IT’S ONE THING TO PLAY THE BLUES AND BOOGIE. IT’S ANOTHER THING TO EMBODY IT. TONY JOE WHITE IS ONE OF THE LAST REMAINING ARTISTS THAT PLAYS WHAT HE LIVES. HE’S PENNED SOME OF THE MOST VISCERAL TUNES OF THE DEEP SOUTH BLUES, NAMELY THE IRRESISTIBLE “POLK SALAD ANNIE” AND THE DREAMY BALLAD “RAINY NIGHT IN GEORGIA.” BUT IT DOESN’T STOP THERE.
HE’S BEEN INFLUENTIAL FOR ARTISTS RANGING FROM ELVIS TO MARK KNOPFLER, SIMPLY BECAUSE HE IS A ONE OF A KIND GUY, TELLING STORIES OF THE RURAL LIFE. HE’S BEEN CONNECTING WITH PEOPLE THROUGH HIS MUSIC FOR DECADES, AND HE’S STILL ACTIVE DOING SO.
HIS RECENT ALBUM, RAIN CROW, IS AS GOOD AS IT GETS, WITH STORIES THAT ARE FIT FOR A CAMPFIRE
WE RECENTLY CAUGHT UP WITH MR. WHITE, WHO STILL IS PART OF THE LIFE HE SINGS AND WRITES ABOUT.
WHERE ARE YOU RIGHT NOW?
I’m in Franklin, Tennessee
YOU’VE GOT NOTHING TO PROVE ANYMORE. WHAT’S THE REASON FOR RELEASING A NEW ALBUM?
It’s always the writing. When you’re writing songs you’ve gotta go sing them to somebody. I’ve always thought that as long as I kept writing I would go out and play and record them. All of a sudden the song “Rain Crow” came out there and it had to be done.
DO YOU WRITE ABOUT YOUR OBSERVATIONS ABOUT LIFE, OR ACTUALY PEOPLE THAT YOU HAVE KNOWN?
Most all of them are people that I know, growing up in Louisiana. Down there in Goodwill by the swamps. Most of all the characters going back to “Polk Salad Annie” and “Roosevelt” were all real. And I used their real names. “Rain Crow” is totally real.
WHEN DID YOU REALIZE THAT YOU WERE GROWING UP IN AN ENVIRONMENT DIFFERENT FROM MAINSTREAM AMERICA?
Only after I left town after high school. I was travelling with my drummer and we went to Monroe, Shreveport and close to New Orleans. We ended up in Texas, and that’s where I started realizing the difference in Goodwill, Louisiana and Corpus Christi, Texas.
The one thing that remained the same was that people’s feet still moved when you hit them right with a song.
HOW DID YOU BREAK THROUGH?
I just stuck close to my writing. I was lucky, because I was doing a lot of Elvis Presley, John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins in the clubs, and I just kind of got tired of doing other peoples’ stuff. So, I thought I’d try to write about something that I knew about; something real.
I knew about polk salad and about rainy nights in Georgia. I was lucky that I started with a corral or guideline like that; not trying to write for radio or a particular reason, but just to get it out for myself.
WHAT DID POLK SALAD ANNIE THINK OF THE SONG WHEN SHE HEARD IT?
Polk was actually 3-4 different girls that lived around the river at the time that I went to school with. They all liked it; all four of ‘em ‘cause they all knew it was about them. The one named Annie actually came to a show in Oakland, California. By then I was out happenin’ with Creedence Clearwater, touring together. They came to the show and brought people with them; they had old man Willis’ daughter and Annie.
We had a lot of talk, a lot of fun and laughing. I was kind of relieved ‘cause I thought they maybe they’d be comin’ back there to whoop my ass for putting them on tape! But it worked out good.
I’ve been lucky with music through the years. Everyone treats it like it oughta be.
AT THE TIME, PEOPLE WERE TRYING TO GROOM YOU AS “THE NEXT ELVIS.” DID THAT AFFECT YOU FOR THE GOOD OR BAD?
It helped me a lot, ‘cause at the time I had an Elvis hairdo and my face was kinda shaped like him when I was 19. Then “Polk Salad Annie” was out for a year and a half and said “Elvis is getting ready to do Polk Salad Annie” and I thought “Man, what a big world this is. All these songs like “Don’t Be Cruel” that he’s doing and then he’s gonna do “Polk” live in Las Vegas.
They flew a plane down to Memphis, picked me and my wife up. We stayed a whole week in Las Vegas and watched Elvis do it every night on stage. And he always treated me real good. It was a cool thing, man.
DID HE OR ANYONE ELSE EVER GIVE YOU ANY CAREER OR MUSIC ADVICE?
