Tony Joe White: Hoodoo Voodoo

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When Tony Joe White isn’t on stage laying down some supernaturally swampy guitar riffs or in his studio jamming with his band, he can usually be found somewhere along the banks of the Tennessee River. An avid fisherman, the 72-year-old legend takes time between tour legs and recording session to bait his hooks and cast his reel. “I fish for a fish that’s called a croppy,” he explains in his signature baritone, which is almost too low for human ears to detect. “They’re good eating,” he says. “I love to catch ‘em, clean ‘em, and filet ‘em, then get a campfire going, grab a few cold beers, and cook ‘em up.”

While not a solitary pursuit – White usually goes with a few friends or family members – fishing offers a respite from the demands of touring, a sharp contrast to his sweaty live shows, and an opportunity for a bit of chilled-out self-reflection. The lyrical and musical ideas – a particularly descriptive phrase or evocative riff – come more freely, which makes these expeditions especially crucial to White’s creative process, even if the success of his latest album, Hoodoo, is putting a serious dent in his downtime.

The Tennessee River is far from the Louisiana swamps with which White has been closely identified for decades now. In the 1960s he developed a peculiar brand of country blues called swamp rock, renowned for its humid atmosphere, razor-sharp guitar licks, and stone-steady drumbeats. He built a solid career writing slice-of-life songs like “Polk Salad Annie” and “Willie and Laura Mae Jones,” which have been covered by pretty much anybody who’s ever strummed a guitar: from Elvis and Tom Jones to Shelby Lynne, Los Lonely Boys, and even Conan O’Brien. As he enters his sixth decade in the business, White seems like a cook in some small-town Southern diner who has perfected a signature dish but closely guards the recipe – something heavily fried and absolutely delicious.

Hoodoo is nothing if not swampy, yet it shows the old Swamp Fox (as he’s long been known) still has a few new tricks up his sleeves. Low-down and no-nonsense, the album features just White and his two bandmates – drummer Cadillac (or, as his momma calls him, Bryan Owings) and bassist the Troll (better known as Steve Forrest) – performing extemporaneously in the studio. “I would play maybe fifteen or twenty seconds of the song, let them get a feel for it, and then we’d hit RECORD and see what came out of it,” he explains. “A lot of times those first takes, even with the mistakes, absolutely have the heat.”

The nine songs burn slow, the tempos held in check by a band that’s figuring out where the boggy grooves lead. The mood is unhurried, but certainly not laidback. The title track and “Gypsy Epilogue” and the autobiographical “9 Foot Sack” sprawl and stride ominously, as though inviting you into their strange, potentially perilous world. With its roiling rhythmic loop and spidery guitar licks, “The Flood” recounts the Great Nashville Flood of 2010 in worried detail. White and Cadillac were headed home from a gig in Memphis when the storms hit, and they spent nearly a day searching for high ground and a passage to White’s home in rural Leipers Fork, about 45 miles outside of Nashville. It was an arduous trek, especially considering White didn’t know if he even had a home to come back to anymore.

“Like I say in the song, we saw guitars floating down the river, drum sets washed up in the mud,” White says. “It all hit the warehouses down there where all the musicians keep everything.” White, however, was lucky. Despite the eleven-foot ceiling, the basement of his studio flooded completely, but nothing valuable or irreplaceable was damaged. “We were really blessed because the water was two inches away from my old ’58 Stratocaster and all my amps, plus all my sixteen-track tapes from the last twenty years.” The point of the song isn’t the destruction, however, but the sense of community the disaster reinforced. “Everybody kind of pulled together, like the song says. Now you can’t even tell that it happened.”

White’s live shows, however, have more in common with storms than with fishing trips. Usually it’s just him and Cadillac playing. “My guitar is a little wilder on stage, when it’s just me and drums. You don’t have to look at nobody if you want to change a chord in the middle of a song. The drummer don’t care what key you’re in.”

White’s fans do care. Long a favorite in Europe and Australia, the Swamp Fox has seen his usually reserved American audiences lose some of their inhibitions when he plays tracks from Hoodoo. “Most times when I play, there’s going to be some rockin’ sooner or later in the set,” he says. “People are crammed up against the stage trying to boogie. Some of them will even get up on stage with you. It’s got some people talking about this tour, I guess. They know it’s going to be swampy and it’s going to be sweaty if it involves me at all.”

This article appears in our January/February 2014 “Legends” issue.

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