"Polk Salad Annie, the gators got your granny... chomp... chomp... chomp...
Everybody said it was a shame, 'cause her mama was workin' on a chain
gang... A wretched, spiteful, straight razor totin' woman..."
(From "Polk Salad Annie" by Tony Joe White -- 1968)
Tony Joe White is best be known as a bayou-based songwriter who's penned hits for other artists, including Elvis Presley, Dusty Springfield, Tina Turner, Tom Jones, Beth Orton, and Christine McVie. Unlike his counterpart John Fogerty, who wrote about the bayou without having been there, Tony Joe grew up in the backwoods town of Oak Grove, Louisiana. His songs, populated by gators, witches, preachers, share croppers, hussies, and flim-flam men, resound with down home authenticity. I'm not talking about music made by cross-eyed banjo pickin' inbreds sharing the same set of teeth. Oh no, Tony Joe's music is everything that's good about the South. Its Saturday afternoon baseball games, pullin' catfish out of the fishin' hole, and sumptuous pot luck dinners with the family.
Tony Joe was the seventh child of a family of seven children, the equivalent of being the seventh son of a seventh son (meaning he's lucky despite being born into abject poverty). A baseball jock in high school, Tony Joe caught the music bug from his brother, Charles, who introduced him to the music of John Lee Hooker, Lightning Hopkins and other delta bluesmen. White formed a series of groups, including "Tony Joe and the Mojo Men," touring the Deep South while developing his catchy, rhythmic guitar playing. Stomping on his wah-wah pedal and hanging onto his bass notes, White developed what he called his "whomper stomper" effect.
Credit Bobbie Gentry, the raven haired Chickasaw County vixen who penned and performed the classic potboiler "Ode to Billie Joe," with inspiring White to become a composer. When he heard "Ode to Billie Joe," the southern soap opera struck a chord with White, who said to himself, "I know guys like Billie Joe. I can write a song like that."
One of White's early compositions, "Soul Francisco," became immensely popular in the unlikely locale of Paris, France where Tony Joe became a cult hero and was dubbed "The Swamp Fox," due to his swarthy looks. "Soul Francisco" also caught on in Monte Carlo, Germany, Japan, and Belgium, turning White into an international star before he became a celebrity at home.
His first single, released in December 1966, was "Ten More Miles to Louisiana" b/w "Georgia Pines." The 45 was produced by Ray Stevens, who was about to become a country/pop Top 40 star in his own right with a string of off beat comedy tunes ("Guitarzan," "The Streak") and airwave dominating message songs ("Everything Is Beautiful," "Mr. Businessman"). White's follow up, "Watching the Trains Go By" b/w "Old Man Willis," wasn't released for two years, and although it went nowhere, the hobo travelogue "Watching the Trains Go By" showed that White's talents as a storyteller were improving.
It was his fourth single, �Polk Salad Annie,� that propelled him into the national spotlight. And it only took nine months from the time �Polk Salad Annie� was released in December 1968 to when it reached the top ten in July 1969 to happen. It became � and remains � White�s biggest hit under his own name.
White�s recording career has stretched across four decades. He shot out of the late 60s like bowevels attacking a cotton field with the albums �Black and White� and �Continued��. The 70s saw him produce some of his most tuneful and thought-evoking material, including �Tony Joe White,� �The Train I�m On,� and �Homemade Ice Cream.� Side swiped by disco and punk, Tony Joe tried to adjust to the times with the heinous �Real Thang,� but dwindling chart success and an increasing demand as a producer, songwriter and session man kept Tony Joe out of the studio for three years. He briefly returned with the credible �Dangerous,� before slipping back into the bayou for another eight years. When White re-emerged, wizened by the disappointment of missed opportunities, he produced some of his best work, including �Closer to the Truth,� �The Path of a Decent Groove,� and �One Hot July.� Canonized for his sense of realism and swampy guitar work, White continues to write mythical mystifying missives about the bayou. Here�s a peak (or should I say �polk�) at his best albums:
�Continued�� (1969) (3 � out of 5 stars)
White�s second album �Continued�� shows he was progressing as a performer and writer. It featured �A Rainy Night in Georgia,� perhaps White�s best known song. It�s been covered by over 100 artists, including Hank Williams, Jr. (#13 on the country charts), Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, David Ruffin, Johnny Halladay (the French Elvis), and most recently by White acolyte Shelby Lynne. The definitive version was cut by soul crooner Brook Benton in 1970, hitting #1 on the R & B charts and climbing to #4 on Billboard. White said of Benton�s version, �I betcha I played it fifty times in a row. It was beautiful to hear someone doing my song. After I listened to it I thought, �Man, I gotta learn this song, it�s beautiful.� He sang it so good it sounded like he wrote it.�
The songs on �Continued�� were fleshed out, with rural characters like the gator poachers in �Roosevelt and Ira Lee And the Night of The Water Moccasin,� the eccentric �Old Man Willis� and White himself, who appears as the lonely traveler in a revamped �Watching The Trains Go By,� and in his signature tune, �Rainy Night in Georgia.� Sammy Creason�s tribal drumming gives the opener �Elements and Things,� such a dangerous edge that White comments enthusiastically, �Sammy, you amazin�!�
Other stand out tracks include the ballad �I Thought I Knew You Well,� with White�s aching vocal and a punchy bass line set against a string ensemble, and the horn-charged bedroom romp, �I Want You,� which was later covered by Christine Perfect (before she became Christine McVie) on her first self-title solo album. The hi-hat in �Woodpecker� rat-a-tats against the speakers as if Woody hasn�t eaten in days and is taking apart a telephone pole. White projects his lines like sharpened toothpicks: �Like an old woodpecker I�m gonna knock on your door. I�m gonna keep on knockin� �till I get some more�Of your love�� �Woman With Soul,� is the most lascivious of the highlights, a gritty ode to lust. White�s sizzling whomper stomper solo is a career best, and back up musicians Creason and bassist Tommy McClure churn the rhythm behind the Swamp Fox like spicy jambalaya brought to a slow boil.
