared from his project, but more recently, "Miracle Nutrition" has been leavened with references to Talmud and Kabbalah, Buddhism, and secular-humanist and naturalist thought. It’s no accident that one of his regular sidekicks is a wisecracking NYC mook named Baruch “Butchie” Spinoza – or that Hearty delivers frequent incantations of Cervantes, Whitman, Francis Galton and Doctor Who.
WFMU is among the last of the great free-form radio stations, a throwback to the radio pirates of the ’60s whose only rule was: There are no rules. With the growth of internet radio, WFMU has developed a global audience of devotees who are game for audio adventure. And "Miracle Nutrition" has become one of WFMU’s most popular programs, consistently outperforming all other shows during station fundraisers. Hearty has listeners all over the world, including a handful of enthusiastic expats in China. He gets emails, lots of them. Some just say thanks; some tell jokes. Some are heartbreaking descriptions of suffering and loneliness with pleas for advice and guidance. He answers most of them.
He says these communiques from radioland “mean the world to me.” Those messages are, in fact, the sum total of his compensation for filling one hour of airtime with new material each week. He receives no money for his work. It is an authentic labor of love.
The more I developed an actual relationship with the listeners, the more they became real,
the more I felt freer to be myself and still feel accepted.
Fine. I reckon that we, the listeners, are real. But what about Hearty White?
I'm probably mainly speaking to myself.
Speaking to yourself is fine. Knowing who that self is takes a lifetime.
Some of us grow up rootless, wondering just who/what the hell we are, where we might be from. Some of us are from so many places we end up not being from anywhere, really. And then we arrive at what is supposed to be adulthood, and wonder why we feel lost and adrift. (At least, that’s what Your Narrator has heard, from a good friend. Yeah, that’s it, a friend.)
Imagine yourself born in Bermuda and spending most of your childhood in Boca Raton, Florida, as non-Southern a Southern place as anyone can imagine. Imagine having divorced parents in an age when that was far from the norm, and being raised by your New Jersey-bred grandparents.
Where are you from? What is your heritage?
How can you spend the first 17 years of your life not-Southern and end up a distinctly Southern gentleman. How to overcome what appears to be a hollow space where one’s regional birthright should reside. How to fill that empty space?
Imagine landing in the swampy environs of Tallahassee as you reach the cusp of adulthood, on your own at university. Imagine you fall in love with the place, its smells, its rhythms, its cadences, its sounds. Turns out that deciding to be Southern is one way to develop that sense of belonging. Some folks run from their Southern roots. But others find a sense of place here and claim it as their own.
Over breakfast at a long-standing Tallahassee eatery (“Wow, this place hasn’t changed!”), Your Narrator wondered if he was talking to Hearty White or Dave Morris. Dave Morris is, after all, the name Hearty was born with.
Was this Dave turning up on a warm Florida morning wearing a seersucker suit? Or was he Hearty, performing for Your Narrator? And did he think, “I bet that Narrator guy is performing for me, too”? Were either of us real?
One of the first things he says is, “Whatever story you’re gonna tell is bullshit. It’s your story, and even if it’s true, it isn’t. We make up stories to feel less lonely. A story is a just butchered up corpse fixing to be cannibalized. That’s why you’ll never hear me telling one.”
He then proceeds to tell us stories, pretty much non-stop, for the next five hours.
After breakfast, Dave wants to wander around his old neighborhood. He walks a lot, Dave does, to prepare for being Hearty. It’s a grounding thing; it brings the pace of things to a human speed. We cover some serious ground, passing a house that Mrs. Cox lived in – working her garden well into her 90s - and over there, Miz Roberts. And there’s a place where the band used to practice, and “Hey, I lived in this one!” It’s a typically hot Tallahassee day, and the mosquitoes and their cousins are out in some force.
Anyone who’s spent time in the Deep South knows that smell, that combination of weeds and honeysuckle and flowers and trees, mixed with overwhelming humidity. And the sound, the incredible cacophony of crickets and katydids and buzzing flies and skeeters, all held aloft by the ever-present hum of air conditioners that are the reason nobody else is walking these streets. It is like no place else, even if other places have the same sights and smells and sounds, because it is different than all those places. It’s home.
