Tony Joe White: Songs from the swamp

By Mike Dinsdale

After almost 50 years making music, Tony Joe White sounds like a fairly contented man.

It's partly because he has the sort of musical freedom most artists can only dream of after taking control of his career and doing everything his way.

Many call him the Swamp Fox because of the music he produces, born in the swamps of Louisiana where he grew up. But to musicians, critics and fans, he's a legend who makes his music as pure as it can be.

We caught up with White while he was taking a break from recording in his home studio.

He's been putting down tracks for a new album for the past year or so, taking the time needed to keep them true.

White talks in that laconic, southern drawl where minutes seem to pass on one sentence.

"I've been working on some new stuff since about January last year, you know, just recording a lot of stuff. Some of it is almost spur of the moment stuff, first take almost for some of it, real rocking swampy stuff too, really sweaty and swampy.

"I like having the freedom to do it like that. My music is freedom itself. For the last 15 years I've had my own label - Swamp Records - and my own studio so I can take the time needed and there's nobody looking over my shoulder."

So when is the album coming out? Certainly not by his visit here in March, but he will be playing some of his new songs on his five-date tour.

He'll also be playing "all the songs the folks down there wanna hear".

It's always confounded critics and fellow musicians that White isn't held in quite the regard by the public he should be - after all, some of the world's greatest artists have recorded his music.

He's recorded more than 20 albums, and had his songs recorded by Elvis Presley, Tina Turner, Ray Charles, Roy Orbison, Dusty Springfield, Tom Jones and Etta James.

White has also worked with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, The MGs, Eric Clapton, JJ Cale, Waylon Jennings, Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris.

And his songs, the likes of Polk Salad Annie, Steamy Windows and Rainy Night In Georgia, are classics. But the lack of broader appeal doesn't faze him.

"I think I've had the most unbelievable freedom during my career. Sure, there were some times when things didn't go as smoothly as I wanted, but it's just been absolutely beautiful for me, and the last 15 years have been the best of all," White says.

"It's all about the songs for me, keeping them pure and truthful, recording them as they first sounded to me. I just go out by the river and sing and play a bit, then I might come back and record a bit more."

It's a recipe for success, as White's music never sounds contrived and has an organic feel that carries you along.

"That's why I keep it as simple as it can be. I just go on stage with a guitar and some drums and in the studio we maybe put a bit of bass on it or organ, but getting on stage and playing them that way makes them feel right and true, just like I wrote them round the campfire, that's what I strive to do," he says.

"The truth lives in simplicity. I don't need no strings or horns added, that wouldn't be me, I just need to hear the truth come out and that's how I like it."

White was born for the blues. The part-Cherokee musician was brought up as part of a big brood on a cotton farm in Louisiana and raised on a diet of Lightnin' Hopkins and local bluesmen.

He says combining his background and influences into his own unique sound is what sets him apart.

"I use a less is best philosophy most times, it keeps that rawness in the whole thing."

It's something he's passed on to others. When he worked with Eric Clapton on Heroes he managed to get the guitar great to keep his licks as simple as could be.

"He came in and played his thing and put two or three guitars over it, then sent it back to me. My son Jordy was in the recording room with him, and Eric Clapton came in the next day and just slapped on the guitar and just played what came out, but kept it simple.

"Most people would want more out of Eric Clapton, but I wanted less and he did it ... and it worked, what he came out with was beautiful."

White has been coming to New Zealand since the early 1980s, but missed coming here on his last two tours of Australia.

"I missed out those last two times and I'm looking forward to getting back there, because the people of Noo Zealand are almost like the people from my town in Louisiana, if they like you they let you know."

And with tickets already selling fast for his upcoming show, it's clear we like what we hear.

- Hamilton News

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