Tony Joe White, aka "The Swamp Fox". I first saw him play in 1997 and was blown away by the performance. He sat on a stool with his drummer ("Boom Boom") for backup and blasted through a series of hits, blending audience requests with improvisation.
Someone asked him for a particular song, I can't remember what it was but I can remember White saying, "oh, I haven't played that in a long time. I'll see if I can remember how it goes". It never felt scripted when he spoke. It felt real. I believed that he honestly hadn't played that song in years. That was confirmed when he started it and then stopped to change his harmonica, realising he was in the wrong key.
I remember that gig very well; for a long time it was one of my favourites. And maybe it still is one of my favourites. But White, a regular visitor to these shores, is back next week to play a series of shows (click here for details) and I am hopeful that a new favourite gig experience will occur.
I spoke with Tony Joe White recently - and that authenticity, earnestness, sincerity shines through. He was laid-back, laconic in his delivery - but he was never lost for words as he worked his way through explaining a unique career in popular music.
"All I can say is I'm very lucky man," White tells me in his thick Louisiana drawl. "I mean I've been lucky to follow my own instincts, my own path and that's because of the writing - which is what I love. I really dig playing too of course, but writing is what keeps me going, keeps me ticking..."
Tony Joe White's "luck", as he refers to it, is in crafting monumental songs like Polk Salad Annie, Steamy Windows (a gift to Tina Turner) and especially Rainy Night in Georgia.
Nowadays White records when he wants to - the pressure off, record labels are dealt with after, rather than beforehand, and his live sets are based around whatever he feels like playing; not the latest album, leading off with the current chart hit. To confirm that Tony Joe White is living the musician's dream when I am first connected with him on the telephone and I ask my standard introduction question of what time it is for him and he says, "well, it's about 7 o'clock in the P.M. and I've, ah, been fishin' and I, ah, had a few beers and now I'm just sitting outside my place, down by a wee swamp, just relaxin' and thinkin' 'bout havin' a coupla more drinks and maybe playin' some geetar". You think, at first, he's sending his persona up - but he's not.
This is the life. And it's his life. And it's real.
Rainy Night in Georgia has been covered by over 140 people - first of all it was a hit for Brook Benton. Polk Salad Annie was one of several songs covered by Elvis Presley ("he was a nice guy, a lotta fun") and many of White's songs have been covered by heroes of his and by lesser-known musical acts. He has no answer as to what makes his songs appealing but is sure, instantly, why and how he came to write them:
"I was tryin' to write songs and they say you should jus' write what ya know, so I figured 'well, what do I know?' And then I realised that I know about that ole Polk Salad plant and I know about rainy nights in Georgia and, ah, uh-huh, yeah, it's really like that, I guess, ain't nothin' simpler than that. Those were some things I know 'bout, so I wrote 'em."
The success of those songs - and others - has provided White with income and allowed him to make choices, to have variety. He continues, "I'd get bored if I had to play the same song the same way each night, but I'm eternally grateful that I don't need to go out there and play the singles and push the albums. I get to play what I want." That doesn't mean you won't hear the hits. "Oh I love to play those old songs still. I'll play some new things that I'm working on, I'll play old stuff, a song like Polk or Rainy Night? Sure thing. That never gets boring. Never. Because I get to play it in so many different ways, I get to re-imagine it every night that I play it, sometimes loud, sometimes soft, playing around with it each time...what more could you want?"
Tony Joe White continues to play shows backed by only a drummer - but for this tour he'll have Jeff Hale (drums) and Tyson Rogers (keyboards). "I like a smaller sound, intimate. I've played with full bands, but I like it to be me and one or two other musicians - that's all I need. That and the songs and the audience. For this tour you'll enjoy the addition of Tyson - he's doing some neat things but it's still real, ah, intimate, still really close and personal."
I ask White if he's kept up with the retro blues/rock movement that spawned bands like The White Stripes and The Black Keys and if he figures they owe any debt to his sound.
"We was in Australia a while ago and ah The White Stripes were playing and the girl [Meg White] comes up to me after our show and was like 'we do what you do, we play with just guitar and drums' and I was like 'oh, good, well I hope that works out okay for ya' and," he pauses to choke out a chuckle, "I get back home and find out they're ah kinda a big deal already."
In recent years White has become very happy with the ways things are:
"I still love playing - and will never stop. People say they will do it until they die and I am one of those people. But the writing is still really important to me, that's something I have to do. It'll start with a little guitar lick that'll, ah, maybe swim around in my head for a few days, or weeks and ah...fishin' is good. Going fishing is good for songwriting and I'll think about this lick and then I'll return home and play it a few times or maybe I'll have a phrase to sing and I'll sing it over and create more lyrics from there."
In many ways the process has not changed since he penned Rainy Night.
And of all the covers of White's songs he is still most pleased and proud of Brook Benton's take on Rainy Night in Georgia. "That was the one man, to me, that was it. That and Elvis - Elvis did a few of my songs, but seeing Elvis do Polk Salad was definitely something. And of course Tina Turner too. You want to talk about heroes, it don't get much better than writing a song and producing music for Tina Turner. Have you heard her?" He laughs heartily and then continues despite my lack of protest, "C'mon man, Tina Turner, she really is it. She's one of the great singers of all time, she is rock'n'roll and blues and soul...so to have her singing so many of my songs and, ah, especially Steamy Windows, yeah, that's pretty special. Still."
If you've seen Tony Joe White already then you'll know how good he is, but if you haven't and happen to be in, or near, one of the cities where he is playing then I highly recommend you check it out. He will blow you away. And Ian Moss is a special guest on the tour.
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