We come to a stop at the corner of Mitchell and Miccosukee. Dave is quiet for a minute. He tends, if not quite to brood, then to ponder deeply.
“Right here’s where Mister Bob, the crossing guard, used to work. Every day, helping the kids and mommas cross the street. He treated everybody like they were family. Completely kind. An amazing human. I wonder if he still works.”
Well, yeah, he does, says our photographer pal.
This news triggers Hearty’s happy face. He later mentions the ticket taker at the old Miracle Plaza Cinema. Mister Miller. Same kind of thing, someone older than Methuselah just doing his job and spreading kindness along the way. “He treated everyone the same. Yet he still had opinions.” That theater is gone now, replaced by a Whole Foods. Progress, of a sort. Perhaps.
Here’s something that emerges from two days of scrutiny and philosophizing and pondering (“for entertainment purposes only,” Hearty insists). There appear to be two key differences between Hearty and Dave: Hearty never swears. Dave does (a little). Dave speaks mostly in a flat accent that belies his semi-rootless upbringing; Hearty is firmly a man of the South, albeit one who grew up somewhere vaguely between Mt. Airy and Wiggins.
In the end, Hearty is all of Dave’s best qualities, amplified. It’s where Dave gets to be the tolerant, nurturing wise man he strives to be at all times, an aspiration that might be unreasonable for a real boy. When Dave expresses irritation at a less-than-aware driver, Hearty quickly jumps in to “bless her heart.” One starts to feel that even though Hearty is a made-up character, a fiction, there is so little daylight between Hearty and his creator that it is perhaps a distinction without much difference. But then again, that’s just the tale I’m telling. It’s probably, as Hearty put it, “just reducing a life to this tiny little matchbox story.” Maybe.
We ended up at the Oakland Cemetery, resting place for generations of Tallahassee’s dearly departed. And as in so many places of eternal rest, the things that divide us while we walk the Earth linger into our great beyond. There’s the section for Tallahassee’s Jewish residents, neatly ghettoized. This area includes Mrs. Dave’s family plot, and many of her family’s friends and relations. A huge, extended family – a tribe – that held Dave close as one of their own. He began to reminisce about this person, that family, the store they owned, oh, there’s a cousin. And he got very quiet.
It was hot and muggy. The only sound came from insects and the occasional car passing by on the main road.
“So many people, connected. People who took care of each other. You knew who would bring a casserole when your mother died. You might not even like them. They might not like you. But you knew they would be there.”
Later, Dave shared a theory that Tallahassee is a place that loves funerals. Especially funerals where the living get to enjoy their own eulogies. Some people throw themselves an early wake. But mostly, the funerals for the living are disguised as going-away parties.
Despite an impressive roster of fifth and eighth and 12th generation families, it’s a transient place, this Tallahassee. Until recently, there’s not been much to pin a person down, opportunity-wise, and even still, the sirens of big-city thrills and economics draw people away with – for those who stay behind – depressing consistency.
So people leave, and attend their own funerals on the way out the door. And after they’ve gone and discovered the same haints that plagued them here have followed them there, they get nostalgic and think, damn it, those were people who loved me, who held me, who honored me. And they think, I too can go home again.
So people who leave often move back. And then leave again, and return, and so on. Case in point: Hearty/Dave. He has lived all around this world. But this is the place he calls home.
Even though it is nominally in the state of Florida, Tallahassee has only one tiki bar: Waterworks. It’s a great place to get a cold beer, or a good cocktail, or an elaborately preposterous fruity liquor drink — with paper umbrella — that is seriously delicious and debilitating. The walls are covered in grass, with hanging lanterns and carved votive tikis vaguely suggesting Polynesian deities. A constant waterfall across the building’s front windows creates weird shimmers of light and shadow during the daytime and odd refractions of color at night. It is gorgeous in a Florida way that perfectly suits its clientele and surroundings. It has opened its doors every night for the past 16-plus years, even during hurricanes and on holidays. Don Q, the owner and moving force behind Waterworks, says quietly, “People need a place to go.”
