Sunday, July 4, 2010

Tony Joe White: Polk Salad Surgery (2000)

(As published in the Times of Acadiana ... )

Last month, One Hot July (Hip-O) became the first album in seventeen years by the Oak Grove, Louisiana, native Tony Joe White to be released in the U.S.

But it should’ve come out a year-and-a-half ago.

Scheduled for a fall 1998 release on Mercury Records’ Tupelo imprint, the album got lost amid the chaos resulting from the multi-million-dollar merger that turned Mercury, MCA, Geffen, A&M, Interscope, and Verve into the Universal Music Group. But advance cassette copies had already gone out, whetting appetites and bringing the press up to date with a musician who, though absent from the U.S. charts since his 1969 hit “Polk Salad Annie,” had long been a mainstay of the European and Australian electric-blues scenes.

Stateside, meanwhile, White became best known as a composer, writing Brook Benton’s 1970 smash “Rainy Night in Georgia” (Elvis recorded it too) as well as songs recorded by everyone from Dusty Springfield and B.J. Thomas to Joe Cocker and Tina Turner.

To Turner’s 1989 Foreign Affair album alone White contributed four songs, including the hit “Steamy Windows” and “Undercover Agent for the Blues,” the latter of which he composed with his wife Leann. “Leann had that song two thirds of the way finished for three or four years before I even looked at it,” says White. “One day I sat down and went, ‘Man, this is a good song!’”

So he understands that some things take time. But on this particular April afternoon, the fifty-six-year-old White--who now makes his home in Tennessee--is in Covington, Louisiana, phoning writers to promote One Hot July, eager to get the album’s lost eighteen months behind him. “I still come [to Louisiana] a lot because my brother and my sisters are here,” he says. “I also come down to fish and get some swamp-water thoughts and grooves in me to take back. I usually get a song when I come through here.”

Louisiana swamp water and grooves play a large role on One Hot July. In “Gumbo John,” White recalls, over a dirty blues shuffle, an evening spent with a crawfish-eating, “Jolie Blon”-singing shack-dweller “just outside of Baton Rouge” who played guitar until an alligator named Clyde ate three of his fingers and “ended his musical career.” And with the sinister “Conjure Woman,” White and his band add a distinctly Louisianian practitioner of hoodoo to rock’s long list of witchy, evil, and black-magic women.

To be sure to capture the music’s feverish Louisiana vibe as authentically as possible, White recorded it at Bogalusa’s Studio in the Country, where he and his co-producer Roger Davies took great care to capture the low-down menace that White and his band--Carson “Dr. Gloom” Whitest (organ), Eric Watkins (bass), Marc “Boom Boom” Cohen (drums)--were conjuring. And embellishing each cut is White's guitar, which sounds like a country cousin of J.J. Cale’s and Eric Clapton’s and complements his understated, spookily murmured vocals quite nicely.

But there’s an element of cool as well, making One Hot July sound at times like nothing so much as the work of a man who misses Brothers in Arms-era Dire Straits and figures that if they’re not going to reunite he may as well pick up the slack. “I wish they would get back together,” says White. “I’m a big fan of Dire Straits and Knopfler.

“In fact,” White continues, “we’re good friends. Knopfler, Clapton, J.J. Cale, and me, I think we all grew up listening to the same guys--Lightnin’ Slim, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters. We’ve all got a touch of the blues in us. But as far as the guitar player? I don’t think nobody can touch Knopfler. He can play, man! We did a documentary together a while back, and he had so many guitar licks they was falling out of his pockets.”

White harbors no bitterness over the fact that Knopfler and Clapton, Englishman both, have achieved success in North America while his own following has been restricted for the most part to other continents. All the same, he hopes his upcoming U.S. tour will boost his homeland profile.

Until it does, however, there’s always the songwriting.

“The first time I heard Brook sing ‘Rainy Night in Georgia,’” says White, “I played it, like, fifty-something times. I kept going, ‘I’ve gotta learn this! This is a beautiful song!’

“I mean, I thought it was O.K. when I cut it,” he adds, “but I didn’t think it was like that!”

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