On the Sweet Inspiration: The Songs of Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham album that I wrote about recently, one of my favorite tracks is Tony Joe White’s powerful cover of “Watching the Trains Go By.” Tony Joe White, is one of those singer-songwriters who is revered by his peers (no doubt there will be, or should be, a Tony Joe White tribute album someday), but woefully neglected by the listening public.
Listening to Tony Joe White’s songs, you can’t help but think of the swamps and bayous of his native Louisiana: muddy blues and funky country soul that are practically oozing with thick backwoods muck. White has been compared to the guitar troubadour J.J. Cale, and while that’s not a bad comparison, it doesn’t begin to adequately describe what White is all about either. For that, you really just have to listen to the songs, and let those swampy grooves sink into your brain.
Tony Joe White gained fame as the writer of “Rainy Night in Georgia,” which was a big hit for Brook Benton way back in 1970. White himself had a minor hit with “Polk Salad Annie” the previous year, but he never capitalized on that early success and pretty much evaporated from the music industry a few short years later. I have a Best of Tony Joe White CD, containing 20 songs from 1969-1973, that I found a few years ago at a shop here in Bangkok. After recording those early albums, he virtually disappeared from the music industry for many years until resurfacing in the early 1990s. In the past decade he has been especially active, releasing several critically acclaimed albums. When I was in Kuala Lumpur last year, I was pleasantly surprised to find one of his recent albums, The Heroines at the Rock Corner shop in Mid-Valley MegaMall. Released in 2004, it’s a very solid batch of songs, many of them duets with female singers such as Emmylou Harris, Shelby Lynne, Jessi Colter, Lucinda Williams, and his daughter Michelle White. Listening to these songs, it’s clear that White has lost none of his verve and vigor.
A live recording he did in 1980 for the Austin City Limits TV show was released on CD in 2006 as Live from Austin, TX. This album includes favorites such as “Rainy Night in Georgia” and “Polk Salad Annie,” along with cleverly titled tunes like “Mama Don’t Let Your Cowboys Grow Up to be Babies.” In 2010, White released a new album, The Shine, on the appropriately named Swamp Records label. I haven’t heard this one yet, but it’s getting good reviews. If I don’t find a copy during my next trip to KL, I may end up ordering it online.