White's knack for creating musical short stories �continued� with his switch from Monument to Warner Brothers, where he recorded the second album to bear his name.
Tony Joe White (1971) (4 out of 5 stars)
With a throaty growl, swampy licks and a leering blast of horns, White�s self-titled fourth album blasts off with one of his longest titles, �They Caught The Devil And Put Him In Jail in Eudora, Arkansas.� A tale of temptation, greed and sloth, it�s a punchy backwoods parable along the lines of The Band�s �Daniel and the Sacred Harp.� This time the protagonist sells his soul for a Cadillac (�with fender skirts on it�).
A solid album throughout, �Tony Joe White� could serve as a bayou song writer�s blueprint. There�s a mellow, half-spoken, half-sung ode to the four seasons, �The Change�: �You can feel it in your bones, you know a change is gonna come. Well a change never done nobody no harm.� Without being too kitschy or preachy, White advises the younger generation they can still learn a lot from their parents -- an unheard of concept in the 70s -- in �The Daddy,� parts of which bear a striking resemblance to James Taylor�s �Country Roads.�
�I Just Walked Away� and �My Kinda Woman� are a pair of tunes that hearken back to the funky side of �Continued�� With trembly strings, a deep-dish bass line and lyrics about broken hearts all around, �I Just Walked Away� is a mirror image of �I Thought I Knew You Well,� with White�s tortured vocal and an angry cymbal bashing exit by Sammy Creason. �My Kinda Woman� is a more sanitized version of �Woman With Soul,� with White�s guitar pounding out the rhythm role instead of the lead and Creason punctuating the end of each line with a powerful clampdown on his hi-hat.
�Tony Joe White� also featured a concert favorite, the autobiographical �Another Night in the Life of a Swamp Fox.� A throwaway, it�s saved by White�s self-effacing lyrics and his reactions to being treated alternately like a celebrity and a jukebox (�The people are feelin� the music, and the sound is knockin� me out. When a cat hollers out from the front row -- Can you play �Wipeout?��).
White heads down the homestretch with three killer performances, the toe-tapping �Travelin� Bone,� with the Swamp Fox playing off bassist Robert McGuffie and the omnipresent Creason; the aforementioned �I Just Walked Away,� and a cover of Bob Dylan�s �Copper Kettle� (credited to Albert Beddoe). A tale about moonshiners, White�s authentic backwoods upbringing and emphatic drawl makes the song his own. When he sings, �My granddaddy, he made whiskey, and my daddy, he did it too�We ain�t paid no whiskey tax, since seventeen ninety-two!� you know there was a shiner of two in the family. �Travelin� Bone� is simply one of White�s most essential back country tunes, with Tony Joe and McGuffie forming a neck-jerking rhythm posse alongside horn riffs as thick as tobacco juice. The rhythm track rides along steadily like a lonesome freight train, and reads like a rural roadmap: �Tobacco fields and rollin� hills, and the autumn leaves need rakin�. But I�ll take my load to the open road, �cause my travelin�bone is achin�.�
Train I�m On (1972) (3 � out of 5 stars)
�The Train I�m On� is the first in a series of quieter efforts that saw White veering away from swamp music and more toward folk. The album is bolstered by the presence of Muscle Shoals musicians Roger Hawkins (drums) and David Hood (bass), who�d played with Aretha Franklin and the Staples Singers, and would soon become Traffic�s rhythm section. Keyboardist Ronnie Barron (Dr. John, Paul Butterfield�s Better Days) added his considerable talents to several cuts.
Another change was in the control booth. Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd, the pair of producers who�d guided the Allman Brothers took over, smoothing over White�s rough edges and adding a sense of professionalism.
The album featured another playful fan favorite, �Even Trolls Love Rock and Roll,� which is as silly as it sounds. The tale of a musically inclined homunculus who wants to jam with passing strangers, �Trolls� would be revived in a disastrous disco format for 1980�s �Real Thang.� In concert, �Trolls� became a showcase for Tony Joe�s considerable whomper stompin� talents.
The lilting, good-timey �I�ve Got A Thing About You Baby� leads off the album. When a certain Kang of Rock and Roll heard the song, he recorded it himself. Elvis thought so much of Tony Joe�s talent as a writer he flew The Swamp Fox and his wife, Leann, out to the session. Another song, the sanctimonious �The Gospel Singer,� was covered by the Climax Blues Band on their �Shine On� album.
By now considered a source of material for other artists, White successfully covered several tunes of the album, including the Ode to Billy Joe styled �The Family� by John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins, and the hilarious ode to a plus sized woman, �300 Pounds of Hongry� penned by Muscle Shoals house writers Eddie Hinton and Donnie Frits: �Three hundred pounds to amaze me, when she gets down in the gravy. But Lord almighty what a soulful groove, when she gets down in a barbecue. Three hundred pounds, tall as she�s round. Every pound of that body�s fine. I�m so glad that she�s mine.�
White�s other compositions showed he hadn�t lost his touch for telling a story. �Beouf River Road� is the tale of his family�s struggle to outwit the river that seemed to flood them out nearly every year. It�s mankind vs. Katrina -- only this time mankind wins. Despite the subject matter, �Beouf River Road� has a hoppity, celebratory beat, complete with a Jew�s Harp (supplied by Hawkins) that resembles dancing raindrops. �If I Ever Saw A Good Thing� is pleasant country/bayou doo wop, and the title track is a synopsis of White�s slow, sad ride back to the farm on the blues train.
The conviction in White�s voice in �As the Crow Flies� gives it a sinister feel. This dude wants to get home, and nothin� is gonna stop him: �In a dream last night, I heard you call my name. In a dream last night, I heard you call my name. Yeah, I took it as an omen, and hopped on a very fast freight train.� The song was a favorite of the late Irish blues guitarist Rory Gallagher, who recorded his own acoustic version.
