Back-Porch Music: Tony Joe White’s new Deep Cuts ﬁnds his nostalgia sweet and earned
Playing tonight at 6 p.m. at the Frist Center
Down-home blues recast as soundscape, Tony Joe White’s new Deep Cuts initially sounds like an attempt to enliven old-time music with newfangled beats. But the great Louisiana-born guitarist and singer is too savvy to wallow in post-modernism’s swamp. Deep Cuts gets over on White’s ﬁlthy, knowing murmur and his dirty guitar, and listeners who aren’t familiar with classic songs such as “Willie and Laura Mae Jones” might enjoy the versions White does here. If the music edges close to the abyss of ’90s retro and kicks a few rocks in the direction of Beck and The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, it achieves a reﬂective tone that’s often true to the material.
Produced by White’s son Jody, Deep Cuts features subtly mutated sounds that lie on top of fat, hip-hop-ﬂavored beats, all set off by White’s patented guitar licks. This works perfectly on “Aspen, Colorado,” a song from his ’60s repertoire. Major-seventh chords create the nostalgic mood that permeates much of the record, while organ, harmonica and piano intertwine. Like the best of White’s work originally recorded for Monument Records, “Aspen, Colorado” takes distance—the space between the Deep South and the wider world—as its subject. “There comes a time in everybody’s life / When you got to search for peace of mind,” White sings.
White remakes two of his greatest songs here. “Willie and Laura Mae Jones”—ﬁrst recorded on 1969’s Black and White and memorably covered by Dusty Springﬁeld the same year—remains one of the strongest songs ever written about American race relations. An examination of the moment when down-home whites and their African-American neighbors could no longer pretend they were alike, “Willie and Laura Mae” is a composition of genius, but this version drains the narrative of its sadness and danger.
“High Sheriff of Calhoun Parrish,” which White ﬁrst recorded on 1970’s Tony Joe, suffers from the same defects. A stark story that ﬁnds the narrator on the run, “High Sheriff” demonstrates that yoking a classic song to a groove doesn’t always result in the kind of recontextualization the artist intended. Similarly, “Soul Francisco”—White’s attempt to understand hippies—works as half-remembered history. The groove itself is ferocious, but “Soul Francisco” was dated even before its 1969 release.
Far better are “Homemade Ice Cream” and “Swamp Water,” which are essentially nonverbal and sport nicely deployed loops, sharp guitar licks and harmonica. Here, White’s nostalgia seems sweet and earned. This is back-porch music for the ages—freed of the need to tell a story, White evokes a world just as vanished as the rural idyll he describes in “Willie and Laura Mae.”
Like bluesman Roman Carter’s ﬁne 2007 Never Slow Down, on which Carter’s impeccable vocals were married to producer Tom Rothrock’s beats and atmospherics, Deep Cuts works best as reverie. “Had a dream last night / I heard you call my name,” White sings on “As the Crow Flies.” Tony Joe White continues to dream his dreams, and they are our dreams as well.