Something Else! Interview: Swamp pop legend Tony Joe White

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· Nick’s note: Tony Joe White, of “Poke Salad Annie” and “Rainy Night in Georgia” fame, played the most recent New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival — just months after issuing a well-received new CD in late 2006. Eight years in the making, “Uncovered” included seven new cuts as well as reworked versions of “Rainy Night in Georgia,” “Taking the Midnight Train,” and (with Eric Clapton) “Did Somebody Make a Fool Out of You.” We sat down for a spell:

The song most local folks associate with Tony Joe White begins with a groove that seems to have a history in every strum … our history.

As the disc turns, that groove grows darker, as moist as the earth below our feet. Then White, he grunts. Uhhngh. At this point, there’s not a way for “Polk Salad Annie” to be any better – or any more Louisiana.

People connect him with this area, with lonely roads like 65 North, with the muddy rivers and the mucky swamps and the crops that once fueled our economy. No doubt, it’s because of those first utterances. The history is ours, the song a moment in pop history. You know it as soon as White starts talking, in a voice that sounds like he washed down gravel with a shot of Jack Black:

Some of ya’ll who never been South too much,
I’m gone tell you a little bit about this,
so you understand what I’m talking about.

All your best country songs had centerpiece talking parts, from George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” to Alan Jackson’s “I’ll Go On Loving You.” But Tony Joe isn’t country – though country artists record his music. He isn’t R&B either – though no less a legendary wailer than Tina Turner records his stuff. He damn sure isn’t pop.

Tony Joe White is one of us, pure and simple. Earthy and plain-spoken. Southern and proud.

With all the contradictions.

He’s an artist who chooses to sidle up to the artistry. (White dismisses the brilliance of his character sketches as simply being about people he’s known.) He still writes a song like “Gumbo John” – from ‘One Hot July,” a few years back – but he’s lived near Nashville forever.

To top it off, there’s what turned out to be his biggest tune, the one everybody away from this place seems to know him for. It’s a song sung by someone else.

Lastly, unlike so many of his peers, Tony Joe’s had his own hit, followed by a series of one-hit cover-tune wonders, but he’s not done.

He always had a deeper context – a kind of “souler” energy, if you will.

“Polk Salad Annie,” the second single off White’s debut “Black and White,” attracted early attention from Elvis Presley – who was looking for a comeback hit in 1969. He eventually recorded several of White’s songs, including “For Ol’ Time’s Sake” and “I Got a Thing About You Baby.”

“It was shocking,” White said. “I mean, I used to do Elvis tunes in clubs.”

Other singers would follow. Almost everybody, in fact, would follow. There was Dusty Springfield and Turner (the very cool “Steamy Windows”); there was Jones and Hank Jr.; there was Ray Charles and Wilson Pickett.

Nobody could do the talk just right, though:

Down there we have a plant
that grows out in the woods and fields.
Looks something like a turnip green.
Ever’body calls it poke salad.

As it would happen, though, a rendition of his “Rainy Night in Georgia” by Brook Benton – who became the first of a cast of thousands, it seemed, to do this one – proved to be his biggest hit … and White’s career defining moment.

Despite putting out some brilliant albums in the late 1960s and early 1970s, White would soon exit the national stage as a solo artist. Still, his songs would live on. That left the door open for comeback.

He re-emerged after a long layoff in the 1980s as a performing artist unchanged. In fact, White’s more recent albums have been the equal of his more celebrated early work.

The 1999 release “One Hot July” – done in Bogalusa – marked two kinds of homecomings, really.

“In fact, that’s the first album I ever went back home and recorded – at a place called the Studio in the Country,” White says. “That’s a good studio to play the blues in; it’s still got a lot of the old microphones – and it’s on, like, 40 acres of swampland.”

Then he worked on a solo project – “that’s the way I started playing, just me and my guitar,” White says; “we’d put a microphone down by my foot, play the harmonica and it sounds like a band” – before releasing a series of group recordings culminating with “Uncovered,” an all-star sequel to 2004’s “The Heroines.”