With �The Train I�m On,� White�s maturing talent as a composer was picking up speed�
Homemade Ice Cream (1973) (4 � out of 5 stars)
White�s next album, �Homemade Ice Cream,� is one of his favorite albums (mine too). The songs on �Homemade Ice Cream� recall White�s childhood images of Oak Grove. There are gators, preachers, fishin� holes and fishin� poles, hot rods, hot bods, and warm love. And there�s a bonus -- Tony Joe�s first instrumental, the album�s grin-inducing title track. On past releases White�s harp playing either stayed in the background or escaped in short bursts � the title tracks puts it right up front. You can picture White sitting in a rocker, on the front porch strumming his guitar at sunset, a floppy-earned hound dog by his side.
The album is a well balanced diet of teary ballads and up-tempo rockers. For every sad lament (like �For Ol� Times Sake� about a departing lover, or �Ol� Mother Earth� about our dying planet), there�s a tune that tickles the funny bone, such as �Lazy,� where White goes tongue in cheek, shamelessly proclaiming, �I believe my get up and go has done got up and went.� The album�s opener, �Saturday Night in Oak Grove, Louisiana,� is a 2:12 glimpse into White�s teen years, when guys cruised town in their hot rods and hung out at the Dairy Queen. Norbert Putnam cements the pumping beat on bass as guitarist Reggie Young and White trade hillbilly solos straight out of a hillbilly hoedown.
White voice sounds like an unshakable indictment in �Backwoods Preacher Man,� the tale of a monolithic fire and brimstone preacher who can deliver the goods: �When you hear him talk about Jesus, you know they�re the best of friends. Just one look and you can tell, he will give the devil hell, and help you wash away your sins�Backwoods preacher man, doin� the best he can. Backwoods preacher man, tryin� to give the Lord a hand.�
Introduced by an extended bluesy acoustic solo, �Did Somebody Make a Fool Out Of You� has a double tracked vocal reminiscent of Bill Withers� �Who Is He (And What Is He To You?).� Beth Orton recorded a sparse cover of the song for her 2007 album �Comfort of Strangers.�
If you know little about the Deep South, Tony Joe�s �Homemade Ice Cream� is the right introductive recipe.
Dangerous (1983) (4 out of 5 stars)
White looks extremely dangerous on the album�s cover. Stretched out like a panther in a rustic barroom, a half finished glass of wine in front of him, the now bearded Swamp Fox stares into the camera, his bedroom eyes at half mast, as if he can read your inner dirty thoughts. The songs on the album suggest he can.
White�s return has the swagger of the �me first� 80s and his Barry White bayou baritone will melt your tweeters. (Check out his �oh baby� recitation prior to �Our Day Will Come.�) He doles out mystery and bad intent against an electric piano backdrop in the title track, and glides through the sophisticated bass dominated funk of �Naughty Lady.�
White maintains a ladies man persona throughout, concentrating on appealing to the libido by keeping his voice deep, growly and whispery, and makes use of Sam Levine�s sax in �If You�re Gonna Love Somebody� in spots where he might otherwise employ his whomper stomper guitar. He lays the sensuality on pretty thick in the barroom remake of Ruby and the Romantics �Our Day Will Come,� but this was, after all, the 80s. Trying to tap into the dance orientated sound of the day, Tony Joe fumbles big time with �Swamp Rap,� which is as vapid as �Even Trolls Love Rock and Roll.� The same groove works for �Do You Have a Garter Belt?� because Tony Joe�s channels his love of John Lee Hooker and is more true to his bayou roots, blowing out gravelly come-ons on harp.
Although �Dangerous� harnessed the disco influences of the day to much better effect than the previous album (�The Real Thang,�) the best songs play off of love and family -- subjects White�s more comfortable with. Ultimately, the strength of the album lay in White�s writing, particularly the Mexicali-flavored �Down By The Border,� and the tear-jerker �You Just Get Better All The Time,� a love letter to his wife, Leann: �You just get better all the time, and yesterday I heard you read my mind. That kind of magic is so hard to find, you just get better all the time.�
Closer to the Truth (1991) (4 � out of 5 stars)
I happened to be sitting in front of the T.V. one day around 1990 wondering what had become of the talented swamp king, and was absent-mindedly watching a jeans commercial when I heard a familiar muggy voice in the background moan, ��You�re gonna look good in blues�� My head snapped to attention. It was Tony Joe, back from an eight-year performing purgatory, selling jeans! The thirty second snippet was eerie, enticing. I thought it would make a great song, and chalked it up to another missed career opportunity for White. It was also about this time I heard Tony Joe on the radio hawking MacDonald�s �MacRibs.� It figured he�d be the spokesperson for a product that was discontinued (another lost opportunity!). At least it put food on the table while it ran.
That riff in the blue jean commercial stuck in my head, and I kept hoping the Swamp Fox would turn those few attention-grabbing bars into a song. Little did I know he already had�
In the late 1980s White enlisted Roger Davies as his manager. By switching to Davies Management, White was able to get his song catalogue in front of more artists. Tina Turner was particularly interested in White�s material, recording four of his songs for one of her albums: �Undercover Agent for the Blues,� �Steamy Windows,� �You Know Who (Is Doing What),� and �Foreign Affair,� which became the title track. When Turner met White she was astonished to find that given his sound, he wasn�t the ancient black bluesman she thought he was. The two meshed so well that White wound up playing guitar, keyboards, and harp on the album and toured with Turner. White also appeared as the mysterious mojo man in the black hat strumming a guitar and blowing his harp in the video for �Steamy Windows.�
The exposure catapulted The Swamp Fox back into the public eye (particularly in France, where he remained a bigger icon than Jerry Lewis, although that�s not too difficult to fathom). As a result, White was offered a three album deal with the French Remark label. The first album, �Closer to the Truth,� catapulted White from �where are they now� status back into the pantheon of revered singer/songwriters.
