Wednesday, January 03, 2007
The Swamp Fox & The Chicago Sun Times
The following Tony Joe White article is from the December 6th issue of The Chicago Sun Times written by Jeff Johnson.
"To thine own self be true" is second only to love as a pop music theme. It's your thing, go your own way, and while you're at it, be true to your heart, your music, your girl, even your school.
No, Tony Joe White wasn't there when Shakespeare quilled that line -- after all, he's a mere 63. But the singer certainly lives by that philosophy.
Take his new album, "Uncovered," which most artists would have played up for its guest-star appeal. After all, White and his son Jody, his producer, assembled a Fab Five that includes Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Michael McDonald, J.J. Cale and and the late Waylon Jennings.
But for White, it's the songs that matter, and several of the strongest tracks
are the ones sans star power.
Back in 1969, White singlehandedly popularized "swamp music" with the single "Polk Salad Annie" about a granny-chomping gator. The music not only evoked images of his native Goodwill, La., but it even captured the region's languid atmosphere and climate.
Some fans thought "polk salad" was a euphemism for pot and would want to "toke some polk" with White backstage, but he says polk was a spinachlike plant that grows wild in marshy areas. "It has a big purple stalk with purple berries," he says. "You cook it just like greens, but after the berries come, it'll kill you if you eat it."
Rockers have built careers by varying White's ingredients slightly. Creedence Clearwater Revival had never set foot in the land of giant "skeeters" and Cajun queens. They took a ribbing from the Swamp Fox during tours. "They was always 'swamp this' and 'swamp that,' " White says. "One night I asked [John] Fogerty, 'Why do you boys mention the swamp every night? Last time I looked, there were no alligators in San Francisco.' "
White maintains that songwriting should come straight from the heart. The notion hit him like a lightning bolt in the late '60s the first time he heard Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billy Joe."
"I heard the realness of that song," White recalls. "I was doing Elvis Presley and Lightning Hopkins onstage, and I said to myself, 'I am Billy Joe. If I ever write anything else, it's going to be real.' Three or four weeks later, both 'Polk Salad Annie' and 'Rainy Night in Georgia' [his megahit as recorded by Brook Benton] came along. I drove a truck for the highway department, and if it rained, I'd stay home and play my guitar all day."
That genuine quality struck a chord with superstars such as Presley and Tom Jones, both of whom recorded "Polk Salad Annie"; Tina Turner, who did four White songs on her CD "Foreign Affairs," including "Steamy Windows"; Jennings, who recorded "Closing in on the Fire"; Ray Charles; Tim McGraw, and Hank Williams Jr. Still, the industry went to great lengths to reshape White for the pop market.
"That was one thing that caused some of the trouble in the early days with the record companies," he says. "If they can't box you up like a McDonald's burger, they didn't know what to do with you.
"They didn't know whether to call my music swamp blues or country or rock. The big companies tried to get me to change. One even wanted to market me as 'the white Barry White.' ... I write a few love songs, so maybe I could become 'Barry Joe White.'
"I've always had that deep voice, so I guess it made some sense," he says with a laugh.
White doesn't have to suffer such fools anymore. He and Jody run their own label, Swamp Records, from a studio and headquarters in suburban Nashville that served as a Confederate hospital during the Civil War. "Uncovered," which was recorded there, was eight years in the making.
"Getting these five men together was to me like such a powerful thing where I might just sit back and go fishin' for a while afterward," says White, who has been touring heavily behind the disc, including a gig Thursday night at Schubas. "I told Jody, 'Man, you've cut down on my fishing.' "
Guitarists Clapton, Cale and particularly Knopfler all share White's minimalist philosophy.
"It proves itself over and over through the years," White says. "Years ago, I learned that my 20-something licks could be reduced to three. It was so beautiful with Clapton. He did five takes and said, 'I'll sleep on it tonight and really do it tomorrow.' The next day, he took out about three-fourths of his guitar. That's the same way Knopfler works. He and J.J. leave that breathing room in there."
Amazing footage of T.J.W. performing "Swamp Boogie" on Musik Laden 197?