July 22, 1996 12:00 PM

WHOLESOME, HANDSOME AND tender of years, Bryan White, at 22, is the sort of country music heartthrob even mothers adore. As straight an arrow as ever pierced a young girl’s heart, White enforces a strict code of conduct on his tour bus, forbidding drink, drugs, cigarettes and the merest hint of hanky-panky. “Nothing out of order is allowed,” he says. “We all need clear heads.” Besides, he adds, “it’s important for us to set a good example for our young fans.”

They return the sentiment. “He’s so sweet,” swoons an 18-year-old on the lip of the stage at Billy Bob’s Texas, a sprawling honky-tonk complex in Fort Worth’s historic Stock Yards, as White signs autographs for a swarm of female fans. “He’s cute,” echoes a 44-year-old microbiologist, “sort of like a country Michael J. Fox.”

White says he finds the sudden adulation “a bit mind-boggling,” even as his latest album, Between Now and Forever, has already sent another of his romantic ballads—”I’m Not Supposed to Love You Anymore”—high up the Billboard country singles chart. (His debut album, 1994’s Bryan White, propelled two singles to the top of the charts, while last April he received the Academy of Country Music’s Top New Male Vocalist award.) “His sense of self and style as a singing artist is way beyond his years,” says Kyle Lehning, the Asylum Records copresident and producer who signed White in 1993. “He has kind of an old soul.”

And a pretty grownup outlook as well. Though being raised in Oklahoma City gives him more claim to cowboy airs than many country singers, White does not count himself among Music City’s many “hat acts,” performers who, he says, “sit on a hay bale and put on a cowboy hat to sing country music.” (He admits to harboring fears that too much Stetson wear could make you bald.) “I think country music is the most relatable music out there,” White says, adding that he likes Journey and Foreigner just as much as Charlie Rich and Merle Haggard. “I just feel more comfortable singing about morals and things I grew up on.”

Thanks to two professional musicians with divergent tastes—his parents—White was raised, as Donny and Marie Osmond put it, “a little bit country/ a little bit rock and roll.” His mother, Anita White, 39, performed with a rhythm and blues band in rock clubs in and around Oklahoma City, where Bryan grew up, while his father, Wilford “Bud” White, 41, played classic country in honky-tonks throughout the region. “That [country] stuff just hit me right here,” says Bryan, putting his hand to his throat. But the rock and pop records his mother played at home also set Bryan’s feet tapping and heart pounding. “My first five years,” he recalls, “I wanted to beat on something all the time.” While he practiced percussion with pots, pans and cardboard boxes, his younger brother Daniel strummed a wicked tennis racket. Bryan was 5 when he graduated to a real set of drums, and soon Daniel began making a racket with an actual guitar. (Though 19 and college-bound, Daniel plans to enter the family business when he completes his schooling. “Somewhere down the road,” Bryan says, “we’ll work together.”)

His parents divorced amicably in 1979 when he was 5, and, Bryan says, “I never felt lonely at all.” According to White, paternal grandfather Wilford, an auctioneer, gave Bryan helpful career tips: “You’ve got to have rhythm, a lot of endurance and a strong throat.” But it was his rocker mother who put him, at age 10, on the road to country, taking him along with her when she opened for Loretta Lynn at a 1984 concert in Oklahoma City. “That one show pretty much set me on fire,” Bryan recalls. “I was in awe.” By the age of 13, he was starting to light some fires himself, performing in clubs with his parents. No sooner had he graduated from Putnam City West High School in Oklahoma City, in 1992, than he received $500 from his family and headed east. “I had this magnet,” he says, “just pulling me to Nashville.”

Within six months, he landed a songwriting gig for Glen Campbell’s music publishing house and made an impression on Asylum’s Lehning, who found him to be “eminently talented and great looking,” but, at 18, a little on the young side. Told to return in a year, White made demo tapes for other songwriters, at $40 a pop, and sold T-shirts for Pearl River, a country soft-rock group whose members now comprise his backup band. Since signing with Lehning in 1993, White has spent most of his time either in the recording studio or on the road, a schedule that has kept him from spending time in the new, three-bedroom home he recently purchased in Nashville’s upscale Green Hills area.

Nor has he had much time to experience the sultry themes he sings so effectively about, a circumstance he has no desire to perpetuate indefinitely. “You kind of get tired being around guys all the time,” he says. “You want that certain somebody to be with.” And what does the sweetest, cleanest singer in Nashville look for in a woman? “Somebody who smells a lot better than all these guys.”

STEPHEN M. SILVERMAN

JANE SANDERSON in Nashville and BOB STEWART in Fort Worth

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