White�s eight-year layoff had revitalized his skills. �Closer to the Truth� was one of his strongest efforts to date, displaying White�s fully realized talent for storytelling, and his vastly improved skills as a guitarist. It kicks off with �Tunica Motel,� a highway call describing White�s favorite getaway spot outside of Memphis: �Fried chicken to go, and they�ve got live bait for sale. Anything you want, at the Tunica Motel.�
The aforementioned �(You�re Gonna Look) Good in Blues� is a simmering ballad with snakey sax by Harry Thompson and churning Hammond chords supplied by Steve Nathan. �The Other Side� is one of White�s most ambitious and important compositions, a social commentary on the sad plight of the modern American Indian, racial polarization, the homeless and Tiananmen Square, wrapped up in keening riffs, sharp solos and White�s authoritative vocal: �Homeless people shuffle alone in the dark, with everything they own in a grocery cart. And still the lines are drawn between colors of skin, just a broken wing that never mends. � In the past, White�s songs were sometimes victimized by jagged edges where the lyrics stumbled over the music, or vice versa. The lyrics and music on �Closer to the Truth� are as suited for one another as catfish and hot sauce.
Other must listens are White�s own take on his sweaty �Steamy Windows,� a smoother ride than Turner�s gravelly version, with White turning on the sensual swampy charm, and �Bi Yo Rhythm,� White�s homage to the mysteries of the bayou: �The gator rides low in the water, but his eyes see everything. He watches the city moving closer, turning his home into a four lane. He moves � he moves with the sound. He waits until it all comes down. Bi-yo rhythm � Bi-yo rhythm.� Muscle Shoals magician Roger Hawkins constructs a choppy dance step set against White�s ominous vocal. The song casts such a scorching spell you�ll hear the bullfrogs, smell the honeysuckle, and feel the Spanish Moss growing between your toes.
Hawkins� forceful boogie stomp intros �Undercover Agent for the Blues,� which focuses on White�s smooth as marmalade guitar picking, and bedroom bound persona. When White sings �Ain�t Going Down This Time� in the song of the same name amidst Thompson�s cutting sax and David Hood�s bubbling bass, you know he means it; that he�s had �enough blues for a lifetime.�
The only glitch is the title track, which flattens out as it gets a bit preachy. You can�t help but draw comparisons to �The Other Side,� a far superior tune with more straightforward lyrics.
�Closer to the Truth� was almost as close to as perfect an album as White would produce. He�d hit the mark of perfection with his next effort, �The Path of a Decent Groove.�
The Path of a Decent Groove (1993) (5 out of 5 stars)
If someone told me I was going to be stranded on an island for a year and could only take half a dozen CDs, this would be one of them. (For those of you who care, the others would be Traffic�s �Low Spark of High Heeled Boys,� Jim Capaldi�s �Oh How We Danced,� Spooky Tooth�s �The Last Puff,� Carole King�s �Music� and The Moody Blues� �Seventh Sojourn.�) There are Tony Joe purists who don�t like this album because it�s really Tony Joe solo with occasional input from Jim �Blind Bubba� Spake on sax, Jay Davis on bass, and Giles Reaves or Tony Joe playing a trap set, which removes some of the rhythmic funk, making the album somewhat thinner musically. To that I say�.Son, you�re whistlin� Dixie! If you ever needed proof that a finely crafted song can make difference, then listen to this album, which has the swamp master�s best songs�period. Sometimes it�s the song, not the singer (and this assessment is coming from a frontman.)
What makes this album unlike T.J.�s others is White�s guitar legerdemain. Every song is a canvas of sneaky, swampy guitar cameos, and foot-stompin�, body shakin� beats.
On an album of nothing but highlights, there are numerous tracks that qualify as instant classics. �Catawalling Alley in Nice� finds White on reverbed guitar bouncing off of his own acoustic rhythm. The two instruments parry and jab against one another, jockeying for the listener�s attention with Jim �Blind Bubba� Spake�s lonely sax filling in any pauses. The title for �2 Hot 4 u� takes a page out of Prince�s lexicon. Its butt bumping boogie with some of White�s most laughably lascivious lyrics: �I tell myself it�s a wild dream, but I know for sure. Anytime you�re close to me, you mess with my temperature.�
You won�t be able to sit still when White cranks up his acoustic army for �Up in Arkansas.� The closest I can come to describing the arrangement would be taking the opening of Stevie Wonder�s �Superstition� and mixing it with Ritchie Blackmore�s guitar for Deep Purple�s �Sail Away,� then looping the results. The rhythm gets into your bones and makes �em jump. White was sitting on his front porch when the ideas for the song began flowing. The result is a pleasing description of White�s downtime in the backwoods: �Got me a rocker without no arms, an ol� wood stove to keep me warm. My fire wood out of the rain, I sit and watch the seasons change.�
The album�s two strongest tracks are both ballads. With its slow gallop, �Always the Song� wouldn�t be out of place as the soundtrack to a Clint Eastwood western (one of the good ones). White once again employs the electric/acoustic solo switch off that worked so well in �Catawalling Alley in Nice.� This time the narration bleeds into White�s ghostly electric solo, which is followed by an equally haunting passage on Spanish guitar. White has written his share of mournful ballads, but �Always the Song� will strike a chord with anyone who�s so deeply in love they wouldn�t know what to do without their better half: �You know when I�ve been wounded, and I need a place to hide. You see me walking straight up, but you know I�m bending inside. And you try and help me handle the pain, when someone I love is gone. And somewhere way out in the rain�always the song.�
�I Want To Be With You� gives the album another breathy ballad. �Jaguar Man��s edgy beat stalks the speakers like a predatory beast, and hindsight gives the poor choices White made in his youth in �The Coldness of the Chain� a harsh, stinging reality that slaps the listener like a deathly wind. The bouncing acoustic boogie that permeates the opener, �On the Return to Muscle Shoals,� almost makes you forget that it�s a song about Tony Joe being homesick -- and just plain sick: �Over in Stockholm they were gettin� on down, we were reachin� for the moon. I was bedridden in Amsterdam; the silence of my guitar filled the room. I had become disoriented, stranded on the road. And I bet they�re fryin� fish tonight, way down in Muscle Shoals.�
The album�s closer, the title track, is a heartfelt lament that pays homage to White�s continued dedication Leann: �A girl raised back in the wilderness, who knew our paths would cross. But down through the years we stick together, though it all. She�s close to the wolf, with eyes the palest of blue. They�re on the path� of a decent groove.�
�The Path of a Decent Groove� is hard to find � even White�s website doesn�t offer it, but listening to the Swamp Fox�s uplifting observations will put you on the road to tranquility. �The Path of a Decent Groove� is truly one of those rare life-changing listening experiences.
