Tony Joe White has been playing his patented brand of swamp-rock for half a century. Nick Bollinger spoke to him ahead of an April visit to New Zealand.
If you want a definition of the term ‘unreconstructed’ you could do worse than make a study of Tony Joe White. He emerged in the late 60s with a narrative, bluesy style that came to be known as swamp-rock. And in fifty years that has hardly changed.
Tony Joe White released a new album not long ago, Rain Crow, and it’s not that different from the music he set out making; just a little less adorned, and even more like the testimony of some back-country Southern man, straight out of the swamps of Louisiana. Which is pretty much what Tony Joe was and remains to this day, despite having enjoyed phenomenal success as the writer of much-recorded songs like ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’ ‘Polk Salad Annie’.
I asked him where that musical style of his – so evocative of the swamps, utterly his own and unchanged in half a century – originally came from?
“Well I was raised in a family on a farm with five girls and one brother, there were seven of us, and they all played music, all played pianna or git-tar,” he explained in a slow deep rumble. “I’d sit around and listen on the porch at night, listen to gospel songs and country songs, but nothing ever moved me until I was near fifteen years old and my brother brought home an album by Lightning Hopkins the blues singer. So I started sneaking my Dad’s guitar to my bedroom at night and playing blues licks. So that’s where it really started.
“And then on the writing part, I was doing a lot of Elvis tunes on stage, a lot of John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, I was doing everybody’s tunes. And then I heard Bobbie Gentry singing ‘Ode To Billie Joe’ and I thought, ‘Oh man I am Billy Joe, I know that life’. So I thought if I ever wrote anything I would write something real and something I knew about. I was very lucky when I first started to write, down in Texas, Corpus Christie the first couple of things I tried to lay down were ‘Polk Salad Annie’ and ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’. Those were the two that started me out, so I had me a corral to go by, a little square, a judgement of all your other tunes. So I always stuck with trying to write what I felt and what I knew about.”
There are hints of the supernatural in the songs on Rain Crow: snake doctors, swamp conjurers, backwoods churches with strange rituals. In one song, ‘Tell Me A Swamp Story’, he recalls the spooky tales his older brother would tell before bedtime.
“When you pick cotton all day, you ain’t got a TV or nothing, you sit around and tell stories. My five sisters, all of ‘em, we’d sit there and listen.”
Though he now lives about 40 miles outside Nashville, he has his own rituals for conjuring his spooky, swampy songs.
“I still got woods and I got a river and I got a campfire, and when I really need the mood and need to work on the songs I’ll build a fire down there, go down and hang out by the river.
“I also feel it when I come to New Zealand, there’s a couple of spots there. The people make me feel like Oak Grove Louisiana, my hometown. They don’t mind getting up and dancing, doing the alligator and screaming, or whatever they want to do.”
Rain Crow is available on Yep Roc Records.
Tony Joe White plays on 9 & 10 April at Auckland’s Tuning Fork.