Depending on the night, and the whim of Don Q, you might wander into a lecture on raptors or reptiles, a slide show on astrophysics, a klezmer-funk band, a performance of the Bach Cello Suites, the Marcus Roberts Trio with Jason Marsalis, or the weekly ’80s dance night. They hold an annual prom night where the formally attired celebrants range from 25 to 75 years of age. As haphazard as that sounds, it makes for a perfect neighborhood local, a place just weird enough to deter all but the most adventuresome outsiders. Maybe not everybody knows your name; it just seems that way. People who “act out” find themselves, at best, unable to gain a server’s attention. At worst, people who violate the norms of this community are asked to leave. Given the wide leeway these norms provide — basically, don’t be a dick — it’s pretty hard to get yourself tossed. But it happens.
Dave (not Hearty) and Don Q have been friends for decades. Dave (not Hearty) carved several of the votive tikis and built the tiki shrine/fountain that is now just a shrine because inebriates kept stepping in the water. This mid-September evening would see Hearty (not Dave) on the Waterworks stage for the second time.
Hearty only appears in public every so often, a couple of fundraiser shows for WFMU, a couple of times in Tallahassee. He prefers to work alone in the studio, at his own pace. But he accepted an invitation and found himself standing in front of a packed house of mostly old friends of Dave, a few Hearty White fans who never heard of Dave, and a smattering of curious event attendees.
It begins, Hearty standing quietly with his hands over his eyes. (He explains later: “I try to have some opening for live shows that evokes ritual. So I make up a ritual ... and another thing: It helps to close my eyes when I start so I don’t get nervous.”)
I’m the only one of my kind
I’m alone in the universe
A lonely singularity
I must make another me
I must make another me and separate myself from myself
And now it’s time to meet me
To meet the other me
And he opens his eyes, and we’re off.
He talks a bit about the mystic traditions that conceive of God as having become lonely in its singularity, and how God separated itself from itself to create context, and how this is the (mystically theorized) origin of our alienation from each other. Only the way he tells it, everybody laughs.
Hearty is soaring, riffing on the origins of the Shaker community (“they built wooden houses, beautifully constructed and crafted, and populated by ... really they were sort of like sentient, animated, novelty salt and pepper shakers”); the optimum size of groups of people who don’t know each other, but who find themselves in what he calls his “Poseidon Adventure fantasy”; the practice of tolerance as tested in the face of children’s dance recitals or Thanksgiving dinner with your extended family; appreciating discomfort; and most important, finding and keeping connection with one another.
That’s why I sometimes trick people on the radio by making them think I’m gonna talk about something frivolous, but what I realize is that, when people are listening to me, that they might be depressed or they could be extremely lonely, you know, they could be hurting or grieving. And some people just want you to say, “I know that you’re experiencing that.”
Acknowledge it. Just acknowledge it.
And subtler things. Acknowledge that we’re all afraid of being exposed as a fraud, we’re all afraid of being exposed as not good enough, or not smart enough, or inferior to others, or not cool, or not together, or something. I know I am. I walk into this room, and it’s absolutely identical to walking into third grade. I’m afraid of y’all, I’m afraid I’m gonna be judged, or mocked, or worse … ostracized. That’s what I’m really afraid of, is losing the group. Is losing the meeting house. Push me out and not be a part of this.
And then he’s off again. It’s not quite comedy, but it bears the trappings and rhythm of very good standup. It’s very funny, even if it gets – or maybe because it gets – so close to the bone. Who can’t laugh about the crank at a town council meeting or the old man neighbor who tells stories that have so many sharp turns you have no idea what he’s talking about? He might not know either. But he knows, like Hearty, that we just need to find each other and tell it.
We’re all the same thing, we just don’t recognize each other anymore, ’cause we’re all scattered, we’re all separate. You can’t see the thing that connects us anymore. And you think, “Oh, I hope to God I’m not that guy in the seersucker suit on the stage.”
I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m your monkey relative standing up here. Your monkey relative sniffing pink monkey bottoms. And you have to deal with it.
The audience is in stitches, right there with him, eating his spiel with a spoon. Then he hits an awkward pause.
I want to thank you all for showing up tonight. I’m sorry if I sound sentimental. But I just want to thank everybody. We don’t know how long we have. And I don’t know that I’ve been thankful enough for the support I’ve gotten in this community. And it’s profoundly changed my life.