Included on the new record is a terrific update on “Rainy Night.”

In the beginning, he’d rustle up any gig he could with guys like Harold Russell, who’s now president of the West Carroll Parish Chamber of Commerce.

“We’d play school dances and stuff like that,” White says. “Those were the days when you’d have a guitar and a rhythm guitar. No bass or drums. It really didn’t matter to me; I’d just play and let it go – just turn it on and turn your guitar real loud and everybody would be saying, that’s goooood.”

He hit the road, making a name for himself in Texas roadhouses, learning to write songs and dreaming of the Big Time.

But some things didn’t change: “I played in this club and people came there to dance – and it was just me, like I said. I had a microphone down by my foot and those people would dance their heads off. That’s really strange, that you don’t need a bass and drums to make people dance.”

Not if you’re Tony Joe White, anyway. He can take two words in the early moments of “Annie” and make them a funky symphony: POKE-uh, he growls – and then, lower: sal-ad. Next, there’s another grunt. This one is lower still, as if the music has gotten all the way down into him: Uuuuungh!

And these horns hit like the rapport from Sherman’s long guns, surprising and bright. With that, Tony Joe’s career is underway, shaking and rattling as nothing quite had on AM radio before.

Tony Joe White’s career, his name, seemed destined for glory. He just didn’t know what kind.

Unlike most of the swamp rockers of the time (like, say, CCR’s John Fogerty), White was a Southern native. Born in 1943, he was one of seven children raised on a cotton farm in Goodwill, near Oak Grove.

Songs were all around White as a youngster in the South.

“The music,” he has said, “was made by my dad and mom, my sisters and my brother – a lot of gospel, a little bit of country. Even though I was around it every day, I never did get into it. I just didn’t care; I was into baseball.”

But sports struck out once White put an ear to an old Lightnin’ Hopkins record that his oldest sibling Charles brought home. At 16, White says, “that completely turned me around.”

Ironically, White’s first music business successes and some of his most recent were overseas.

White had gone from performing in school dances with guys like Russell to Texas nightclubs to recording f
or a big label, but yet still had no hit song. “Soul Francisco” finally broke in (of all places) Paris. Monument Records got a cable from overseas requesting a rush shipment of Tony Joe White records.

“I often wonder about that,” White said. “Why did it start in Paris? Especially in those days; they didn’t understand English at all.”

Soon, Monument was hearing from Germany, Spain and the Philippines. Fans in Belgium crammed into discos to hear Tony Joe. Fame would soon find him in America, too. But then, the fast-changing commercial climate in the 1970s music business would swallow that fame up.

Tony Joe still made albums for a while, switching labels constantly, but to little notice. Finally, he stopped recording altogether. After a discouraging eight-year layoff, home-taped bootlegs of some new stuff found its way to Remark – a label in (of all places) France. That led to White’s 1991 comeback album “Closer to the Truth.”

Still, it wasn’t until “One Hot July,” followed by the critically praised “Beginning” (2001) and then “The Heroines,” that White regained much of his lost audience. These days, he’s completely inhabiting the classic sound of albums like “…Continued” – a countrified-blues masterpiece from 1969 that was also reissued overseas, finding a new audience in Britain.

White’s bone-deep baritone and sinewy guitar work were the hallmark of those first records, each one unforgettable. Tony Joe reckons he knows why: “It bridges that thin line of country, soul and pop music,” he said.

But it was his unique gift with a lyric that sent White’s career supernova. You can groove to him; you can study the words, too. And everybody could sing his stuff.

“Tony Joe White may be the greatest writer – period – to come out of northeastern Louisiana,” says longtime folklorist Mike Luster. “If he had chosen the novel or the short story, he would have succeeded. His songs have set a standard for telling stories about his area.”

Yet, the so-called All Music Guide – billed as a “comprehensive” look at popular music, “the expert’s guide” – has issued several volumes without White’s name in the index. Dig deeper and you finally find him listed as composer on “Rainy Night In Georgia” by Benton, his most sympathetic collaborator.

