Right as Rain 

Swamp-rocker Tony Joe White returns with stunning new album, his first in six years

Swamp-rocker Tony Joe White returns with stunning new album, his first in six years

Tony Joe White

The Heroines (Sanctuary)

Playing Sept. 24 at

B.B. King's with Shelby Lynne

Somewhere near downtown Franklin, in a handsome old house that dates back to the Civil War, the lights are kept on each night, glowing dim, in case Tony Joe White decides to drop by. He may bring a friend or two, or maybe his son Jody. Or he might be alone, except for a fragment of a song—a few bars of melody, a line of lyric—taking shape in his mind.

His studio is inside, and there he takes his time, gets comfortable, lets the tape roll, plays through those bits of music he's got on his mind, and then stands up, maybe stretches a bit, turns off the machine and calls it a night. Almost always the first take is the one with the magic: that's one of many things he's learned over these past 40-odd years.

With that, he's back to his house in Leiper's Fork, near the creek. And maybe a day or so later he's at the airport, on his way to Europe, or to Australia, where he'll play some of his new stuff, and plenty of the old songs, in venues packed with fans who have learned to decipher his Louisiana drawl well enough to sing along.

The songs that put Tony Joe White on the map in the States—"Rainy Night in Georgia" and "Polk Salad Annie"—were just the first of a string of hits that established him farther from home. Maybe it takes some distance to sense just how strong these records are, with their vivid, backwoods characters and humid grooves. Without ever having to leave Brussels or Amsterdam, it's easy to get drawn into the world that this music evokes through White's honey-rich whisper and sleepy but dangerous ways with a guitar.

With the Americana boomlet of the last few years, though, people in the States have been listening again to songs about real life being written and performed with all the rough edges that come from living. Which means that Tony Joe White is being rediscovered, this time through his first Sanctuary album, The Heroines, a collection of sensual, blues-drenched tracks, each one recorded in downtown Franklin, generally late at night, with the lights turned low.

"Every instrumental track is a first take," White says, speaking by phone between dates on another European tour. "Most of my vocals were first takes. And the first take from every girl was the one we used on the album."

The "girls" who guest on The Heroines are Emmylou Harris, Shelby Lynne, Lucinda Williams, Jessi Colter and Tony's daughter Michelle White. "I know these particular women not only through their music," White explains. "I know 'em from hanging out with them, doing shows with them, writing songs. Jessi, we've known each other since '75—her and Waylon and my wife. Michelle, my daughter, is a heroine to me, with her writing and her work. And Lucinda and Emmylou? God...."

As for Lynne, she joins White on a tune that harks back to a night five years ago in Leiper's Fork. "She came by and saw the smoke from my campfire," he remembers. "So she came out and sat down with me. I had the guitar going, a few chords and stuff. She started hummin', this and that, and we was movin' around with it. I don't know who came up with 'You can't go back home.' But all of a sudden we had this song."

That song, "Can't Go Back Home," touches on a theme that runs throughout The Heroines. "Home" means a lot to White; depending on the moment, it can be a place forever lost, as in the Lynne track, or one that's always within reach, as in "Back Porch Moment." It can be somewhere far away, if only for a day or two as you're passing through. This is the message of "Playa del Carmen Nights," a tropical idyll that White and his daughter share. And on "Robbin' My Honeycomb," home becomes a den of betrayal, no longer a warm vision, now a furnace where fury and revenge are forged.

Northern Louisiana is where White was born, on a cotton farm near a town called Goodwill, but it's not home anymore. "Too much time has passed," he says. "When I go down there, we're busy fishin' and cookin' up the fish and bustin' out the guitars around the fire. In some ways, it's the same when you got your blood around you and everybody's into the music. But it's changed a lot, so I stay busy when I'm down there. I don't go down to the river and wish it was this way or that way no more."

That's understandable, since White, the youngest of seven kids, followed his brothers and sisters into the cotton fields as soon as he was old enough to pick and chop. "Then they'd come back to the house to play guitar and piano—after you work all day in the fields, that's what you do. I'd sit on the porch and listen. It was mostly gospel and country fiddle. I didn't really get into music at all until my brother brought home an album by Lightnin' Hopkins. I heard that old blues thing, just a guy and his guitar and his foot tappin', and that turned me around, man."

White was 15 when he started copping Hopkins licks on guitar. That sound—some would call it primitive—was his ticket from out of the cotton fields to Georgia, Texas and, in 1967, to Tennessee. "I drove up from Corpus Christi, thinking about Memphis, but for some reason I just kept on driving to Nashville. Walking around the city that afternoon, talking to different people, they kept telling me I drove a long ways for nothing. But I went to a club that night to listen to a band, and I met a guy that knew a guy that had a telephone number, and the next day I was in Bob Beckham's office."

Beckham, the head of the Combine Music publishing company, was one of few people in the city back then who would give the time of day to talent that didn't fit the mainstream mold. "He said, 'You drove that far to play me a song?' I said yeah. I had a piece of 'Rainy Night' wrote and I had all of 'Polk' wrote, so I played him them two tunes. As it turns out, he was probably the only man in town that would have listened to something that funky."

Which put White on the long road that led eventually to a life divided between Williamson County and, on this particular afternoon, a hotel in London. "It seems like I'm not getting to play very much in America," he says, "although that Americana thing is real good, man. I watched through the years, kept goin' and goin', and people were making records like the Detroit assembly line. You got to set the music free sometime. I guess that's why a lot of them are doing it a little bluesier and funkier now."

And how are things in the U.K.? "Man, it's been raining since I've been here." A rainy night in London? White chuckles, then takes a look outside. "I think the sun is coming out. Tell you the truth, I see a little sunshine ahead...."

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