Sometimes home doesn’t have anything to do with the house we live in. It is more often about a feeling, isn’t it? A space in which we feel most comfortable, understood and at peace. Or maybe it’s the time we spend surrounded by people who truly get us and love us unconditionally.
For Grammy-winning country singer-songwriter Bryan White, home isn’t something made of plaster, wood or stone. Instead, it’s a Sea Ray 400 Express Cruiser that waits at his childhood summerhouse on Lake Texoma at the border of Texas and Oklahoma, and the family who joins him there for each homecoming.
As Bryan and his younger brother Daniel dash across the finish line of the Oklahoma City Memorial Half-Marathon, their hometown resounds with the echoes of shuffling feet. The boys grew up in the suburbs of this historic city, and though both now live and work in Nashville, they remain undyingly loyal to their roots. This pride radiates as the two join for a post-marathon benefit concert on the grounds of the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum.
One of the songs Bryan penned and performs now with Daniel as backup is “Dustbowl Dreams,” the title track from his most recent album. The song encapsulates Bryan’s feelings about Oklahoma. “‘Dustbowl Dreams’ was inspired by my pride as an Oklahoman, my fascination with my lineage and history and identifying with the grit, soul and spirit of Oklahomans, especially during the Great American Dust Bowl,” he explains. “I love to think of myself as a product of their perseverance.”
The marathon and memorial grounds are also a reminder of this city’s tenacity during the aftermath of the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing on April 19, 1995. The boys’ grandfather, an auctioneer and antiques dealer, had an appointment at 9 a.m. in the Federal Building that day, but had to cancel at the last minute to help someone in need. “Paw Paw was so inspired by having his life spared that he carried the appointment slip in his shirt pocket,” Daniel says. “He would look at it periodically just to remind himself to be grateful for his life every day.”
After the concert, Bryan and Daniel rendezvous with their mother, Anita, to make the three-hour drive to the lake house where their stepdad, Gary Cooper, is eagerly waiting. “Every time we free up enough days to get down to Texoma, we drive straight to the boathouse, and Gary will always have that boat running,” Bryan says. “We go straight out on the water—we don’t even stop at the house.”
Bryan is warm and soft-spoken, a handsome man of 39 who turns into a boy the moment he smiles. When he talks about the importance of time spent on the Express Cruiser his family currently owns, or any of the Sea Rays that date back to his boyhood, the sincerity in his eyes and voice confirms the depth of his sentiments. There is nothing more important than the time Bryan spends on the boat, unless he is able to share that time with his family. Though his wife, actress Erika Page, and his two sons, Justin and Jackson, were unable to join Bryan on this particular sojourn from Nashville, he speaks warmly about gathering the whole family in Oklahoma.
“I live twelve hours away from here now,” he says, “but I like to bring my boys down at least once a year so they can have that same experience I had growing up. I want them to know the feeling of being on the boat and the family togetherness it brings. It may sound like lighthearted fun, but it goes a lot deeper than that.”
As their car winds down the path to the lakeshore, the crunch of gravel gives way to the sweet burbling of twin engines. Gary has been biding his time until this moment. He grumbles goodheartedly about his family’s delayed arrival, and then the instant they clear the slip, he shifts into a cheerful narration of the familiar sites around Lake Texoma, almost all of which have a personal tale attached to them. Like Bryan and Daniel, Gary says his favorite childhood moments were spent exploring these waters. Many of the stories involve calamity, like when Bryan dove off the boat hands-first into a mire of silt, leaving only his legs to poke up out of the water like a pair of dock posts.
The afternoon cruise ends at Highport Marina’s Island Bar & Grill, where Gary is undeniably the celebrity in the family. After fifteen minutes of backslaps, hugs and handshakes from the wait staff and a procession of locals delighted to see the clan back on the lake, the family settles on a spacious deck overlooking the marina and orders oversized beverages and tacos.
“There are no strangers down here,” Bryan says. “Everyone is friendly and easygoing. Honestly, there are times we’ll end up with people on our Sea Ray we don’t even know. But by the end of the day, they’re part of the family.”
Back at the boathouse, the family soaks in their day on the lake and continues to relax. With the boat backed into the slip, the roomy aft deck turns into a shore-side lounge. The Whites say they love the sounds of the docks—warm water lapping on hulls and the wooden beams creaking over the shallows—but to an outside observer, the most melodious sounds are without a doubt their voices.
Everyone in the White family is musical. The boys recall growing up in the clubs where their parents played—Anita was in an R&B group, and their dad, Bud, in a country band. “I remember many times waking up with a cheek stuck to those red vinyl supper club seats,” Daniel chuckles. “It was the most colorful, fun childhood you could imagine.” Bryan says that with such loaded genes, he never had a chance to be anything but a musician.
A drummer in his youth, Bryan didn’t start playing guitar until his early teens and says that days on the boat and evenings in the boathouse influenced him immensely. “Back in the late ’80s, I was really going to school on the guitar,” he says, “and it was right here where I learned the most. There was always a big jam session, people sitting in a big circle, taking turns singing their favorite songs—tunes like ‘Margaritaville,’ and ‘Come Monday.’ It was my Buffet 101,” he laughs. “And being out here on the boat and in the boathouse was not only conducive to learning to play other people’s music, but also to discovering what music wanted to come from within me. I’ve started and finished a lot of songs on the boat. It’s when you’re not thinking too much that music happens.”
Bryan was already playing professionally during his high school years, and almost as soon as he moved to Nashville, he became a star: contracts with major labels, collaborations with music legends, and then platinum-selling albums and Grammy awards. Bryan was even named one of People Magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People” in 1998. As creatively productive as ever, the country phenom is currently prepping a new album for release. Success, however, comes with a price, and for Bryan, it was the frequent separation from his family and tranquility of his youth.
“It’s more important than ever for me to get down here,” he says. “It’s home: Oklahoma, Lake Texoma, the boat and being with my family. It’s the one place where I can unplug. Just shut down and be myself, without feeling judged.”
The next day, Anita and the boys head toward town for a comfort-food breakfast, then meet Gary on their already-idling Sea Ray. “It’s so nice down here because you can come and go as you please,” Bryan says. “Except when Gary says the boat’s leaving at a certain time! We try our best to rally for that.”
The Whites spend the day around Texoma cruising, swimming and listening to music. They strum and sing, their voices blending in ethereal harmony, as if each was born specifically to complement the others.
“I’m as blessed as I can be,” says Bryan. “And without question, my favorite thing is being on the boat, with the breeze blowing, surrounded by family and music. It’s the greatest stress reliever of all. Especially on this type of boat,” he continues. “In my opinion, Sea Ray is the best line there is. It has a tremendous legacy, in the world and with our family. Since I was a kid, we’ve always had a Sea Ray.”
Anchored near a peninsula called Grandpappy Point, the Express Cruiser swings like a lazy pendulum in the hot breeze. The family sings periodically, perfectly in time with the swaying boat.
“There’s no pressure out here,” Bryan says between sessions. “I’m not on the boat thinking I need to write a hit song, and that calm, combined with the inspiration of the beauty around me, is a great recipe for actually creating something big.” Here, Bryan is obviously in his element.
“It’s more than just a boat. It’s where I’m most at home.”