Tony Joe White Keeps His Cool

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Tony Joe White has a perfectly reasonable explanation for why he put out a little number called “Disco Blues” in 1980.

“I always liked to make people dance, and that straight kick [drum] was the thing,” he explains. “So we used it.”

The Louisiana-born, guitar-playing singer-songwriter also “thought it was very cool” when Kanye West sampled one of his songs a few years back.

So it’s not like White is allergic to trends. But neither has he been beholden to what’s hot throughout his four and a-half decade recording career.

“Cool” is the word that rolls off his tongue most frequently. Cool is also how he talks — in that deep, mellow drawl — and how his most iconic songs sound. He grazed the U.S. charts in the late ‘60s with the utterly unhurried country-funk of “Polk Salad Annie” and authored the slow-burning Southern soul standard “Rainy Night in Georgia,” a major hit for Brook Benton in 1970.

Over the years, many a music journalist has been enticed by the challenge of figuring out what drives a musician as unencumbered as White. His new album Hoodoo is an ideal excuse to give it another try.

CMT Edge: You don’t have a record label telling you to make an album. You can tour without a new single. As far as I can tell, you can do whatever you want at whatever pace you want. So what was it that got you in the studio to make Hoodoo?

White: Well, these songs come. I never know what they’re gonna be about or when they’re gonna come. Sometimes they’ll start on the guitar or start with a word or two, and then I’ll get a few beers and go down by the river and build a campfire and work with it a little bit, see what happens.

We had about 21 or 22 [songs] over the period of the last couple years that was just stacking up. I told Jody, my producer, that I’d like to call Cadillac, my drummer, and my bass player. We’ve got this old house in Franklin [Tenn.] where we keep the studio, reel-to-reel tape — you know, analog. So we can go in any time we want to and do anything we want to, like you said, without having any kind of boss man.

Some songs we rehearse a little bit and learn the chords, but most every song on this album, I would play maybe 30 seconds of it on my guitar and sing a little bit of it, and the drummer and bass [player] would listen. Then I would say, “OK. Hit the red button. Let’s go. See what comes off your heart.” … A lot of times, the first thing that we did was awful hard to beat.

On some of those tracks, you can tell the rhythm section is flying by the seat of their pants, waiting to see where you’ll go.

Because all they could do was watch through the window of the next room, watch my hand on the guitar neck even to know when a break was gonna happen.

Your past several albums have had lots of guest singers or guitarists or featured your nylon-string acoustic guitar as opposed to your electric. What brought you back around to your sonic signatures — those low-slung grooves and down-home character sketches — for this album?

Well, the songs, they kinda let you know how they want to go. Even when I’m writin’ ‘em, I’m almost hearing ‘em already in the studio, though I may be down by the riverbank.

Your song “Alligator, Mississippi” got me wondering about the place. I looked online and found that it is, in fact, a real-life town with somewhere around 200 residents. Have you passed through there and felt like an outsider, like you describe in the song?

See, I go through Alligator, Miss., every time I go home to Louisiana. … The bypass has bypassed this little town you’re talking about. Out on the bypass is this big grocery store. It’s got a barbecue joint in it and a beer joint on the end. I mean, just a rough old spot. There’s always 100-150 people hangin’ outside throwin’ dice. It’s their hangout. And if you have to stop there for gas or you want barbecue, I’d say it’d be best to do it before dark.

So they can tell an outsider right off the bat.

Especially the way you look or talk or whatever. The owners of the place sell real good barbecue, and they pretty well try to keep it under control outside. Like I said, in the dark, anything could go down.

I saw “Polk Salad Annie” on the soundtrack for Swamp People, one of many swamp-themed television shows that have popped up in recent years. Have you noticed a renewed interest in swamp music?

Well, I think the main thing is there’s always been that mystery about the swamp, even the word itself. You start off a little story around the fire and go, “This is about some people who live down in the swamp.” Boy, all the sudden everybody starts listening.

But now, like you say, I bet there’s 15 or 18 shows out there, including overseas, that’s swamp this and swamp that. I can’t tell much [difference] in crowds or anything. Everything is still rockin’ as good as it ever was — well, and even bigger — because a lot of the younger people have gotten into it, and that could be from some of those shows. Who knows?

A lot of those shows, to me, make the swamp look goofy. I’ve had some [people] say, “Hey, man, why aren’t you doin’ the score for this, the score for that?” Get me one that’s got something with some soul in it, something that’s cool, and I’ll play that guitar and harmonica, hell, all over the background of it.

You have a foothold in the Americana scene with decades-old Monument albums that have been reissued and classic songs like “Rainy Night in Georgia” and “Steamy Windows” that continue to be covered in all different genres. Then you were the subject of a documentary, Searching for Tony Joe, which shows how far below the radar you are in this country, yet you’re a consistently big draw at festivals overseas. Does it ever feel like you have several different careers going at once?

(laughs) No, not careers, really. All I got really goin’ on is my guitar and my voice and some songs in my head.

It started in Europe, even before “Polk Salad Annie.” “Soul Francisco” — I had a hit record, of all places, in Paris, France. It started there and spread to Germany and all over Europe and Australia. Come back over here, and then “Polk” hit. Then “Rainy Night” and stuff. For a while there, things were just kinda jumping every which way, you know.

These four college boys who were making this film, they had come to a place called Oak Grove, La., which there’s two of ‘em — two Oak Groves. One’s pretty close to my home. … They stopped at that other one and asked the woman behind the counter if she knew Tony Joe White. And she said, “Is he a missing person?” I mean, just as serious as she could be, man. It was so cool. She said, “Well, I’ll try to put up posters and stuff if y’all want me to.” By then, the boys, they were doubled over and couldn’t even answer her, they were laughin’ so hard.

That’s the joke — that your profile’s low enough in the States for somebody to mistake you for a missing person. If they’d have made that documentary in Europe or Australia, it would’ve been a different deal.

Oh, yeah. Then they made their way on up to the real Oak Grove, and they hit it just right. There was a Tony Joe White festival goin’ on.

I have one last question for you. When I was listening to your song “9 Foot Sack,” it got me wondering how heavy a nine-foot cotton sack would actually get when you filled it up.

Well, the nine-foot sack would probably hold right at 100 pounds. But I never did fill it up that much. (laughs) I was 7 or 8 years old. I’d be lookin’ at the sky mostly, thinkin’ about getting’ in the river that afternoon or playin’ baseball. So I couldn’t pick as hard as my mom or dad or my sisters even. … I’d put 50 pounds in it maybe four times.

That’s still hard work for a kid.

That’s a lot. But nobody thought much about it. Everybody just kinda dug in and worked. We always had the river and baseball games on Sunday, watermelons everywhere, good food to eat when you’ve got your own garden. We never did seem like we was missing nothing.

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