Tony Joe White
Tony Joe White, quite simply, is one of the most underappreciated musical forces of the last 50 years. This doesn't mean that people haven't recognized his work. Countless musicians name him as either an influence, a collaborator, or a friend. It is only that White remains an artist whose scope and influence is wider than his name recognition amongst casual music listeners.
Born in Oak Grove, LA in 1943, White was introduced to the music of Lightnin' Hopkins at an early age. The effect of the blues of Hopkins' music was immediate and lasting on White:
One day my brother brought home an album by Lightnin' Hopkins, and that was it for me. That's when I started grabbing dad's guitar and shutting myself in the bathroom or bedroom, just playing for hours on end until it started to sound like something else. I started singing when Elvis came along, a year or two after this blues thing got to us.
- Tony Joe White
He left Louisiana to play clubs in Texas before heading to Nashville. White signed up with Monument Records awaiting fame and fortune. He had it all - a unique sound, rugged good looks, songwriting - everything a star's supposed to be.
Despite making six amazing records, produced by legends like Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd, and Billy Swan, White's recording career never caught hold in his native country. From the beginning, Europe worshipped him (and they still do), but in America he is known more for his songs (Rainy Night In Georgia, Polk Salad Annie) that were made famous by others.
TJW might be the quintessential Swampland artist. His songs have been cut by pop (Elvis), soul (Brook Benton), and country (Waylon Jennings) legends. White's music is so identifiable that it cuts its own path, never neatly fitting into any classification that is often necessary to sell records. Having lived in Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee (Memphis & Nashville), White also absorbed a little bit from all these regions. He is a truly southern artist.
White spent the 80's and 90's continuing to write songs for others, including Tina Turner who had an international hit with his Steamy Windows rocker. Luckily, to the delight of his biggest fans, White has spent the last ten years re-establishing his recording career, both here and abroad.
Starting with 2001's The Beginning, White began to bring focus to his vast and important legacy. That record was a stripped-down recording that reminded people of his legendary early recordings. 2002's Snakey rocked a little harder leading to 2004's The Heroines, which featured TJW collaborating with some of his favorite female artists and friends including Emmylou Harris, Jessi Colter, Shelby Lynne, Lucinda Williams, and his daughter, Michelle White.
In 2006, White formed his own label, Swamp Records (nice name!), and released Uncovered, which featured some of his best male musician friends including Eric Clapton, Waylon Jennings, JJ Cale, Mark Knopfler, and Michael McDonald.
After Rhino Handmade released a goldmine to TJW fans around the world - Swamp Music: The Complete Monument Recordings. This package included his essential first 3 records plus 43 unreleased tracks from this same period! (We can only hope that a similar set is planned for his three Warner Bros Records that immediately followed the Monument era.)
Anyone who has been paying attention should have been brought up to speed by this flurry of important releases from a legend. The question was what's next?
White's son Jody has the answer on Deep Cuts. This latest TJW release takes classic TJW tracks and remixes them. In the process, this brings to the front an element that usually stays in the back - the bottom end funk.
Bass, beat, and guitar mix in a dark and murky, yet elemental way sounding like nature's truest storms - intense and unrelenting. The story songs of Roosevelt and Ira Lee, Willie and Laura Mae Jones, and High Sheriff (of Calhoun Parrish) become turned on their heads because Deep Cuts tells its story focusing on music over the words this time.
For his current fans, Deep Cuts is a companion to The Beginning serving as the yin to its yang. Deep Cuts also has the ability to bring in legions of new fans because of the modern edge the production brings out in these decades-old tracks.
Ten years ago, any release from TJW would have been cause for joy. After a better part of the millenium's first decade, White has reissued, regained, and reimagined himself back to the forefront of modern music once again.
- Jim Markel