Tony Joe White
|Polk Salad Annie||Black And White|
|Soul Francisco||Black And White|
|Roosevelt And Ira Lee||...Continued|
|Stud Spider||Tony Joe|
|Woman With Soul||...Continued|
|Steamy Windows||Closer To The Truth|
|Rainy Night In Georgia||...Continued|
|Little Green Apples||Black And White|
|Shakin' The Blues||Uncovered|
Contributor: David Lewis
Some of y’all ain’t been down South too much, but if you’ve never been, you could do worse than a musical guide such as Tony Joe White: friend to Elvis, friend to Johnny Cash, friend to Tina Turner and Mark Knopfler, his brand of swamp rock is grimy, greasy and southern-fried in a way that is just right.
Born in Goodwill, Louisiana (pronounced of course Loosiana) and then brought up in Arkansas, his family were cotton farmers. His mix of blues, rockabilly and country still satisfies. It’s funk, soul and blues. It’s country, rock and pop. He still tours, often with just a two piece band – him with a battered Stratocaster, an old Fender amp, and with the exception of one Boss Blues Driver, his pedal board is three or four pedals from approximately the early 1970s, gaffer-taped and worn almost beyond recognition. The other musician is a drummer. Add in those gruff, almost tuneless, but musically great vocals, and you have a compelling two hour show.
Tony Joe, like many great singer-songwriters, took a while to find success, and found it initially through other people doing his songs. Although we tend to eschew the biggest hits here at Toppermost, in this case Polk Salad Annie, it is also the most typical song and the best one to start a Tony Joe White toppermost. It is a sublime piece of work – the spoken introduction allowing the stranger to the South an entrée to this exotic locale. Tony Joe is Virgil to our Dante. Polk Salad Annie herself isn’t terribly impressive – so poor she had to forage food from a weed, essentially, Her sons steal watermelons, but Annie’s grandmother meets an unfortunate end – ˈgator gets her. Chomp. Chomp. Did Annie do it? Annie’s mother ends up on the chain gang.
For a Southern raised writer, he was open to other viewpoints. He felt the chillun’ in Soul Francisco, where he’d never been, maybe had a little more soul. It’s a positive take on the hippie movement.
More Southern characters are introduced in Roosevelt And Ira Lee. This hapless pair try to feed themselves on bullfrog, but it doesn’t go so well. A brilliant harmonica solo and a cold ending makes this a stunningly effective composition.
A fair proportion of Tony’s songs are about no-good women stomping on poor men. Stud Spider from the third album Tony Joe (1970) is a great example of this. He won’t be eaten by that black widow. The groove will protect him, I suspect.
Having shown that there are some bad women, Tony Joe wants to tell the world that there is nothing like a Woman With Soul. She nurtured him, fed him and presumably brings his coffee in his favourite cup. Tony is a subtle but virtuosic player – this track too is augmented by a great organ part.
Steamy Windows was done by Tina Turner but Tony gives his song a grind (ahem) which draws out the earthiness of the lyrics. (Tina is, as always, fantastic. If I do a Toppermost on her, this track would be on the list somewhere). But Tony leers and leches. And the guitar is the perfect complement again.
Tony Joe White can do beautiful though. He never loses the groove, but he has descriptive powers that help this listener anyway transcend the drudgery of the everyday. Rainy Night In Georgia needs nothing more.
Well, we know he can write – but can he do covers? The gorgeous Little Green Apples on his first album Black And White (1969) puts that to bed – he absolutely can. The picture of domesticity, and the innocence of love, is projected perfectly. Roger Miller was the intended singer for this Bobby Russell penned Song of the Year, but Tony Joe’s version is as good as Miller’s.
Swamp Rap (Dangerous, 1983) is almost an urban groove – those Doobie Bros guitar rhythms and precision subdivisions are just superb. And a great harp part. The lyrics are pure country though.
The final track is a duo with the late great Waylon Jennings from the 2006 album Uncovered: it’s as much a mission statement as it is a supreme example of two masters of the art of music doing what they do best. Shakin’ The Blues: it’s all Tony’s ever done, I’d venture to suggest. And few do it as well.
Southern Rock reaches its height with Tony Joe White. Groove, and ‘uhn’, and guitar. What more does one need.
David Lewis has written several posts for Toppermost. He lives in Sydney and lectures in Popular Culture and Contemporary and Roots Music at the Australian Institute of Music. A guitarist, mandolinist, banjoist and bassist, he plays everything from funk to country. He writes on music here.