One Hot July (1998) (5 out of 5 stars)
�One Hot July� was Tony�s Joe�s comeback album in the states. (His previous efforts, �Closer to the Truth,� �Path of a Decent Groove,� and �Lake Placid Blues� were available only as imports.) It took more than a year to sift through the legal red tape for the album to get released here, but it was more than worth the wait. There isn�t a bad track on it. (�Gumbo John� comes close because it uses the stereotypical bayou redneck imagery that White usually manages to avoid. It�s like Bayou 101 for rookies who�ve never heard �Polk Salad Annie.� It still sports some jumpin� wah-wah.) From White�s husky mumble for �Crack the Window� to the elegant string ensemble reprise of the title cut, �One Hot July� is one of White�s more realized, atmospheric masterpieces drippin� with teary wisdom, and there�s plenty of T.J.�s swampy guitar licks to keep the musician in you happy. White uses Carson Whitsett�s B-3 playing as an atmospheric carpet, launching his solos from his spooky chording. Whitsett�s thick organ runs add to the ominous mystery of �Across From Midnight� and the icy ballad, �Cold Fingers.� The title track, a scrapbook of White�s childhood memories, is as slow and steamy as the Mississippi River in August, with White�s dry James Earl Jones phrasing digging deep into the bayou mud, hanging over the quiet string backdrop like a heat haze: �Running barefoot through the pasture, Sunday evening baseball games. The old men talked about the weather, it never changed�It stayed the same.� White switches locales, going south of the border with �Selena,� a string snapping tribute to slain Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla.
There are numerous themes explored on the album, loneliness, regret, envy; but White doesn�t neglect to inject some humor as well, as in head dippin� funk of �Goin' Down Rockin�.� You�ll love the way White drawls out: �I can�t be your sugar daddy, won�t be your Neanderthal. �Cause if I can�t go down rockin�, ain�t goin� down at all.� He takes himself to task for his car envy in �I Want My Fleetwood Back�: �It was just too long, wouldn�t fit in my garage. Uncle Sam was in the distance and it was not a mirage. Said he needed money for some previous income tax. Oh, I had to let it go, but now I want my Fleetwood back.�
White also pokes fun at his own easy going nature in �Don�t Over Do It�: �I like to sleep late, ain�t nothin� wrong with staying� in the sack. Sometimes I ain�t sleepin,� I�m just checkin� my eyelids for cracks. They say I might be lazy, but I call it just a little laid back.�
White warns his band that he expects a yeoman effort in the intro to �Ol Black Crow�: �The only thing I know is no one will leave this building until this thing is through�It�s like law�� He and the band pick through the song�s locked-in funk, with White slapping at his strings, Eric Watkins plucking out fat bass lines, Whitsett�s wafting, witchy organ playing and Marc �Boom Boom� Cohen�s wrist snapping beat. My guess is everybody took a well deserved break to towel down after this take. The Swamp Fox also reconstitutes two of his earlier compositions, �The Delta Singer� and �Conjure Woman,� in chunky renditions that outstrip the originals.
One of the more surprising aspects of the album is that many of the songs were done in one take. Producers Roger Davies, White, and Chris Lord-Alge (who mixed the album) deserve credit for infusing White�s music with a rich warmth missing in some of his other releases.
Snakey (2002) (4 out of 5 stars)
With Tony Joe in full control of his own music, he followed his solo acoustic recording (�The Beginning�) with �Snakey,� employing his touring cohorts, drummer Marc �Boom Boom� Cohen and bassist Steve �Little Troll� Forrest.
The first cut, �Feeling Snakey,� puts a distorted electric guitar in Tony Joe�s hands (where it belongs). White remains a master at creating short, fascinating leads, and that�s saying a lot because I�ve always viewed the guitar as an unnecessary evil, and players like Clapton, Page and Hendrix as overindulgent axe-men who missed more than they hit. White makes his guitar talk without making it scream.
As always, there are several keepers on the album. �Bayou Bleus� (yes, it�s spelled that way) rolls in on a wave of darting guitars and Cohen�s assured back beat. �The bayou bleus and their secret, the bayou bleus, they tell it all. There�s a mystery in their moment. There�s a message in their call.� Tell it, Tony Joe. The next tune, �Nothing I Would Not Do,� encompasses what the Swamp Fox does best. He creates a melody and a series of phrases you think you�ve heard before, but they�re entire original. White whips out one of his more languid vocals, picking to the melody as Cohen splashes the cymbals and Carson �Dr Gloom� Whitsett lays his fingers (or is it fangers?) across the B-3. �Nothing I would not do�for you. Nothing I would not try to make it right. You are the reason why, I have to take a deep breath, anytime I�m close to you.� �All Those Tomorrows� makes it three outstanding tunes in a row as the Swamp Fox draws from his south Texas roots, slipping in some suave acoustic atmosphere. And if you like the wailing lament of �All My Tomorrows,� you�ll admire the equally downtrodden acoustic blues of �Hard Time With Sunday� and �Rico,� the melancholy tale of a migrant worker taking a beat down from life.
Tony does need to stay away from trying to invent the next dance craze, though. On �Dangerous� it was the atrocious rhyme-for-the-sake-of-rhyme �Swamp Rap.� For �Snakey,� he came up with �The Organic Shuffle,� a poke at health food fanatics. Its yards above �Swamp Rap� and the equally mutant jam, �Even Trolls Love Rock and Roll,� but still should have been dumped in the compost heap. White does tickle the funny bone with �Taste Like Chicken� and let�s his gritty guitar take wing: �Thanksgiving day in Alabama, a swamper puts some food on the plate. And when I asked him about the mystery meat, he just grinned and said, �Somebody won�t see their shadow today.� Taste like chicken�Taste just like chicken.�
�Snakey� proves that Tony Joe could still produce quality material on his own (it was released on his own label), without any prodding from the bean counters.
