TONY JOE WHITE
The music of Tony Joe White is like no other. It comes from places you’ve often visited – blues, country, folk, soul, even a touch of psychedelic – but it takes you someplace you’ve never been before. Only the great American musical melting pot could have produced something so familiar and yet so singular.Tony Joe’s sound is practically its own genre. “Swamp music”, as his initial French fans dubbed it, “is down to earth, a sort of earthy soul music. They are truthful songs sung by people who believe in them, people who've been there and know where it's at." Swamp music comes from that part of country music, which originated in the lowlands of the South, the area where black and white people used to work side by side in the fields. Remarkably different from the mountain influences of country music, lowlands hillbilly is more innately blues, finding a more racially equal following. TJW: "I'm almost like a lone wolf out there. I just play my guitar and don't worry about it. They don't know if I'm black, white, country or rock."
White was born in Oak Grove, Louisiana and was raised on his father’s cotton farm in nearby Goodwill. In the NE corner of the state, within spitting distance of Arkansas and Mississippi, this was swamp country, an appropriately isolated setting to grow something unique. “I grew up hearing homemade music most every evening. Back up in the Delta we didn’t have much radio and no TV. Entertainment was somebody breaking out an instrument after dinner.” TJ was youngest of seven White children, but he was the one destined to do something with it. “One day my brother brought home an album by Lightnin’ Hopkins, and that was it for me. I hadn’t heard anything but country and church music, but here was one old man, just him and his guitar and his foot, that’s when I started playing for hours on end until it started to sound like something.” After TJ finished schooling, following a stint driving a truck in Georgia, he formed a series of bands, and then, took to the road alone. Like Lightnin’, it was just his voice, rack harmonica, electric guitar, insistent foot, and eventually, his “Whomper Stomper” wah-wah peddle. This crazy white boy who played like a deep blues master could have remained a regional mutation, but the tiny Texas clubs he called home in the mid-‘60s became a laboratory in which an exciting, but derivative performer emerged as his own artist. His revelation came when he heard Bobbie Gentry’s seminal “Ode to Billy Joe” on the radio. “It froze me on the spot. I thought to myself, God, I am Billie Joe; I know these people. The realness of the conversation around the dinner table, the stark reality of that, just killed me… I knew I had to start writing about the things I knew, really knew, instead of trying to fit somebody else’s mold.” Writing from experience, gems poured forth like “Rainy Night in Georgia”, “Roosevelt and Ira Lee”, “Willie and Laura Mae Jones” and “Polk Salad Annie”. A trip to Nashville in 1966 to be discovered seemed doomed to deaf ears when a fateful introduction led him to receptive ones at fabled country-soul crucible, Monument Records and a recording contract. With his peculiar sound though, a hit didn’t come easy and it took his fourth single, “Polk Salad Annie”, written off by Monument as a failure, nine months to chart. “We kept getting all these people in Texas coming to the clubs and buying the record. So we would send up to Nashville saying, “Send us a thousand more this week.’ They would send us these ‘Do Not Sell’ samples, so we would have to mark out the “Do Not Sell’ and then send them to the record stores. All these stores in South Texas kept calling… ‘We need more’, so we just kept hanging on until finally a guy in LA picked it up and got it across.” It’s become a universally beloved anthem with its indelible portrayal of the Deep South.
He shot out the late ‘60’s like boll weevils attacking a cotton field. The 70’s saw him produce some of his most tuneful and thought-evoking material only to get swiped by disco and punk, so White turned to an increasing demand for him as songwriter, producer and session man. Tony Joe has wrestled for years to gain his artistic freedom, to be free of corporate interference. In the ‘90s he would re-roll with a string of quality recordings under his own auspices that augment and maintain his vaulted legacy.
His songs have been recorded by everyone from Dusty Springfield to Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison to Etta James, Charlie Rich to Ray Charles, Issac Hayes to Waylon Jennings. When Tina Turner met White she was astonished to find that he wasn’t the ancient black bluesman she thought he was. The two meshed so well that White provided four songs to her Foreign Affair, including its title song, played on the album and toured. BTW: that’s TJW as the mysterious mojo man in the black hat strumming a guitar and blowing his harmonica in the hit video for “Steamy Windows”. The range of voices that have covered White is proof how this musicians’ musician’s writing is regarded. His songs, populated by gators, witches, preachers, sharecroppers, hussies and flim-flam men resound with authenticity. His bedroom eyes at half-mast, as if he can read your inner thoughts, with that deep growly and whispery voice in his Barry White bayou baritone melts your tweeters or can alternately tickle the funny bone. He doles out his tales of mystery and bad intent with his ghostly haunting guitar or boogie stomp casting a scorching spell. The lyrics and music suited for one another as catfish and hot sauce.
As a guitarist he’s uncannily natural and utterly funky, wringing sultry soul out of his minimalist attitude. Tony Joe’s slow percolating groove makes you smile and cry at the same time, pulsating to your inner core. White can make his guitar talk without making it scream or let’s his gritty guitar take wing on full-feedback display. Hypnotic, rhythmic guitar hanging onto his bass notes while stomping on his wah-wah pedal churns the rhythm like a spicy jambalaya brought to a slow boil until it overflows. He creates a melody and a series of phrases you think you’ve heard before, but entirely original. Picking to the tune with grease and grit TJ generates horizontal heat, his heartbreak bleeding through a honey-toned solo. White’s juju man delivery unites with his bayou boogie locked in dripping funk. He slaps at his strings percussive style and whomps distortion shaking the blues to its core - it’s as steamy as the Mississippi River in August.
White’s recording career has stretched across four decades. Canonized for his sense of realism and swampy guitar work, he continues to write mythical mystifying missives about the bayou and about life. His latest represents another prolific recording phase of autobiographical tales culled from his life and observations. “Hoodoo” came alive in the immediate atmosphere and intensity of the stripped-down recording process. Cut mostly live to tape—vocals and all—much of it consists of first takes. “I figured out early in life that taking a “less is best” approach is a cool thing to do with music.” Spontaneity is the TJW credo that characterizes his music and its roots go back to inspiration. “I recorded with Lightnin’ Hopkins, my ol’ hero blues singer, one time in LA, he recalls, “and when he walked in, all he said was, ‘Turn in on.’ And he played 12 songs in a row – I played a little guitar and harmonica with him – and when they were over, he got up shook my hand and walked out. That was so cool. He can make chills run over you when he sings.” The Master’s lesson stuck: “I always say, anytime I sit down out there in the studio and I’ve got a guitar in my hand and a microphone, somebody needs to have somethin’ on.” On Tony Joe's “Hoodoo” are all the pathos, truth, humor and warmth of life in America's South. After more than fifty years of playing music, handfuls of chart topping singles, and collaborations with some of the most revered musicians of the century, “The Swamp Fox” remains right to his roots. “The main thing is the song: If you are feeling it, and it comes across to the people—that is the deal.” He imbues each song with a stylish drawl given syncopation, a bit of swagger and a bottle of Bourbon. Emotions overflow in his vocals, spilling from each melody like rivers washing out their banks: sensual, defiant and enlightened by life’s painful lessons. Tony Joe White pulls heat from the embers of the blues and sings it back simply, like pictures blown in smoke.