Manhattan, New York City. November 2014. The Late Show with David Letterman. The temperature inside the Ed Sullivan Theater is nearly as cold as it is out on Broadway — a lot colder for sure than in northwest Louisiana, just south of the Arkansas line.
That’s where Tony Joe White grew up, the wellspring that has nourished his mysterious, magical songs for more than 50 years. But on this night he sits at center stage during the Letterman taping, dressed in black from boot to broad-brimmed hat. To his right, Dave Grohl leads the rest of Foo Fighters as they lock onto the mean, pulsing groove of “Polk Salad Annie.” A horn section stabs the beat, but it’s White’s deep, near-whispered vocals and snarling, fuzz-toned guitar that take that Big Apple room way down south, where Spanish moss drapes gnarled cypress trees, where corn snakes slither and turtles snap and ghosts float through the steamy air.
No wonder Letterman marveled as the song came to its end, “If I was this guy, you could all kiss my ass.” And no surprise that Grohl allowed White to speak for all the artists featured in the Nashville episode of his “Sonic Highways” series. “If you got something in your heart, put it out ‘cause nobody on this whole planet has wrote those words or played that lick before,” White mused to the camera, partially hidden in shadow. “And if it ain’t got something there, maybe you should go back to the cotton fields.”
White grew up around cotton, the youngest of seven children raised on their father’s farm. Young Tony Joe was alert to every detail of his surroundings: its aromas, tastes and sounds, the scent and feel of swampland. He knew well the trials of work in the fields and the stories spun late at night, stories peopled by preacher men and conjure women, serenaded by train whistles and illuminated by spells and signs.
From his first club gigs some 50 years ago, and since his debut album Black and White in 1969, these memories have taken shape in his songs. Many of them were covered by other artists: “Rainy Night in Georgia” by Brook Benton and Hank Williams Jr., “Willie and Laura Mae Jones” by Dusty Springfield, and of course “Polk Salad Annie” by Elvis. But others really couldn’t survive in anyone’s hands but his — the ones that flowed over hypnotic single-chord drones, with White’s slithery guitar fills and husky, haunted vocals.
White has lived long enough to see plenty of changes. His star rose, leading to collaborations with Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Tina Turner, J.J. Cale and other admirers. At the same time, recording and concert technology changed the act of making and playing music into something foreign to those who were schooled on John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Hank Williams, backwoods church shouts and hints of the supernatural.
And so Tony Joe White is more than an artist of unique gifts and sensitivities. He is also a link to a time that may already be lost but will be kept alive as long as he keeps revisiting it in song.
At the kitchen table in his recording studio south of Nashville, White pours a small glass of red wine with a water chaser and mulls over that idea. “That’s cool with me because the music is all given to me anyway,” he says. “Writing and playing and doing music not for the benefit of having a No. 1 record, just to let it out of your soul, means that somebody has fed it down to you.”
On his new album, Rain Crow, he once again summons recollections of long ago, when animals foretold the weather, tongue-talking worshippers proved their faith by handling deadly snakes and a “bad wind” could drive a man to edge of insanity. Recorded at his studio and produced by his son Jody White, Rain Crow unfolded slowly, its pace guided by the music rather than the onrush of deadlines.
“It’s freedom, man,” White says. As always, he speaks softly, as if sharing a secret. “I’ll build a campfire somewhere around my place — it’s probably my Cherokee blood but I always feel like I need to build a fire when I write. A guitar is brought out. I’ll get a cold beer and I’ll play one or two for Jody and he’ll be, ‘Yeah, that’s cool, man.’ A few more weeks, maybe I’ll have another. Some of these songs are two or three years old. But these are all my latest songs over the past three years.”
White wrote most of the songs on Rain Crow on his own. The rest he wrote with his wife Leann except for “The Middle of Nowhere,” a co-write with Billy Bob Thornton. “Donnie Fritts, down at Muscle Shoals Studio, kept telling him, ‘Man, you and Tony Joe, you all got so much in common.’ When we hooked up, we come to find out that he was born and raised up on the Arkansas line. I was on the Louisiana line. We probably wasn’t 40 miles apart, so we know what we’re talking about when we say something.”
The song they came up with was a snapshot of White’s friend Joe Carroll, who was maybe 15 years older and suffered from Downs Syndrome. “The song turned toward Joe and his standpoint of life, which was sitting on the front porch and watching the crossroads where the mailboxes were, where the school bus came. He really wanted to go on that school bus, but his mama would say, ‘Joe, you’re 30 years old. Ain’t no place for you on that bus.”
It’s a gift that White could find eight words that summed up the essence of Joe Carroll’s existence. Elsewhere on Rain Crow, he takes more time to unfurl a story of betrayal, revenge and coming to a moral crossroads on “The Bad Wind.” On “Conjure Child” a frail young girl loses her sight but discovers the potent magic within her when confronted by a couple of thugs. And on “Tell Me a Swamp Story,” he takes us back again to his childhood, where he’s begging an older brother not to revisit an especially terrifying tale involving a fireball.
What was that story and why was it so scary? White sits quietly for a moment, then pours another glass of red wine and answers in his slow, husky whisper. “I had a sister, Wadine. She was second in line. I never did get to see her. Daddy played guitar, and he and my Uncle Jody, who played fiddle, would sit around the fireplace at night and play. It was early winter. They had the baby bed in the room where Wadine was at. All of a sudden, a fireball about the size of a softball came into the room, circled three or four times, went over the girl’s bed and then stuck on the wall. They put their fiddle and guitar down and thought, ‘What is this?’ The thing died out, right there on the wall. She died the next morning from diphtheria, caught from a cat. She was 3.”
He pauses for a taste of wine and water. “Daddy always thought that fireball was signaling something,” he continues. “I totally believe it. I think that kind of a world still exists, but it would mean that everybody on this planet would have to move as one and feel and believe in that same thing to make it come back.”
That may never happen, but throughout Rain Crow that world of omens and portents does open itself to us. White thinks about this for a second and then says, “You know, sometimes it’s just swamp and funky music and blues. But I do feel like a messenger on certain songs because when I start to get the first words going, something tells me, ‘You can finish this.’ Someone up above is sending it down and saying, ‘Translate this into something.’ So, yes, sometimes I am a messenger.”