Others Notable Swamp Fox Songfests
Black and White (1968) (3 out of 5 stars)
White hadn�t fully formed his composing chops in time for his debut release. As a result,
�Black and White� contains more than its share of covers. (It was produced by Billy Swan, who would have his own hit in 1974 with the campy �I Can Help,� written by Kris Kristofferson.) With an assist from self-assured drummer Sammy Creason, White�s version of �Who�s Makin� Love� burns with a cohesiveness missing from Johnny Taylor�s soulless original. But there�s no hope for �Little Green Apples,� an overly ripe, trite pop tune written by Bobby Russell, who would later pen the southern soap opera, �The Night the Lights Went Out In Georgia� for his then wife, Vicki Lawrence, the second banana on �The Carol Burnett Show.� My dad loved �Little Green Apples� (as originated by O.C. Smith), but he always was a sentimental softie.
�Wichita Lineman� has more grit and grease than Glen Campbell�s original, but Tony Joe doesn�t have Jimmy Webb�s superb string arrangement to reinforce the storyline. The best covers are �Scratch My Back,� a funky nudge that suits White�s molasses delivery, and �The Look of Love,� in which White works his horny rumble of a voice.
Of the original tunes, the hippy-swamp of �Soul Francisco� and �Aspen Colorado� were obsolete before they even hit the airwaves, and are perfect examples of White�s occasional inability to write lyrics that balance out with the music. �Willie Mae and Laura Jones� is also uneven, but its existence is justified by Dusty Springfield having recorded a version of the song that made the charts. �Whompt out on You� and �Don�t Steal My Love� cast White as a laconic southern bad boy, and remain solid samples of sexy swamp excursions to come. But the reason to listen to �Black and White� is the Swamp Fox�s penultimate snarling tale of dirt poor bayou life, �Polk Salad Annie,� with its predatory horns, snakey rhythm and White�s ju ju man delivery: �Down in Louisiana, where the alligators grow so mean. Lived a girl that I swear to the world, made the alligators look tame��
Tony Joe (1970) (3 out of 5 stars)
White�s third album was a step backward for the Swamp Fox after the promising ��Continued�,� but not a fall. For the most part it suffers from the cover tunes being better than his original compositions. With seasoned cohorts Sammy Creason and Tommy McClure back on board, White rotated other noted session men into the mix, including bassist Norbert Putnam (Elvis, J.J. Cale, Linda Ronstadt), drummer Jerry Carrigan and Mike Utley (who has since served as Jimmy Buffet�s long standing keyboard player). Cut live, White�s version of John Lee Hooker�s �Boom Boom� is an eight-minute jagged juggernaut with the whomper stomper on full feedback display. White�s cover of �Hard To Handle� has the bite associated with Otis Redding�s gritty workout or Pigpen�s haphazard soul, and puts the Black Crowe�s pedestrian reading to shame. Junior Walker�s �What Does It Take?� gets a similar Memphis soul motivation with White ably replacing Walker�s sax runs with his harp. White�s compositions, particularly �Stud Spider� and �Save Your Sugar For Me,� are ambitious, but underdeveloped. Maybe that�s why White entitled his next album Tony Joe White � he knew he could do better.
Eyes (1976) (3 out of 5 stars)
�Eyes� was an attempt to turn Tony Joe into Barry Joe White. Whether it was intentional of not, the Swamp Fox�s bassy bedroom voice was an uncanny match to Barry White�s devilish tenor. If not for an incessant disco beat, �Eyes� would be one of White�s better albums, a celebratory and upbeat tribute to celebrating the art of creating horizontal heat.
There are two songs in particular that wouldn�t sully White�s reputation if added them to his current set list, �You Taught Me How to Love� and �We�ll Live on Love,� (told ya this was an upbeat album). �You Taught Me How to Love� distills the disco/swamp beat with Billy Wayne Herbert�s bass rumbling like a lead guitar. �We�ll Live On Love� is the best example of the Barry Joe White bedroom dream machine, complete with a hormone heightening recitation: �Now they say you can�t live on love alone�But the way I feel right now being here with you like this�I don�t think I�ll ever need anything else�And as long as we�ve got each other and our dreams we�re gonna make it baby�We�re gonna make it.�
�You Are Loved By Me� (more love, Tony?) is dominated by Willie Hall�s blistering high hat action, but has a generous dose of dance floor sexiness � and a vibes solo! You certainly won�t find that on any of the Swamp Fox�s other songs. Another pleasant anomaly occurs in �Rainy Day Lover,� with the disco beat slowed to a drone and the focus placed on Don Chandler�s organ backdrop. There�s also a solo by White that sounds more like the distant and lonesome work of Peter Green � a striking effect White never attempted again. The closer, �That Loving Feeling� (not the Righteous Brothers song), has a chart that resembles the first part of Diana Ross� sensual �Love Hangover.� White and one of the back up singers feign orgasmic delights, but not to the point where you�ll feel like you�re going to need a shower.
White didn�t totally abandon his brand of bayou boogie for the sound of the day. The disco beat gives way to an energetic shuffle in �Texas Woman.� �Texas Woman� is a harp blowing homage to White�s mentor John Lee Hooker. White is in the pocket, enjoying himself and even let�s out a few wolfish �how...how�how�s� normally associated with Hooker.
There are a couple of blind spots on �Eyes� that�ll make you go �Eye-yi-yi.� �Hold on to Your Hiney� is as playfully dumb-ass as it sounds, but is typical of Tony Joe�s more irreverent songs, somewhere in between the heinous boogie of �Even Trolls Love Rock N� Roll� or the clever word play exhibited in �2 Hot 4 You�: �Babe I love the way you shake your thang, can�t take my eyes off you. And every time I see you dance, you gonna shake somethin� loose... You better hold on to your hiney, before that funky music break it in two.� �Hiney� is a funny but uncomfortable listen�Do people still call their posterior their hiney?