Perhaps that’s fitting. Cover songs, it seems, are Tony Joe White’s most lasting legacy – and it’s fine by him.

“It was a very huge thing for me for all of these stars to do my stuff. I enjoy them more than if I had had the hits,” White says. In fact, “all my heroes have done ’em, and, most all of them, I got to play guitar with them or be in the studio with them.”

Several moments stand out.

“To be a part of something when Tina Turner sings is really something,” White says. “In the studio, she’s just the same as on stage – jumping and dancing and moving the whole time. It’s hard to keep your mind on playing because you’re watching her.”

The Elvis thing was big, too. “When I first started out, I did a lot of Elvis stuff on stage – Elvis and John Lee Hooker. I had the sideburns and the hair; I could really do him. Then all of a sudden, boom, they called and had us come out to L.A. to see him do ‘Polk Salad.'”

White says the process of writing is pretty simple for him: “I never have any idea what kind of song will come by me,” he says. “There might be blues-type song or a Tina Turner tune. I’ve got one that feels kind of Joe Cockerish or Aretha. I just kind of let them come to me and put a guitar on them.”

He writes, White says, about people he’s met – people you’ve grown up with. There’s Willie and Laura Mae Jones. The High Sheriff of Calhoun Parish. The Backwoods Preacher Man. Roosevelt and Ira Lee. Instantly recognizable and all but unforgettable.

“He was the original connection,” Luster says, “between Southern literature and the blues.”

That’s why when Tony Joe growls that introduction to “Polk Salad Annie,” we still see her as a freckled-faced little sexpot in cut-offs – more than 30 years later.

It’s the specificity of his writing:

Used to know a girl and
and she’d go out in the evenings
and pick her a mess of it,
carry it home and cook it for supper.
`Cause that’s about all they had to eat,
he says.
But they did alright, he allows.

Then the song begins proper, meaning to say: Tony Joe begins singing, finally.

The effect of the first three words he would sing on that record – down in Louisiana – is like the ozone-smell of a lightning bolt, the beginning of everything in our relationship with Tony Joe White.

Whatever became of his career, with this song, in this moment, he did alright.

· Green on Red’s “Scapegoats/Here Comes the Snakes” (2001) on harmonica
· Joe Cocker’s “Have a Little Faith” (1994) on guitar; and his “Organic” (1996) on harmonica and electric guitar
· Mark Collie’s “Tennessee Plates” (1995) on guitar
· Blues Boy Willie’s “Don’t Look Down” (1993) as songwriter
· Aron Burton’s “Past, Present, & Future” (1993) as songwriter
· Brendan Croker’s “Great Indoors” (1992) on background vocals
· Jessi Colter’s “That’s the Way a Cowboy Rocks” (1978) on guitar and harmonica
· Donnie Fritts’ “Prone to Lean” (1974) on bass, guitar and vocals; and his “Everybody’s Got a Song” (1997) on guitar and harmonica, among others.
· He also wrote the liner notes for Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “California Mudslide” (1969).

· Johnny Adams’ “From the Heart”
· Four albums by John Anderson
· Greg Barrett’s “Memphis Heat”
· The Bee’s Knees’ “Pure Honey”
· Ten albums by Brook Benton
· Blues Boy Willie’s “Don’t Look Down”
· Hanne Boel’s “Dark Passion”
· Aron Burton’s “Past, Present, & Future”
· Clarence Carter’s “Greatest Hits”
· Celibate Rifles’s “Platters Du Jour”
· Big Twist & The Mellow Fellows’ “Playing for Keeps,” among many others.

· “Rainy Night in Georgia,” “Polk Salad Annie,” “Willie and Laura Mae Jones,” “Roosevelt and Ira Lee (Night of the Mossacin),” “Old Man Willis” and “Saturday Night in Oak Grove Louisiana,” all from “The Best of Tony Joe White.”
· “Backwoods Preacher Man,” “Did Somebody Make a Fool Out of You, “For Ol’ Time’s Sake” and the title track, all from “Home Made Ice Cream.”

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