Tony Joe White opens his new album, Uncovered, with a slow-rolling stomp that draws on weather terms—thunder, rising temperature, electricity in the air—as he describes to his lover how hot their foreplay is. That may sound like a cliché, especially for a gruff singer-songwriter known for languid blues steeped in heat and masculinity. But with White it’s simply honing the distinct style he’s excelled at since his introductory hit, 1969’s “Polk Salad Annie,” found him rising from the rural Louisiana backwoods as rock’s sexiest swamp creature.
Part of what distinguishes the song, “Run for Cover,” is that it’s more than a sweet seduction highlighting White’s sexy growl. Unlike bedroom whisperers Barry White or Conway Twitty, the Franklin resident doesn’t sound like he rolled over in the sheets to moan amorously in his lover’s ear. White’s baritone drips not only honey but menace; it sounds like he’s standing at the foot of the bed hissing demands instead of just confiding desire. Acknowledging the hint of violence that hovers around orgasmic release, White counters lines about calming the storm inside with the chorus, in which he intones, “Rain falling down / It feels like trouble / When you see me coming, baby / You better run for cover.”
White’s style is rooted in age-old acoustic blues, and like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, he adds a funky bass-drum rhythm to give it a more aggressive power without speeding the tempo. White also brings in R&B horns that, instead of punching the sound, rise like shadowy mists in the background.
In the ’70s, White’s modestly popular albums provided hits for Dusty Springfield, Elvis Presley, Hank Williams Jr. and, most famously, Brook Benton’s eternal “Rainy Night in Georgia.” For a couple of decades, White focused on releasing albums in Europe, where audiences embrace American roots music with a fervor missing at home. But White regained notoriety in America when Tina Turner recorded the hit “Steamy Windows” and several other White songs during her Private Dancer period. Suddenly, the swamp king began putting out albums and touring again in the States.
He’s made the best of the opportunity, issuing a series of albums in recent years as powerful as anything in his career. At 63, he follows 2004’s Heroines, an outstanding album of duets with Shelby Lynne, Lucinda Williams and other women, with a collection pairing him with crusty old men like Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Michael McDonald, J.J. Cale and the late Waylon Jennings. The album revives a few White classics, including “Rainy Night in Georgia” and “Taking the Midnight Train,” but just as potent are the less-heard “Shaking the Blues” with Jennings or the ominous “Not One Bad Thought” with Knopfler. The album’s true strength lies not in the guests but in the band. A carefully selected group of Muscle Shoals, Memphis and Nashville veterans give just the right slurring accents to White’s high-humidity tunes.
Wisely, he doesn’t try to modernize his sound. He addresses the issue in “Rebellion,” where he seethes, “They told me I had to get commercialized,” only to add a drawn out “Nooooo,” before emphasizing, “I move in my own time.”
As he proves in Uncovered, no one moves quite like Tony Joe White.