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Archive Interview: Tony Joe White (2013)

Tony Joe White's latest album, Hoodoo, is one of the finest albums of the year. Stripped down to the bare essentials, the set is the epitome of great, bluesy, dirty swam rock.

VVN Music had the chance to talk to Tony as the release of his album was approaching.  It is available now on Yep Roc Records.

VVN Music (VVN): Congratulations on the upcoming album. I've listened to it a number of times and my impression is that it is a great album. You've never strayed far from your roots but this album is the epitome of authentic, dirty swamp rock almost like you are reclaiming your heritage.

Tony Joe White (TJW): I was telling somebody the other day “Well, it starts out kind of swampy and then it gets REALLY swampy.” I got to get all these tunes laid down in a good way, just me and my bass and drummer taking our time in the little house where we record. I've had a studio in there all these years. It's a good place to do it and no one is watching over your shoulder and looking at a clock. So the album has a good syrupy, swampy coolness to it.

VVN: I read somewhere that, even with all your work, the majority of the album is first takes on the songs.

TJW: Yeah, most of them. As a matter of fact, back through the years, a lot of my albums have been that way for some reason. If I've got some songs ready to go, we go into the studio and I've got my drummer. He'll be playing on his knees with his hands and my bass player will be watching my hands getting the chords. I'll play about thirty seconds of a songs and say “OK, let's hit record.” Everybody gets behind their drums or gets their bass and we'll see what comes out of your heart right on the first run, including my own heart. All of those have been very lucky calls. Awesome sound we couldn't capture again if we tried to. A lot of those first takes, they had the heat.

VVN: The majority of the album is just you on guitar, bass, drum and you also playing harmonica and then you had a keyboard player also?

TJW: We used one organ player from Muscle Shoals and he did most all of them. Then one guy from here that I just call Moogie Man. He did a couple of overdubs on two songs. Then we had one cello on the mystery song. Mostly just a skeleton crew and let it roam.

VVN: It gives it a very down home, organic sound. Who do you take on the road with you when you go out?

TJW: Just the drummer. His name is Bryan Owings but I just call him Fleetwood Cadilac or just Cadilac or Fleetwood most of the time. He plays just so down in there with me on everything and on stage with just him and me with just me on guitar and it gets even more wilder and funkier and swampier when it's just two of us. I don't know what happens but the crowd really gets us going.

VVN: Is that how you've been doing it for most of your career?

TJW: Ever since I got out of high school, probably. Sometimes a bass but not very often. Mostly always just the drummer.

VVN: Did you write all of the songs for the album?

TJW: Three were my wife Leann and I. We usually write two or three songs a year and they are usually good. She co-wrote Gypsy Epilogue with me then the song Alligator Mississippi was written by her and the organ player and me. I had help on two or three.

VVN: I'm going to take a guess and say that maybe she had a hand on Sweet Tooth.

TJW: No, she didn't write Sweet Tooth but there is one more that she's on and I can't think of it right now. She's a real good writer with a real good feel. I remember when Tina Turner did Undercover Agent for the Blues ... Leann had written almost all of that. I just played guitar and and put the chords to it and added a couple of things. She's a good bluesy writer.

VVN: Is she also a performer?

TJW: No, she just writes. We only write together once or twice a year but, when we do, something happens.

VVN: There are a couple of songs on the album that really stand out. One of those is The Gift.

TJW: That's the other co-write. A guitar buddy of mine, we've written a good bit together through the years. I don't know how many songs. Ricky Ray Rector is his name. That song, I think it's going to be the single or the video. There's a lot of talk about it and I think it's because of the spookiness.

It's about an old blues graveyard that we have in Mississippi somewhere. All the old players are guarded over by this woman but they haven't gone to the other side yet. The song's heavy in a way...when I'm burdened with this music and can't let it out I have to go down to the grave with a bottle of wine and an old guitar and I sit there and sing with the moon. All of a sudden they appear. The whole thing is kind of chillbumpy sitting by a campfire some night and listening to it.

VVN: I did read that you did a lot of your writing by the campfire down by the river.

TJW: Usually, if I get close enough to one...a good guitar lick or a good title or half of a verse … I'll usually head down to the river, build a fire, get a few cold beers and an acoustic guitar and set there with it. Maybe go down the next night or two. I never put a time limit on it. I never know when they are going to come to me. I just let them have their way with me.

VVN: What about the track Who You Gonna Whodoo Now? Any special background on that?

TJW: That song has some real funky guitar in it, I do know that much. It's about a girl from way down in Lafayette, LA, deep in the swamps. Hoodoo can be used in about three ways. One is kind of putting a spell on you. It's always been kind of a magical word to me. In this case, I used it to the girl. Now that you've burned me down, who you gonna hoodoo now?

VVN: The one that stands out to me for being a little bit different from the others is Sweet Tooth. Where did that one come from?

TJW: You were pretty close before when you thought my wife wrote the song. She was the reason I wrote it. Her and my daughter, Michelle, both love to make cookies and love to get in that dough and get that oven going. You can smell them cookies cooking and you know you've got to get into it and then you need milk. The song just came out really right because of the line coming in there with the mean streak. Somebody had drank all the milk and left a note on the door “Would you please go to the store.” About two or three in the morning your at the store because you need the milk bad.

