TONY JOE WHITE: King of Funk Country

Tony Joe White goes out as a groove musician-or not at all. Though he’s not usually thought of as a surrealist, or as an innovator, White creates stories that can be as bizarre as his rhythm guitar is propulsive.Tony Joe White goes out as a groove musician-or not at all. Though he’s not usually thought of as a surrealist, or as an innovator, White creates stories that can be as bizarre as his rhythm guitar is propulsive.  And as singers such as Dusty Springfield, Elvis Presley and Brook Benton have discovered White’s best songs occupy an unclassifiable space; they employ structures that are too basic and too undeniable to be called formulaic. A Tony Joe White composition sings well, and it bears the impression of universality, so that a white British singer sounds just as authentic singing about race relations among sharecroppers in the Deep South as does the song’s Louisiana-bred author.

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On his new album, Uncovered, which was released in September on Swamp Records, White brings in some very famous people to play his latest batch of songs. Uncovered was conceived as a sequel to his 2004 record (The Heroines), so one could say that Eric Clapton, J.J. Cale, Michael McDonald, Mark Knopfler and Waylon Jennings are among White’s exemplars.  And while White has lost a little of his voice and his new material isn’t always quite up to the standard of classics like “Polk Salad Annie” and “Willie and Laurie Mae Jones,” Uncovered works just fine as a collection of relaxed grooves, with White’s humor and musical assurance just as potent as ever.

The funk-country troubadour commands a fanatical following in Europe (French audiences first took to him with a 1968 song called “Soul Francisco,” White’s comment on post-hippiedom), and I caught up with him after five weeks overseas.  “I’m a little laggy,” he says, in his impossibly slow sprung-rhythmed speech.  White lives near Franklin, Tenn., where he makes records these days.  His son, Jody, co-produced Uncovered, and the record is a mixture of old-fashioned technology; Tony Joe uses what he calls a “little old Tascam 16-track reel-to-reel”) and newfangled tricks like Pro Tools.

This means that White, who has always been a savvy primitive, was able to get the notoriously reclusive J.J. Cale to add guitars and lyrics to “Louvelda” and was able to use-and add to-a seven-year-old track recorded by the late Waylon Jennings. “Jody has been putting this music together since The Heroines,” Tony Joe says.  And he credits Jody with the idea to get in touch with Cale.

“Talking about ‘Louvelda,’ I was pickin’ around about two years ago, and that name came up,” he says.  “I’ve never heard this name before in my life…When this project came up, I had already cut it in the studio here with my bass and drums.  We got to listenin’ to it, and Jody said, ‘J.J.’  I said, ‘You’re right, but J.J., you’ll never get him…because he’s a hermit and won’t play with nobody.”

Cale may well be a hermit, but he does play with Tony Joe White.  White sent a dub of “Louvelda” to Cale, and as he says, “About two weeks later we get it back, and J.J., not only did he get on it…he put five guitars on, electric banjo, electric fiddle and then he wrote two more verses to it.”  The result is perhaps the highlight of Uncovered.

White was born July 23, 1943 in Goodwill, La., in that section of the American South where Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas share flat delta land. As he told an Australian interviewer a decade ago, all his family were musicians, and he grew up listening to “blues and Elvis, that kind of thing-you know, rock and roll.”

“I was in a club in Corpus Christi [Tex.], and I had written a good bit of ‘Polk,’ about half of ‘Rainy Night [in Georgia]’ and two or three other songs that I had finished,” he says.  “My wife and I had saved up a little bread, so I take a week and drove up to Memphis…see if I could get anybody to listen to me.”

White didn’t end up in the Bluff City, though. “For some reason, I got to Memphis and I didn’t even stop,” he says. “I just stayed on I-40, and I knew I was headed straight to country-and-westernville.  I had in my car a guitar and a tape full of bluesy, funky black-sounding stuff, and I said to myself, ‘Man, I don’t know why you’re doing this.'”

Knocking on doors in Nashville-after making the move in the late ’60s-he was first met with resistance (“Everybody said, ‘Man, you drove a long ways for nothing.'”), but he eventually got to record some demos for Monument Records, who called him back up to Nashville and offered him a contract (after White had gone back home to Texas to play the clubs).  “My very early stuff, starting out, was done at the old RCA studio [in Nashville].  It was a little room,” he remembers.  White’s first Monument LP, 1968’s Black and White, featured Nashville session musicians like keyboardist David Briggs and bassist Norbert Putnam and was produced by Billy Swan. …Continued, from the following year, was produced by Swan and recorded partly in Memphis with session players that included Tommy McClure and Mike Utley.

White quickly established himself as a young, progressive songwriter whose tales of Southern life were somewhat more ambiguous than they first seemed. And his gritty guitar style and understated singing-derived, at least in part, from his early experiences listening to bluesmen like John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins-established him as a compelling performer.  Still, it was as a songwriter that White became best known; in May 1969, Dusty Springfield cut “Willie and Laura Mae Jones” a few months after her Dusty in Memphis sessions, while Brook Benton took his “Rainy Night in Georgia” to No. 4 on the pop charts in early 1970.

White is not an analytical songwriter. “Usually, I just kinda wait for a guitar lick to come by, or a title,” he says. “If it’s got my attention, then I’ll go out by the river out back, crank a little fire up and get a six-pack of cold ones. I get my guitar out, sit and work on it a little bit.  But until that comes, I don’t sit down and try to write…I’ve always just waited, and been like a receiving spot for whatever flies through the universe and lands in swamps.”

