Swamp Anatomy 

Tony Joe White on AC/DC, the beauty of a good drum loop and how to get a crowd dancing in two feet of water

Tony Joe White is one of those rare artists whose music isn’t enlarged, per se, by adding layers—different voices and instrumentation merely give his undiluted swamp soul a different tint.

by Jewly Hight

Tony Joe White is one of those rare artists whose music isn’t enlarged, per se, by adding layers—different voices and instrumentation merely give his undiluted swamp soul a different tint. When distilled to its coolly fierce essence, White’s sound is the epitome of potent: his sly, husky rumble of a voice and the guttural heaving and snarling of his ’65 Fender Stratocaster with the “whomper stomper” and the “swamp box.”

“The ‘whomper stomper’ would be—to regular human beings—a wah [pedal],” says White, who has a home in Leiper’s Fork and others in Arkansas and New Mexico. “Actually, it was one of the first wah-wahs they made, and it was called a Boomerang. And then the ‘swamp box’ was another thing from the ’60s that I found in London, and it’s one of the first fuzzboxes. I plug them both up together and they get a sound kind of like a hundred-pound bumble bee.”

The visceral allure of the Louisiana native’s amalgamation of blues, rock and R&B has been repeatedly demonstrated. He scored his first No. 1 in Paris in 1968 with “Soul Francisco.” The song’s lyrics are entirely in English, but the timely descriptions of California hippies evidently weren’t the main selling point. “I think the guitar is what might have pulled [French-speaking audiences] on over the edge,” White says.

Though his live and studio recordings have generally included bass, B3 organ and horns—except for 2001’s The Beginning, which stuck to vocals, acoustic guitar and foot stomps—he’s long made a habit of touring as a two-piece. (“I’d say 99 percent of the time it was just me and drums. That’s it. That’s all you need.”)

White’s raw muscle-and-bone approach more than passed muster at the thoroughly water-logged New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in early May. “It came the awfulest rain storm you ever saw,” White says. “People were standing almost knee-deep in water, and we was onstage cranked up loud as we could go and those people was dancing and drinking and hollering. I thought they would cancel, but they stood out there and rolled their pants up and held their dresses up and stayed at it. Two people—it’s just so raw I think it hits people in the feet and the dancing bones.”

The deep, mucky groove at the heart of songs such as “Polk Salad Annie” or “Willie and Laura Mae Jones”—the former a 1969 top 10 pop hit that’s become White’s trademark song—holds its own in a myriad of musical combinations. Take the recording project his son and manager Jody White recently dreamed up, pairing drum loops with some of his father’s early songs for a result not unlike R.L. Burnside’s remix album Come On In.

“[Jody] came in the studio and he said, ‘Listen to this little groove,’ and he presses a button on his computer and it sounded like one of my favorite drummers from back in the early Memphis days,” says the elder White. “It was hip-hop-type beats, but it had all the tones and didn’t sound electrified. It’s really some of the funkiest stuff I ever heard. The songs are the same but the drums have took it on to now. Friends of [Jody’s] in their early 20s come in the studio and go, ‘Hey, turn that up. Can I get a copy of that?’ It’s like you’re playing something they recognize—the beat. They can get into the words later on.”

There are other collaborations on the table as well: some—like a potential project with fellow guitar-and-drums duo The Black Keys—are no-brainers of sorts. (“I think we’re going to get together down in Mississippi and do an album, us all kind of write it and play on it together,” White says.) And others are a bit more surprising. “I’ve got a song—believe it or not—that me and AC/DC are working on,” White says. “Hard-rock swamp. I’ve sent them half of a song, and [I’ll] let them see what they’re going to do.”

White’s two most recent albums were built around felicitous musical pairings—first with women (on 2004’s The Heroines), then men (on last year’s Uncovered). A brooding, co-written duet with Shelby Lynne titled “Can’t Go Back Home” is one of Heroines’ finest moments. Lynne’s moody, honeyed drawl is a near-perfect foil for White’s mellow, cavernous vocals.

“I had this fire going and it was just about sundown and this car circled past my house and come back and out stepped Shelby,” says White. “She said, ‘I was just wondering what you was doing with that fire.’ I said, ‘I’m sitting here staring at it with my guitar in my hand.’ We sat, probably talked two or three hours, and all of a sudden popped out ‘Can’t Go Back Home.’ You could literally say that song came right out of the fire and onto the page.”

Uncovered boasts some equally satisfying unplanned moments. J.J. Cale—notoriously reclusive as he is—was taken enough by the ominous, sweat-dripping carnality of “Louvelda” to contribute far more to the song than White had asked for. “We didn’t hear from [J.J.] for about three weeks,” says White. “And then all of a sudden he sends this CD back and it’s got this extra couple of rap lines that he had written and he put five guitars on it, a fiddle, a mandolin and a piano—and he mixed them all down on one track so you couldn’t mess with it later. He wrote a note that said, ‘Dear Tony Joe, I hope you don’t mind—I got so into it I had to write a couple more parts.’ ”

In the three decades that White has been writing songs—songs that have been recorded by everyone from Brook Benton (“Rainy Night in Georgia”) to Ray Charles (“3/4 Time”) and Elvis Presley (“I’ve Got a Thing About You Baby,” “For Ol’ Times Sake” and “Polk Salad Annie”)—his music has been shaped by the sounds of the times to varying degrees, while almost always keeping its down-and-dirty sensuality intact. Even the performances of “Disco Blues” and “Swamp Rap” from White’s 1980 Austin City Limits set—released as the Live from Austin, TX CD and DVD last year—have a certain greasy four-on-the-floor appeal.

“There was kind of a different thing that happened drum-wise right through there. We was experimenting a little bit with different beats and a dance feel. Some critics go, ‘Hey man, you’re getting a little too far from the swamp. And some go, ‘Hey I like this—we can dance to it.’ It was just kind of moving along with the times rhythm-wise. The songs and all stayed within their limitations.”

For White, it’s safe to say the skin may change, but the innards stay the same.

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