By Brian Wise.
Tony Joe White headlines at Boogie this weekend. Things will definitely not be crook in Tallarook!
By this stage of his life Tony Joe White could almost be an Australian citizen. He is not sure how many times he has toured here but he reckons he has been here nearly every year since 1982.
“It’s going to become like my home place,” he says, “like the people down in Louisiana and stuff. They react to my music in Australia like people back home. It’s like you’ve know them all your life and everybody you meet is great to talk with, and they seem to really listen to your words.”
White’s extraordinary career began back in the late ‘60s when he write ‘Polk Salad Annie’ and ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’ in just one day. These were just two of the songs covered by many others, including Elvis Presley, that have helped White maintain his career. You can add to that the huge hits that Tina Turner had with ‘Steamy Windows’ and you have the essence of one of the great songwriters. In fact, White’s latest success is ‘God’s Problem Child, a co-write with Jamey Johnson that is now the title track of Willie Nelson’s album.
White’s solo career has also seen him release 19 albums imbued with his swamp boogie trademark groove. The latest album ‘Rain Crow’ is no exception as it lopes along, propelled by White’s relaxed style.
It seems that every time I talk to Tony Joe by phone he is at his farm near Franklin, Tennessee, either about to go fishing or to grab some beer and sit by the bayou and do some serious songwriting,
Do you get to do any fishing when you’re down here?
It’s always promised sir, always promised.
But there’s always a job that comes up, or another concert somewhere. And BT, Brian Toronto that does most of the shows, he always promises the fishing thing because he knows I’m really hooked on it. But so far, I haven’t done it yet down there.
Well, you might have to insist that he includes it in your itinerary this year.
We’ll see. I’m going fishing in the morning, so I may rack up and get my satisfaction out my way right here.
You probably only have to walk out your back door to do some fishing, don’t you?
Well, it’s pretty close, the river is. But the river I go to is about 65 miles down towards Memphis from here, and it runs off another river, the Tennessee River. But it’s a small little cut-off in the back where those fish love to get back in there and hide, but they know I will hunt them down.”
For his latest Australian tour Tony Joe is again accompanied by his drummer Cadillac, who has been with him for more than a decade now.
“He’s a good man, he plays great, explains White. “He’s an Alabama boy. It’s always good to get up and make sure your amplifier is on, crank it up, and rock.
It’s a pretty simple show you do. You don’t have to lug a whole lot of equipment around, do you?
No, it’s just my pedals I use on my guitar: my volume pedal, my wah-wah, the Whomper Stomper – and then Fleetwood with his drums, of course. He carries a whole sack of little things with him. He’s like an old gypsy woman, he’s got a sack full of stuff that he’s collected from around the world that sounds so good, man. And you never know what’s going to come out.
So all of a sudden two people can start sounding like six. Because his foot, and the way I play bass on my E string on my guitar, it does sound like a band sometimes like that. Solomon Burke was opening a show for us in Europe and he said, “How much of that have y’all got taped?”
I said, “There’s no tapes.”
He said, “Oh man, I heard eight pieces up there.” And he was sitting right backstage.
I said, “No you didn’t. You heard Fleetwood and me. Anyway, you can understand it when it’s cranked up loud and you’re rocking.
It’s good that you are still held in such esteem all over the world. You can pretty much tour whenever you feel like it, can’t you?
Well, that’s one way to look at it. When I write and when I go in a studio and put that song down, and all of a sudden it feels really good, then I want to go play it for somebody. So after we get about ten of those down like that, then the tour starts.
Do you know how many songs you’ve actually written in your career?
BMI who keeps up with all that, they sent me a thing about two years ago that said I had over 430. I never thought about that many really.
Well, a few of those songs have helped pay your bills over the decades, haven’t they? You know, there was some pretty handy song writing going on back in the mid 60’s that’s stood you in great stead over the years.
Yeah. In fact, I was very lucky when I first started laying things down, ‘Rainy Night’ was part of it, ‘Polk Salad Annie’ was part of it. So when I first started writing, I had a strong guideline to just stay with what you know and write what you feel, but always try to lay it down in a good, cool manner.
Writing about what you know is pretty good advice for any songwriter I think, isn’t it?
Yeah, it sure is.
Speaking of song writing, on your last album, Rain Crow – which was your 19th album ‘The Middle of Nowhere’ was writte with Billy Bob Thornton. Can you tell us a little about that?
Well, I always loved Slingblade. I always loved the movie so much. Finally, me and him hooked up and he called me. I was staying at the Sunset in LA, Sunset Marquee. He called me up and said “Hey man, they got a little studio over there downstairs. Why don’t I bring a guitar over and let’s sit down and see if we can come up with something.
And all of a sudden, we wrote three songs man, and ‘Middle of Nowhere’ was the first one. But ‘Middle of Nowhere’ started here in Franklin when they flew in to do a show here. Him and his drummer, bass player, guitar player, came out to the studio to hang out and listen to a few words, some songs. We went to the show that night and hooked up and dug each other. So it started there, and when he got back to California he called me and said “Man you got to get out here, I’ve got to get something off my chest.”
He had left a half page of words, about five lines that’d he’d wrote on the airplane coming down here, and he stuck them in my shirt pocket and said “Look at these sometime, and see if you can do something with him.” And it was “The clothes are on the line, cover on the well, daddy’s drinking moonshine, mama sits and rests a spell.
And that’s all he wrote.
Have you been writing with any other people recently? I know you worked with Shelby Lynne in the past over the last few years. Has there been anybody else?
I don’t write with a whole lot of people. My wife. We write some here and there, but Jamie Johnson and I got together about three months ago right before Christmas. I had seen Jamie in a few shows out here Leiper’s Fork and Franklin, and I always liked him. He said “Man, let’s try to write a tune.”
So he came up to the studio and we worked that afternoon on it, and all of a sudden we came up with a song called ‘God’s Problem Child.’ We got it finished and Jamie put it down because his voice is pretty country. He sounds like Willie in a way, and all these years that I’ve known Willie, playing out and going to the golf tournament with him and hanging out, I’ve sent him so many songs and he never recorded one, but he liked them all. But this one, all of a sudden, he calls back and goes, “Boys, I’m taking ‘God’s Problem Child’ because I am God’s problem child.”
And not only did he cut it, but he named the whole album that.
I’ve seen Jamie a few times. He is a fantastic artist, but I don’t think people appreciate just how good he is.
Well, Jamie is. I don’t know all of his music. I’ve heard some things, but I just love his voice. I love his way and the way he sits down and takes his time in the studio. If we’re trying to come up with something sometimes we’ll sit for an hour and stare at each other.
And I go “Jamie, why you staring at me?”
And he said “Because you were staring at me.” That’s kind of the way it goes.
Well it’s good to see that out of the result of that staring competition came a great song.
I know man. Out of all the staring, all of a sudden out of the blue, and Willie might have been the last person on earth that ain’t cut one of my songs. And Jamie too! He won’t cut my songs. And all of a sudden, our first try together and Willie nails them.
Well, thanks very much for talking to me. We’re really looking forward to seeing you back down here.
I’m looking forward to getting there, sir. It’s going to be beautiful to get down there in the good warm sun, and I’ll see you.
Tony Joe White Tour Dates:
Thursday April 13 – Thornbury Theatre, Melbourne
Friday April 14 – Boogie 11, Tallarook, VIC
Saturday April 15 – Meeniyan Town Hall, VIC
Sunday April 16 – Caravan Music Club, VIC
Monday April 17 – Bluesfest, Byron Bay, NSW