Not many musicians with only a song or two that qualify as huge hits still manage to sound as continually and consistently laid-back as Tony Joe White.
"I live out in the woods and what I like to do is take my boat out on the Tennessee River," White says in his distinctive growl of a voice. "And I bring along a few cold beers and try to catch some big crappie. And maybe I get an idea for a song from time to time. And if I catch any fish, I'll cook 'em over a wood fire in a big pot, with some corn meal, and they taste totally different."
Tony Joe White
7:30 p.m. Sunday (doors open at 6:30 p.m.), Juanita’s, 614 President Clinton Ave., Little Rock
White is best known for writing and singing "Polk Salad Annie," a No. 8 hit in 1969, and also for writing "Rainy Night in Georgia." It helped the songwriter's self-confidence -- not to mention his bottom line -- when Elvis Presley decided to record the former song, and the latter song became a No. 4 hit for Brook Benton in 1970.
About Elvis, White says, "He really treated me cool. He sent his plane to get my wife and I and flew us to Las Vegas and we stayed a week, so there was some definite hangin' out we got to do with The King."
And it wasn't like Elvis was a one-stop shopper. He recorded and released two more Tony Joe White songs: "For Ol' Times Sake" and "I've Got a Thing About You Baby." Other folks were also shopping the White catalog, with Hank Williams Jr. doing a country version of "Rainy Night in Georgia," and Dusty Springfield recording his "Willie and Laura Mae Jones." Tom Jones also recorded "Polk Salad Annie."
But what would White do with himself after his status as the new guy wore off? He was not heard from often in the 1980s, until 1989, when he wrote four songs for Tina Turner's Foreign Affair album, and played guitar and harmonica on it as well. He released 23 albums during the last century, and just since the dawn of the 21st century, he has released 15 more albums, the latest of which, Hoodoo, came out a year ago on Yep Roc Records.
"I was really amazed that it raised more racket around the world than ever," White says. "How far can music travel, I used to ponder, after a song of mine, 'Soul Francisco,' about the hippie thing, became a No. 1 in Paris, France."
For someone who has been around since the start of the hippie era, White has never been linked to scandals or drugs and he's clear about how he has survived those challenges.
"I've always been lucky, I guess," he says with a laugh. "I'll have a few beers here and there, but I was always afraid of all that other stuff. Drugs and rehab would have freaked me out, since I can't much stand to be inside. I've just managed to keep a low background and stay close to the swamps."
White was born in July 1943 in Oak Grove, La., and grew up on a cotton farm nearby in Goodwill, La., not too far south of Eudora, Ark. He developed an appreciation for the surrounding swamp country that he has never lost, even though he now lives in a different type of rural surroundings, a comfortable commuting distance, some 40 miles from Nashville, Tenn.
"When I was growing up, Goodwill didn't have much goin' on," White says. "There was a cotton gin, a church, a grocery store and a pool hall."
White travels light these days, bringing along a drummer on his tours, which helps keep his performances on the flexible side.
"I like to have the freedom to be able to take requests from the audience," he says. "A drummer can follow my lead without knowing the words and so on, while I'll be playing my old '65 Stratocaster with some foot pedals, creating a sound that's like four or five of us up there."
Weekend on 09/11/2014
Print Headline: Songwriter Tony Joe White keeps it close to the swamp