No one ever said anything to me through the years, except to keep doing what was real and what was in my heart. It was totally that. But, I had musicians that I had around that I really loved. I loved Lightnin’ Hopkins’ guitar playing, and when I was fifteen my brother came home an album by Lighting. I was around music all my life, with my dad, my mom and five sisters, but when I heard that I never heard anything like it.
I snuck my daddy’s guitar into my bedroom at night and learned some of his blues licks.
YOU ALSO HAVE A GOSPEL FEEL IN YOUR SINGING. DID YOU EVER SING IN CHURCH?
I grew up in it, but it wasn’t like a steady thing ‘cause I’d be playing and me and my buddies after about 20 minutes, we’d sneak out and go and play in the woods. Hang out outside and listen to the preacher out there. I didn’t sing or play there, but my dad and mom did along with my sisters. By then I was playing too much blues to be putting it onto the church people.
“RAINY NIGHT IN GEORGIA” SOUNDS LIKE IT CAME RIGHT OUT OF THE PULPIT
“Rainy Night” was kind of from the church. I got out of high school at 18, and went down to a place called Marietta, Georgia to live with my sister awhile. I drove a dump truck for the Highway Department. When it rained, I’d stay home and play my guitar, so that all came back to me when I moved down to Corpus Christie, Texas.
I started to try and write, and suddenly “Rainy Night” pops out.
YOU ALSO HAVE A FRIENDSHIP WITH MARK KNOPFLER. HOW DID THAT COME ABOUT?
I always loved his guitar playing. Him and Clapton and me we all kind of grew up on the same kind of music. Lot of John Lee (Hooker), a lot of Muddy Waters. People like that.
Knopfler was a big fan of Chet Atkins. He came here to Nashville, which is about 40 miles from me on the river. He called my house and wanted to meet with me and watch the show, hang out with him. We just became real good friends.
When I went to London to do a show, I’d go out to his place. He gave me a real beautiful Spanish guitar. I kept thinking what I could do to repay him because it was hand-made and there wasn’t 8 of them on earth.
He came back to Nashville, came back to my house. We had a campfire, cooked a little fish and I finally figured out what to give him. It was my blond 1951 Gibson cutaway. He was playing it the whole time we were sittin’ down there by the fire.
When he left, he set it back down. I said, “Hey, man. You forgot somethin’.” He said, no, he can’t take that. I told him it was his, and he’s got it to this day.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE TOURING AROUND WITH MAJOR NAMES LIKE STEPPENWOLF AND SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE?
It was some wild times. I’ll just say that! (laughs)
Hanging with Sly was the wildest. We had some really fun gigs.
One time in Boston, we were doing a show there one night, and as usual Sly was about 30 minutes late. It was just me and my drummer opening the show at the college. It was 8-10,000 people in that big hall. And he was late, and late, and late.
They started getting a little rowdy, throwin’ stuff upon stage. The promoter came back to my dressing room and said, “Look, if it’s all right with you, I’ll just go ahead and pay you. You can all just go on home. I don’t think it would do any good to go out and play.
I said, “I’ve come all the way up here to Boston; surely we’ve got to play somethin’.” So, me and my drummer walked out on stage amidst all of this yellin’ and cussin’ at us. My drummer was kind of a spooky guy anyway; he just hid behind his cymbal.
I opened the case and guitar up; plugged it in and turned it up wide open and lit into “Baby Please Don’t Go” in Lightnin’ Hopkins’ style and the crowd lost it. So we had them for 30-45 minutes. It became a beautiful crowd. And Sly finally showed up.
YOU STARTED IN THE 60’S AND HAVE MADE IT THROUGH MANY TRENDS LIKE DISCO, PUNK AND HEAVY METAL. WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO SURVIVE?
I’d have to say it’s the writing. Two or three songs that are swamp tunes I actually once put to a little disco beat! A straight stomp on the foot. It got tiresome after about three minutes into the song, so I went back to my old swamp beat and kept writing.
That’s the main thing, and it kept me going through all of it.
YOU COME ACROSS AS BEING MORE MOTIVATED BY WRITING THAN BY PERFORMING
I tend to be really high on the righting side because it’s brand new when it comes out. Maybe it’s because it’s something no one else did and it’s something that needed to get out. The music comes down from up above; it comes into me and then it comes out of me and then you want to go and play it for somebody.
So, it all ties in together, but the writing is really important.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE INTERPRETER OF YOUR SONGS?
I can’t answer that questions because it’s so hard. So many heroes between Elvis, Joe Cocker, Tina Turner on “Steamy Windows”, Brook Benton in “Rainy Night In Georgia.” They’ve all done me good.
Elvis did a good job on “Polk.”
HAS THERE EVER BEEN SOMEONE WHO DID A SONG OF YOURS THAT DISPLEASED YOU?
I’ve never heard anybody record one that had me sit down and say “I can’t listen to that.” They always hit me good because the idea of someone taking time to put your words in their mouth and throw it out on tape was very cool to me.