Analytical or not, White produced a slew of classics in the late ’60s. And his versions, while lacking the exquisite vocal luster of, say, Dusty Springfield’s, hold up well nearly forty years later. “Stud-Spider” chugs along on a simple one-chord vamp, using a minimal but effective bridge; when White sings, “A black widow done got on me,” you grin a little at the sheer audacity of the concept.  “Willie and Laura Mae Jones” seems simplistic, a nostalgic look at the wonderful institution of sharecropping, and perhaps it’s a relic of a more innocent time.  But there’s real lyricism, and real regret in the famous lines, “The cotton was high and the corn was growing fine/but that was another place and another time.”

“I really would never have thought that a girl would have tackled that song,” White says about Springfield’s take on “Willie and Laura Mae.”  Like any songwriter, he’s amazed at how his songs take on a life of their own. “It just seemed like a woman from England would never have been down on the river picking cotton.  But the way she sang it, it was like she had been there, man.”   Springfield might not have spent time on a cotton plantation-and it’s debatable how much fun she had in Memphis during the In Memphis sessions, apart from the excellent barbecue, since she ended up cutting vocals in New York-but the song’s sense of loss is its emotional core, and she caught it perfectly.

Still, White’s music comes from a specific place, both emotionally and geographically. “Old Man Willis,” from 1969, is one of his most complex songs.  At first a piece of local color that takes as its subject “the weirdest people I ever saw,’ it breaks down in real violence.  Old Man Willis, who has been threatening his family throughout the song, “slay[s] ‘em with his huntin’ knife,” White sings.  Not funny at all.

“Sheriff of Calhoun Parish” is another song that is a little more hard-edged than it first appears.  The sheriff has a daughter, Anna Lee, who is “quite voluptuous.”  Everybody wants her, including Tony Joe, but everyone knows what happens to those who dally with her.  Tony Joe is smart enough to resist her advances, but Anna Lee is just as fearsome scorned as is her father when crossed.  “He grabbed me roughly by the collar/and flung me sprawling out into the street,” he sings.

White still draws inspiration from the Deep South.  On Uncovered, he works with a core band that includes Carson Whitsett, a fine keyboardist and songwriter who has collaborated with White in the past.  (Whitsett’s best-known song is perhaps “Why Not Me,” which co-writer Fred Knobloch turned into a 1980 hit.)  “We just finished a song right before I went to Europe, called ‘Alligator, Mississippi,’ about that little town down there on [Highway] 61…funky little place,” he says.  “My wife and I had been through there just a few weeks before. When I saw Carson, I said I had this little groove on the guitar, and Leann [Tony Joe’s wife] has got the title.  It sounds way back there, even before Robert Johnson.”

For the Waylon Jennings-penned Uncovered song “Shakin’ the Blues,” White used some modern technology to bring Jennings’ recording into line with the present.  As White recalls, “Him and Jessi [Colter] drove out here-this has been about seven years ago-and he said, ‘I wrote a song while I was in the hospital. I doubt I could move my fingers or sing, but I did write one that feels good.’  At that time, I had the old 16-track at my house, in my bedroom, and I said, ‘Come back here a minute, I got a Martin you can mess with.'”

Jennings cut the song with a microphone for his vocals and another for his guitar.  When it came time to record Uncovered, White says, he remembered the tape.  “That’s about the last song [Jennings] ever cut.  We tried to overdub, and we would stay with him for maybe a minute, and then it would vary off,” he says.  “There ain’t no click track.”  Jody dropped the old analog recording into Pro Tools, matched up Jennings with the band, and it came off beautifully. White laughs, “That was the first time I said, ‘Progress is beautiful.'”

“I’ve not yet been wedged out of my river groove,” White says. “But I do admire what I can do with this stuff, and still preserve it.  I don’t change it…it just helps you move it around the country.”

Tony Joe White is so cool that his forays into disco music rank among his best work.  On his 1980 Casablanca record, The Real Thang, he re-does “Polk Salad Annie” with a four-on-the-floor disco beat. “I Get Off on It,” from the same record, utterly succeeds as a piece of nasty, funny funk.  In this song, White keeps running into people who exhibit strange behavior: a woman who insists on eating Milky Way bars at inappropriate times and a Los Angeles transvestite.  There’s no explanation for any of these idiosyncrasies, except that they get off on it.  It’s a cheerfully salacious performance that is just as danceable and bizarre as his most characteristic late-’60s work.

“The words themselves are almost redneck,” White says of “I Get Off on It.”  As usual, he’s pragmatic and unpretentious about it all. “At that time, my drummer and I were kinda diggin’ stuff-usually I play on stage with just drums-and he got into that straight-foot with some of those tunes; it felt allright.  Anyway, at that time, the Bee Gees and everybody were doing the real disco, and people said, ‘Tony Joe’s left the swamps.’  The words, if you’ll hear ’em, they’re all still down there.”

That approach-getting the groove and letting the words come-has served White well. Uncovered comes across as a casual session that gives the songwriter a chance to play with some old friends, ruminate a bit and even re-work one of his classic songs.

“I had been waiting for 35 years to get revenge on ‘Rainy Night in Georgia,'” White says. “After hearing Brook Benton, I kept going, ‘Man, I need to learn this song.’  I would always do ‘Polk’ and ‘Rainy,’ it was just law…While we were cuttin” [Uncovered], it was about midnight here in the little studio, and it had started to rain, of all things.  I said, ‘I feel like doing it-I’ve been waiting for 30-something years, and I believe tonight’s the night.’  I hit it, and it was one take.”

The result is a version of the classic song that stands alongside Benton’s.  Performances like this cause you to marvel at the way the man harnesses serendipity; he’s done it his entire career.  “Even before ‘Polk’ and all them, I was happenin’ in Europe,” he says.  “It was with a song called ‘Soul Francisco,’ about the hippie movement.  Never to have been anywhere in the world, and all of a sudden I find myself in France with my guitar and my Coke box…and I’m playin’ for 1000 people a night…in a foreign language, I felt like I’d landed on Mars.”


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