I wanted to, boy, I just wanted to joke around a lot. But really…
He stops. The pause lingers, just a little longer than anyone is sure about. Hearty opens his mouth. Nothing comes out. He stands straight, and, in a moment, Hearty drops away, and there’s Dave, looking around the room with tears in his eyes.
I just wanted to say thank you, for letting me be silly for 20-something years. A lot of you I hear from all the time, and I don’t want you to think that support doesn’t mean the world.
So, thank you.
And with that, he’s gone, out the back door. Silence hangs for a moment, a slight sob and sniffle here and there. And then eruption. Pandemonium.
“We love you, Hearty!”
They mean it, too, not in some kind of creepy celebrity-fetish oh-I-loooovve Princess Di kind of way. Intensely real. Half the room is wiping cheeks dry. Something astonishingly real has gone down, raw honesty that, had it been scripted, would have been too bathetic by miles. At an intersection of art and life that is nearly unheard of in our mediated and commerce-driven cultural lives, Dave/Hearty put everything on the line.
And it’s not like he slipped and fell. It was like watching Karl Wallenda decide, mid-wire, to just step off. Like he knew he could call on a bag of cheap tricks to make it to the other side, but realized the only honest decision was to step into the abyss while saying thank you to a community that held him so close.
A fruity-liquor-drink-impaired voice pipes up. “Is he gonna do another show?”
Bless her heart.
Later, Dave said, “I felt like I hit this crazy chord, and I just couldn’t resolve it.
“The last thing I went to reach for was like on fire. It’s just that simple. I couldn’t make it into a story. I thought it was a story, and it was just this ball of intense feeling. I mistook it from a distance. It looked like something I could narrate. But it wasn’t, it was like … I couldn’t summon it up.”
Asked how he would fill the 20 minutes he’d need to air the show, he says, “I’m not fixing it. I’m not using it. It happened. That’s enough.” Urged that the performance was really top-notch, he held his ground.
“You have to be ready to let things go. I don’t feel proud or disappointed any more. I’ve lost my … I can’t worry about what people think.”
Talk about your stance of radical neutrality.
If he’d made it to the end, made it through the minefield of memory and loss and love and affection, he might have wrapped it up the way he did in his broadcast from August 25, 2016, called “The Grove.”
That's because the experience you're having is beyond words, you don’t even know what you’re seeing, it’s so overwhelming, you have no language for it. Just experience it. Feel it.
You don’t have to quantify, you don’t have to identify everything.
You don’t have to identify.
WHO ARE YOU? IDENTIFY! (note: imagine a Dalek voice)
I'm nobody, I'm nobody and everybody.
YOU'RE HEARTY WHITE!
Hearty White's a bread. I'm nobody. I don’t exist, so you don’t have to agree or disagree with me. Because I'm vapor, I'm a ghost, I'm a feeling. And maybe you are too and don’t realize it. And it’s liberating.
Oh, bless your heart!
Our time together has come to an end. Perhaps not permanently. Tune in again next week to see whether it’s permanent or not.
And my friends, I am so blessed that you have been with me today, and please have a peaceful week, a wonderful week, a good week, and I hope we can spend next week together.
Somewhere along the way, over 30-plus years, the kid from no place became a Southern gentleman from Tallahassee, who then became a series of radio personae culminating in Hearty White and his gaggle of sidekicks in the "Miracle Nutrition" universe. And then, in front of a gathering of family, friends, strangers, and a few inebriates, the division between Hearty and Dave dissolved, bringing him back — if only for a moment — to a state of singularity, the distance between story and storyteller, observer and observed, erased.
But Hearty and Dave can’t stay a singularity forever, because “a story is absolutely no good unless you tell it to somebody else.”
So yes, Virginia. There is a Hearty White. He even looks a little like Santa Claus.
Bless his heart.
The events in this story occurred (more or less) in September 2016. Twas an innocent time.
Two months later, the nation has endured a nasty Presidential election that left many people angry and uncertain. That’s on the winning side. For the losing side, it’s even worse.
Maybe now more than ever, Hearty White’s constant refrain — be kind to one another, lift each other up, take care of the people around you even if they don’t really like you and you don’t really like them — offers a piece of the roadmap we need to navigate the darkness.
We got in touch with Hearty after the election and asked if he might offer a few words, something to help us find our bearings in this terrifying new landscape. He sent us this message from his undisclosed super-secret location.