VVN: So many of your compositions are story songs. Is that something you just set out to do? Is that the way you like to write?

TJW: I never start out to do anything. Something will come to me, a guitar lick, a word or a line or a title. Then I just kind of go in that direction. If I get off the path, the song will let me know it. It will get real difficult to stay with it at all, but if it's got me smiling and grinning and I can't wait to get back to the guitar the next day, then I know I'm on to something.

As far as making a story, the earlier songs like Willie and Laura Mae Jones and Polk Salad Annie, are real stories compare to say, Who You Gonna Hoodoo Now. They're all stories in a way but some are in depth and some are just about life.

VVN: The real story songs, are those people you actually knew?

TJW: Yes, those are the real story songs. Old Man Withers, Roosevelt and Ira Lee were a couple of boys I grew up down in Louisiana. They were always out in the swamps in the middle of the night hunting 'gators and bullfrogs and catfish. I knew all those people really well and actually used their names in the songs. I had two or three over the years come to the concerts and come backstage to let me know they were there.

VVN: In my opinion, one of the most beautiful songs ever written is Rainy Night in Georgia. Where did that song come from?

TJW: I got out of high school and went down to Marietta, GA where I had a sister. I got a job driving dump trucks in the highway department. When it would rain, I'd get to stay home with my guitar. Eight months later, I move to Corpus Christie, playing nightclubs. I'd do a lot of Elvis. A lot of John Lee Hooker and Lightnin' Hopkins.

Then I heard Ode to Billie Joe on the radio, Bobbie Gentry, and I thought “If I ever try to write a song, I'm going to write about something real. Something I know about.” And I knew about rainy nights, even though I was in Texas by then, and I knew about polk salad. I ate a bunch of it growing up on the farm, so I was real lucky that my first attempts were songs about things that I knew about. They were real and I was really surprised how long they lasted.

Rainy Night was about the nights when it would rain and I wouldn't have to drive a truck. The next day I could stay home and play my guitar.

VVN: How did it find its way to Brook Benton?

TJW: I recorded in Memphis at a studio called Lyn Lou and a friend of mine from Muscle Shoals, Donnie Fritz, a songwriter, was there and he wanted to know if he could have a copy of Rainy Night. I said alright because, at that time, everybody passed tapes around and nobody had to worry about anything.

About six months later, I get this record in the mail from Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd with Brook Benton singing Rainy Night in Georgia. It was the first time I had ever heard anyone sing my song. I put it on the turntable and played it about 55 times in a row without stopping. It was one of the most beautiful experiences I've ever had to have someone take something and interpret that way. It was beautiful.

Boz Scaggs has a new version on his album Memphis. It surprised me so much because I've loved Boz all these years and I never thought he would jump on something like Rain but he knocked it out. It was beautiful.

VVN: Your music is, obviously, influenced by blues. Were there other influences when you were starting out and even today.

TJW: The first thing I heard that turned me around was an album my brother brought home when I was fifteen by Lightnin' Hopkins. I pretty well stuck with his guitar and that kind of playing until I was seventeen or eighteen. Then Elvis came along and I was influenced heavily by him. I was doing all his stuff on stage. Then I got further into people like Jerry Lee and Bobby Blue Bland and Pink Floyd. I was moving along fast. There were so many great artists to listen to. Then, to be involved in some concerts with them.

I couldn't name all the ones I was influenced by but that was some of the early ones.

VVN: Any newer artists that you find intriguing?

TJW: You know, I can't say because, with my thing, I have so much going with the studio and writing and singing that, the only time I get to really sit down and listen to somebody else, its usually my favorite things that I've always loved.

For instance, it would probably surprise you that a swamper like me would totally love Sade, her albums and her music and her grooves. Most of them, though are still bluesy like Clapton and everybody. Joe Cocker and I just did the Montreux Jazz Fest a couple of weeks ago. It's so cool how good Joe sings. Of course, nobody is ever going to sing like that but it's all the songs he's done of mine and me getting to play with him. I always feel that I'm part of the whole thing and I have opened for him many times. I've got too many heroes to name them all.

VVN: You are going out on the road for this album, right?

TJW: Yeah, we're going out over to Europe again for three weeks and then coming back to America for a few shows in the south and a couple up north. Just me and my drummer. It's easy to get across the world with just two people.

VVN: Why is it that the people of Europe have so much greater an appreciation for American roots type music then what seems to happen in our own country?

TJW: It seems to me from the very start when I first went over there, when it was me, my guitar and a Coca-Cola box under my foot for my drum, that people in those days always treated me like what I did was a piece of art. They would stay with it for years and let it mellow and stay with you and come to the concerts. It's not that I don't have fans in America. I've got a lot of people who pull for me here and come to the shows and make me feel good but I think people here can get things so quick that they tend to overlook some things and move on to the next and move on to the next. Over there it's more of get a hold of something good and you stay with it.

VVN: I've talked to so many artists that have said how appreciative that European and English audiences are of their music. Where they may be playing clubs here, they are playing medium and large size theaters there because there is such an interest in the music.

TJW: When we play over there, sometimes it's an outdoor festival where 150,000 people show up and you just never know but it's most always a packed club or standing room or a line outside. They just make you really feel good that you make the miles to go over. They just take a little more time with it than over here.