DO YOU ALWAYS WRITE FOR YOURSELF, OR DO YOU WRITE WITH ANOTHER VOCALIST IN MIND AT TIMES?
I just write what comes out of me, most of it is for myself but a lot of it fits other people because of the realness of it.
WHO IS “RAIN CROW” FROM YOUR LAST ALBUM?
Rain Crow was an actual kind of mystical bird down in the swamps. He’s a little bit bigger than a regular black crow. According to all the farmers, my dad and everyone that’s raised cotton, the only way that it would rain when there was a drought was that somebody had to hear the Rain Crow.
His voice was nothing like a regular crow. I heard him maybe 2-3 times growin’ up, and I saw him one time. All of a sudden he pops up in this song in this day and age, and I went “Man! Where you been all this time?”
WHETHER IT’S A JAZZ SOLO, A SINGER OR A SONGWRITER, THE NUMBER ONE RULE IS “YOU’VE GOT TO TELL A STORY.”
That’s the whole thing. Something has to come out that can reach. A lot of stories reach; I heard a lot of them growing up, like the last song on the album “Tell Me A Swamp Story.” I was about 7 or 8 years old when I would call out to my brother or dad, mom or sisters and have them tell me a swamp story so I could get to sleep.
Usually it was real spooky. Kids for some reason like to scare themselves, so it wouldn’t really help me sleep that much. (laughs)
YOU RARELY COVER THE USUAL TOPICS LIKE DATING, LOVE AND ROMANCE. IS THAT A CONSCIOUS THING?
Not that many, but you’ll usually find one on every album. Even on the Rain Crow album, in the midst of all that moss and fog, out pops “Right Back in the Fire” which is about two people being apart. Two lovers that care about each other and what happens when they get back.
YOU MENTIONED THAT YOU GET INSPIRATION FROM ON HIGH. DO YOU READ ANY PHILOSOPHY OR RELIGIOUS MATERIAL?
I don’t do any Bible reading, but I do believe in the signs that God sets up. I went to church growing up. I never thought that it affected the music, but all of a sudden I look back on 2-3 tunes; there’s a song called “Out of the Rain.” It was on a Waylon Jennings album with Jessie Coulter and it’s real churchy. Any old time gospel singer in the world could do it in that vein.
WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING IF YOU WEREN’T A SONGWRITER?
If I didn’t write songs, I’d probably be one of the best fishermen on earth. White Perch; they call them Crappie here in Tennessee, in Louisiana they call them Sagali. They’re just the best eatin’ fish in the world. I don’t mind a catfish every now and then. I’ll keep one if he’s too good lookin’ to throw back, but I usually stay with the White Perch.
I do reel and fly fishing. The Perch is on a pole with a little reel on it in case I get something big. I still use cork a lot. I’ve got 5-6 fly rods. Four that I actually built from a magazine.
I love to go into the Ozark Mountains and fly fish, but I also love fly fish for bass with those fly rods.
WHEN YOU HEAD OUT TO NASHVILLE, WHAT IS YOUR THOUGHT ON THE MUSIC SCENE THERE?
Right now, and the way it’s been for a long time (‘cause I’ve been up here 18-19 years), is that I really liked it better when it was stars like Waylon, George Jones and people like that. You knew them instantly on the radio when you heard ‘em. Waylon and I wrote some songs together.
Nowadays, and for the last several years, it seems like 25 or 30 people are sounding just alike.
MY THEORY IS THAT THEY’VE NEVER BEEN HUNGRY SO HAVE NOTHING TO WRITE ABOUT.
No, they’ve never been hungry and they just have formulas. In fact, I used to call it “Briefcase Writin’”. Three or four writers would get together around 11:00 in the mornin’, go and get a hook line going’, look at their watch and say “Oh, Man. It’s lunch time.” And they’d break, come back and finish the song by 2:30.
A lot of times the song would be cut by somebody and go to Number One, but it wouldn’t stay there but one week.
I was looking at all of that back in those days when I was writing music and doing my swamp blues. Watching a lot of people being real successful.
IN THIS DAY OF MUSICAL (AND LIFE) POSERS, IT’S GRATIFYING TO READ OF SOMEONE WHO IS COMFORTABLE IN HIS OWN SKIN, USING HIS TALENTS AS A WAY OF LETTING THE WORLD IN ON HIS REALITY.
THERE’S AN INTEGRITY TO TONY JOE WHITE THAT IS PALPABLE IN THE TONE OF HIS DRAWL, THE PACE OF HIS SONGS, THE LYRICS THAT HE SINGS AND THE BEAT OF HIS MUSIC. TAKE A TRIP WITH HIM AND LEARN SOMETHING ABOUT LIFE WITH DIRT UNDER YOUR NAILS. AH UH, UH, UH-UH-UH!!!