Lake Placid Blues (1995) (3 out of 5 stars)
After penning an album�s worth of descriptive short story masterpieces for �The Path of a Decent Groove,� White rushed out an album of more pedantic compositions. Although he didn�t bring his �A� game material, �Lake Placid Blues� still contains several unforgettable songs. �These Arms of Mine� shows White hadn�t lost his ability to turn a phrase: �This old heart is sentimental, I guess that�s why I wear it on my sleeve. But it feels your pain, baby, when dreams are scattered like falling leaves.� The murky blues of �Down Again� (written with Leann White), illustrates that even a well adjusted artist like the Swamp Fox sometimes feels as if his life is spinning out of control. His heartache bleeds through the speakers through a honey-toned solo that will sweep you away. Another stand out track, the wiry wah-wah workout �Yo Yo Man� (also written with Leann White), was plucked off the album by blues icon John Mayall for one of his comeback efforts. The highlight of the album is �Louisiana Rain,� a bayou ballad in which White reminisces about his impoverished upbringing: �I see a barefoot boy, down an old dirt road. A little ol� shot-gun house, with a wood burning stove. It had a rusty tin roof, and broken window panes, and I used to fall asleep, to the Louisiana Rain.� White may not have intended to create an emotional equal to �Rainy Night In Georgia,� but it�s one of those melancholy tunes that�ll put a lump in your throat.
If there was one complaint about �Path of A Decent Groove,� it was that White played too many of the instruments himself, instead of feeding off of the energy of a band. For �Lake Placid Blues,� White assembled a crack team of musicians, including his fishing buddy, Donald �Duck� Dunn (the bassist for Booker T. and the M.G.s), percussionist Luis Conte (Traffic), bassist Leland Sklar (Crosby and Nash) and keyboardist Benmont Tench (Tom Petty). The result is average material such as �Paris Mood Tonight,� �The Beach Life� and �High Horse,� which closely resemble one another, are rescued by inspired interplay by the ensemble. There is however, a surprising abundance of average (not bad) material. The CD packaging, with shots of Tony Joe hoofing it in the backwoods, is very cool, and was nominated for a design awards.
The Beginning (2001) (2 � out of 5 stars)
It doesn�t get more real than this. Just Tony Joe in the studio on guitar, harmonica � and foot. T.J.�s expressive acoustic can fill up the room, but playing live there�s no way to dress up his lived-in vocal chords. White goes for Blind Lemon Chitlin�/John Lee Hooker approach, purposely growling or rasping his way through much of the material. It works for the foot-stomping delta sound of �Rich Woman Blues,� but after 11 solo cuts you have to wonder if Tony Joe would have been better off sprucing things up a bit with some other instruments, or loosening some of the Louisiana dirt from his delivery. If White�s intent was to sound like a genuine downtrodden blues man, he succeeded. Unlike �The Path of a Decent Groove,� (which was mostly a solo album), the material on �The Beginning� is pretty pessimistic stuff. �Path� gave you more emotionally � highs as well as lows. This is nearly all gloom and despair. For example, �Clovis Green,� the story of an illegitimate boy, collapses under the weight of presenting a tragic story without any dramatic backing music (could�ve really used some strings in there Tony Joe). And �Clovis� is preceded by the very bad �Wonder Why I Feel So Bad,� and followed by �Rebellion,� one of White�s few overt diatribes against the establishment. Because of the pessimistic subject matter and the sparse production, songs that might have more distinct personalities if they were electrified tend to blend together, although �Ice Cream Man� has White�s trademark rambunctious sexuality, and �More This Than That� flashes one of the album�s few touches of wit: �So many socks but there ain�t no pair, and I got them crawlin� underwear. Pair of jeans and raggy hat � oughta be more to this than that.�
There�s some good material here, like the shuffling �Going Back To Bed,� and �Drifter,� with its Spanish guitar sound reminiscent of �Down By The Border� (which is also revisited in a more morose version). �Raining On My Life� sounds a great deal like �The Gospel Singer,� but White embellishes it with his percussive guitar style. Purists will rate this one much higher than I did (I�m still kinda tempted to give it a �3� after listening it again and judging it on its own merit). In the end you�ll wish you could play a gee-tar as well as White � there�s nothing even approaching a flub on this mostly live recording. Nevertheless, if you�re building your Tony Joe collection, you�ll really want to steep yourself in some of his other albums before taking this one on.
Uncovered (2006) (2 � out of 5 stars)
Having recorded an album with a phalanx of his favorite female artists (�The Heroines� in 2004), Tony Joe tried the same approach with noted male performers, including Eric Clapton, J.J. Cale, the late Waylon Jennings, and Mark Knopfler, who should just reform Dire Straights and stay the heck away from anything with a beat and never, never attempt to unleash his nasally voice again. The best tunes are the solo pieces: �Run for Cover,� �Rebellion,� and an earnest remake of �Rainy Night in Georgia.�
Many of the songs are retreads, a nasty habit that Tony Joe started after �One Hot July.� Apparently Tony Joe was convinced so many people missed his first twenty album�s worth of material he felt it was okay to re-record his entire career. The Swamp Fox�s signature tune, �Rainy Night in Georgia,� gets a new whitewash along with �Takin� the Midnight Train,� �Rebellion,� and �Did Somebody Make a Fool Out of You.�
The opportunity for Tony Joe to top Brook Benton�s immortal version of �Rainy Night in Georgia� has passed. Using an arrangement similar to but slower than Benton�s, White wrings more emotion out of this version than he did in the original recorded in 1969, but one inevitably wishes he still had the swampy pipes he had back then.
�Takin� the Midnight Train� is a ghostly ride, slower, more sparse than its bluesy predecessor. The new version benefits from sensitive percussion work by Jeff Hale. White sounds as if he understands the narrative better than he did in �69 (ah, the wisdom of hindsight). The new version is an improvement on the original and a good argument for an artist revisiting his work (unlike the other remakes).
