by Marshall Bowden
Tony Joe White passed away on October 24, 2018. He died suddenly at home of a heart attack only weeks after the release of his album Bad Mouthin’. The following piece is adapted from a review of White’s album The Heroines with additional observations on his collaborations with Shelby Lynne.
Tony Joe White’s music is generally described as swamp rock, and it is true that he was one of the first performers to have a hit record with that sound. Back in 1969, when “Polk Salad Annie” became a hit record, there were a few other performers, mostly black, playing a swampy cocktail of sounds from the southern United States, but the mainstream public had never really heard most of them.
“Polk Salad Annie” contained all the elements of the form as well as the style that identifies Tony Joe White’s music to this day: the low, intimate, growling voice, the economic blues guitar style that is always in the service of the song, never calling attention to itself with long flashy solos.
White has had a long career, but stardom has eluded him since his initial hits in the late sixties and early seventies. Much of the seventies were spent on projects that tried to inject White’s signature sound with a danceable (read: disco) beat; these were not commercially successful.
During the 80s he concentrated mostly on songwriting rather than performing, but the 90s proved something of a renaissance, and 2001’s The Beginning was a totally honest, straight-ahead album featuring only White and his guitar recorded in his home studio.
In 2008 White released one of the finest albums of his career, The Heroines. The title refers to the fact that White invited some of his favorite female singers to share the spotlight on his compositions. Of the twelve tracks, two are brief instrumental guitar interludes which open and close the album. Of the remaining ten, five are duets with distinctive female singers and the other five are just Tony Joe.
It says a lot about White’s commitment to presenting the song vs. his ego as a performer that the first voice heard on The Heroines is not White’s, but rather guest vocalist Shelby Lynne’s. Her voice is the perfect vehicle for “Can’t Go Back Home,” and a great match for Tony Joe’s growl. White’s guitar work subtly emphasizes elements of those lyrics and perfectly supports Lynne’s vocals.
What’s wonderful about the concept of this album is that the duets are all great and help supplement the basic sound of White’s voice and guitar work enough that the listener’s interest never flags. Hot, sweaty blues-inflected numbers like “Ice Cream Man,” “Back Porch Therapy,” and “Rich Woman Blues” stand out all the more when contrasted against the varied sound of the duets.
Besides the slinky, confessional “Can’t Go Back Home,” White peforms “Closing In On the Fire,” a song infused with R&B’s frantic energy, with Lucinda Williams and a horn section. His heavy guitar solo propels the track into another dimension entirely. Playa Del Carmen Nights” is a beautiful samba-inflected ballad featuring White’s daughter, Michelle.
“Wild Wolf Calling Me” features Emmylou Harris, and is a perfect folk/country ballad punctuated by some fine harmonica work and a touch of fiddle. “Fireflies In the Storm” is a haunting rocker done up nicely with Jessi Colter.
White and Shelby Lynne proved to be pretty sympatico, with the two writing together around a campfire—White’s preferred method—coming up with “Can’t Go Back Home” and cutting a demo of it in White’s home studio in one night.
On her 2005 album Suit Yourself, Lynne included performances of two White songs, both ballads—the melancholy “Old Times Sake” (a song that Elvis also recorded) and the introspective “Rainy Night In. Georgia.” White plays on both, his presence felt especially on “Rainy Night,” labelled on the CD as “Track 12,” where he contributes guitar and harmonica
Of their affinity as writers and performers, Shelby Lynne told Billboard Magazine in 2004:
“We get together and light a campfire and sit around and drink a couple beers and talk about life and being southerners-and how we feel comfortable with each other just being southerners…One of the best things in life is when you’re given a gift, and Tony Joe’s such a gift to all of us who love the roots music.”Tony Joe’s Campfire Songs, Billboard, 2004
He also reportedly told her “If you didn’t live it, don’t write it.”
White did live the life and times described in so many of his songs, for example “Willie and Laura Mae Jones” which was recorded by Dusty Springfield as a single during her famous Dusty in Memphis sessions. The song is now included as a bonus track on the album’s reissue, and Shelby Lynne recorded it for her tribute to Springfield, 2008’s Just a Little Lovin’.
Born in Louisiana in 1948 he witnessed firsthand the lives of tenant farmers, both black and white, united by poverty, only one bad crop away from an unbreakable cycle of debt. One can argue about the racial complexities of the song, but ultimately it’s about individuals and their relationships. It also hits on the fact that poverty unifies more than divides the poor: “When you live off the land/you don’t have time/to worry ‘bout another man’s color.”
As a performer, songwriter, and personality, White is truly what is sometimes referred to as an American original. He is a songwriter who helps us understand where we come from and how our roots don’t change with the styles or the latest fads. He’ll be missed, but like his songs, he’ll always be around.