Waylon Jennings and White were close friends � White once responded to Jennings� �Mama Don�t Let Your Cowboys Grow Up to Be Babies� with the mocking �Mama Don�t Let Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys� � and the pair recorded �Shakin� the Blues�
before Jennings passed away in 2002. �Shakin� the Blues� is one of the album�s few genuine duets, with the two AARP rednecks singing with the type of unselfish cooperation inspired by true friendship.
�Not a Bad Thought� is a song I saw Tony Joe perform solo acoustically to great effect at Joe�s Pub in New York City a few seasons ago. On �Uncovered,� Mark Knopfler attempts croak his way through with Tony Joe. Knopfler�s voice is expressionless, but that doesn�t stop him from laying down a solo with plenty of good intentions. Carson Whitsett provides his usual sterling asides on the B3 alongside Jeff Hale�s rat-a-tat percussion. �My Momma was a Cherokee, spent her life on a river farm. She had seven kids and let us know there was plenty of room in her arms.�
If Michael McDonald wasn�t a bankable name there wouldn�t be a need for him to participate in �Baby Don�t Look Down.� The first two thirds of the number is White solo. McDonald huffs with his usual wooly aplomb as a back up singer, but wobbles through the third verse when given a chance to sing lead. �Louvelda� with somnambulistic singer/songwriter J.J. Cale, has as much energy as an addict slipping into a heroin nod. Sometimes a laid back approach is just too danged slow. J.J. Cale�s own performances (�Cocaine,� �After Midnight,� �Call Me the Breeze� to name a few) actually benefit from his lack of giddy up. �Louvelda� doesn�t, and Cale�s dry, faceless rasp is dangerously close to Knopfler�s.
Eric Clapton gets the guest slot in �Did Somebody Make a Fool Out of You.� This �Fool� has a more deliberate beat than the original version on �Homemade Ice Cream,� but lacks its urgency. At least Clapton�s a better singer than Knopfler (meaning he�s not flat) and while he�s no longer �God� on guitar, the messiah can still pluck out a thrill or two.
Compound the lack of new material with White�s newfound tendency to talk/sing his way through tunes, and �Uncovered� comes across as an impromptu jam geezer session. Rehearse a little bit more next time fellas before pressing the record button, and you�ll get three stars.
Give These To the Gators�
No artist is perfect. Especially after 20 albums�
The Heroines (2004) (2 out of 5 stars)
Tony Joe doesn�t like hype, but he allowed his son Jody to talk him into an album of duets with popular country girls in order to increase his recognition. What this album needed was more Swamp Fox and fewer foxes. Although some of the gals, like Waylon Jennings� widow, Jessi Colter and Shelby Lynne have known White for many years, their styles and his don�t necessarily mesh. I have never had any use for Emmy Lou Hears a Who Harris� wimpy vocals and hope to never hear dirty-bomb contribution to �Wild Wolf Calling Me� again. �Robbin� My Honeycomb,� and the exotic instrumental �Gabriella�s Affair� prove that White works best solo. Although its one of White�s more commercially viable recent efforts, it suffers from the too many contributions from the heroines and not enough from its hero.
Deep Cuts (2008) (1 out of 5 stars)
I hate to dis Tony Joe�s latest effort, but it�s so far a field from his previous albums that I had to check the cover to make sure it was him.
When a musician passes on his legacy to his son, he seldom passes on his talent. (Are you listening Jacob Dylan? Ziggy Marley? Chynna Phillips?) In Tony Joe�s case, he first made his son, Jody, his de-facto tour manager. In 2008 he handed Jody the additional weighty title of producer. For �Deep Cuts,� Jody boldly suggested that Tony Joe modernize his sound with tape loops, plenty of reverb, and ominous electronica. The result is murky, cluttered disingenuous studio trickery that undercuts the progress Tony Joe�s made since �Closer to the Truth.� Tony Joe has wrestled for years to gain his artistic freedom, to be free of corporate interference. In this case it would have been a good idea for an outsider to have been in charge of quality control, because �Deep Cuts� is pretty near unlistenable. Instead of a bayou bouillabaisse, Captain Jody has cobbled together sonic sludge as thick and ugly as Galveston crude.
There�s plenty of hoodoo and voodoo, but few good tunes, and most of the songs are remakes that sounded better the first time around. I�ve said it before and I�ll say it
again -- if it ain�t broke, don�t fix it. �Deep Cuts� rehashes White�s weakest material, such as the arcane flower-power of �Soul Francisco;� �Roosevelt and Ira Lee,� a tale of two buddies lacking the common intelligence to fish safely; the slow slalom crash and burn of �Aspen, Colorado,� and the criminally dull �Sheriff of Calhoun Parish.� Dusty Springfield turned �Willie Mae and Laura Jones� into a credible lesson in race relations, but Tony Joe painfully mumbles and staggers his way through his remake like Blind Lemon Chitlin� passing a kidney stone. Redone with an unnecessary overpowering echo and a halting arrangement, the once superb �As the Crow Flies� and the front porch instrumental �Homemade Ice Cream� lose their powerful effect and appeal, melting amidst copious slatherings of electronic snap, crackle and no pop. Folks who�ve never heard Tony Joe�s music may like this approach, but he�s done nothing in the past to indicate � or justify � his turning into Beck.
The Swamp Fox should have taken a lesson from Muddy Waters�Faced with trying to appeal to the hippie crowd, the venerable bluesman was coaxed by his management into recording �Electric Mud� in 1968. Recorded mostly live, the record chucked out Muddy�s traditional sloth-like blues riffs, replacing them with fuzzed-out, distorted psychedelic solos that tore apart the speakers. Rockers who�d been lukewarm to Muddy�s music now had an avenue of discovery � but his lifelong fans detested the album, crying sell out. Even Muddy hated it, calling it �Electric S**t.� �Deep Cuts� is White�s �Electric Mud,� -- a deep disgrace.
I had the pleasure of meeting Tony Joe White backstage at Joe�s Pub in Manhattan two years ago. Yes, I acted like a star struck groupie, praising his performance and his music. Somewhere I have a picture of me and The Swamp Fox exchanging pleasantries. I can only hope you�ll take the path of a decent groove and add a few Tony Joe White CDs to your collection.