“I’ve had unbelievable, beautiful freedom with the music for the last several years…” reflects Tony Joe White as a grainy dusk settles. Just entering his seventh decade, White spends his days off the road coaxing inspiration from his surroundings. Not one to write songs on command, they seem to find him—usually when he’s out on his property, a quiet couple of riverside acres some forty miles or so outside of Nashville. “All I can hear from where I sit,” he notes, “are coyotes, birds, or wolves.”
Amidst that tranquility was born HOODOO, his latest album, which emerges via Yep-Roc Records on September 17, 2013. “I never try to sit down and come up with something,” White says. “But I can be running down the white perch by the river or sitting by a campfire, and suddenly a line will come up, and it stays with me for a week or two.” These fragments reveal themselves to him as time passes, coalescing into songs of uncommon power whose humble beginnings and earthy parables reveal universal truths. And, sometimes, the truth stings…
Awash in danger, spiritual uncertainty, and environmental fury, HOODOO’s lyrical concerns are matched by a particularly intense strain of White’s trademark swamp funk. Hence the title’s double-edged meaning: “hoodoo” referring both to the songs’ ominous tone and the palpable vibe that filled the studio as the songs were cut. “Our studio is an old antebellum house,” White says, describing his Church Street Studio in Franklin, Tennessee. “I hear it was used early in the Civil War days as a doctor’s office. Wood floor, lotta wood everywhere—good for the acoustics.”
Cut mostly live to tape—vocals and all—much of Hoodoo consists of first takes. “There’s some actual magic that came over all of us when we were doing this,” White recalls. “I would sit down with my drummer Cadillac (Bryan Owings) and my bass player the Troll (Steve Forrest), play twenty seconds of the tune, and then say ‘We’re gonna hit record, and you just play what comes into your heart.’ It’s like everyone is getting the hoodoo sensation. Spontaneity is beautiful. And,” he adds, “since it’s our studio, there’s no hurry: no one is over our shoulder saying when we gotta get in and when we gotta get out…we were the record company.”
Culled from an initial stack of seventeen or eighteen tunes, the nine songs that comprise HOODOO come alive in the haunting atmosphere and intensity of the stripped-down recording process. Whether writing alone or with collaborators (including his wife Leann, who has been composing songs with and for her husband for over four decades), White gives the listener just enough to fire the imagination while leaving some elements tantalizingly unsaid. “Sometimes, he says slyly, “I like to let people figure out what happens next.”
HOODOO fades up upon a mist-shrouded cemetery that serves as the background for “The Gift.” “The gift,” he explains, “is music and songs. But it was just too powerful for this boy in the song, so he sat up in an old slave graveyard with a bottle of wine and a guitar.” As the protagonist hangs his head in lamentation, figures walk out of the past and appear before him, led by a mysterious woman. “These figures were Robert Johnson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and guys from off the plantations, and she was protecting them, because they hadn’t crossed over. They didn’t know how to. But this strange white boy on a tombstone starts singing and playing and singing this tune and…you can hear how it ends in the song, but it gives me chillbumps when I think about it.”
A specter of a different stripe hovers over “Storm Comin’” and “The Flood”—twinned tales of environmental devastation. “The Flood” is particularly resonant to White, as it tells the story of his trek homeward following the Nashville flood of 2010. “I was actually in Memphis the night it happened, we were playing a gig down there,” White recalls. “Trying to get back to Franklin the next day, we ran straight into the back ends of 40 miles of truckers. I finally pulled over and asked them what was going on, and he said ‘Franklin and Nashville went under a flood last night.’” When he finally got back to Franklin, he says, “We saw it, and we didn’t know it. Didn’t recognize it. And in the old studio there is an 11-foot basement. The water had come into the basement about two inches below the first floor, which is where we keep the guitars, the tapes—my life story. I was very lucky.”
Similarly fortunate are the destitute characters in “Alligator, Mississippi.” “It’s a real place,” White explains. “Not far outta Tunica, not far from Greenville, and let’s just say…if you’re there, you should get gas and get out. I only stopped there once, because my wife had to use the bathroom. You get out and right away you’re surrounded by people wondering why you’re there—and they don’t care about you. In the song, you don’t know exactly how far he made it outta there.”
One of HOODOO’s songs, “9 Foot Sack,” tells of White’s upbringing. “That’s my story,” he says, “of when I was growing up in Louisiana on Daddy’s old cotton farm. Five sisters and my older brother—seven kids. We never felt like we were poor. We worked hard, but we had plenty to eat, and we cared about each other.” Back then, music wasn’t something you listened to. His family played music for entertainment, for release. The blues was added to his childhood diet of country and gospel thanks to a Lightnin’ Hopkins record his brother bought. From there, White was hooked, learning to play his father’s guitar by ear.
After he finished schooling, following a stint driving a truck in Georgia, he formed a series of bands and took to the road. Over countless gigs and a vast repertoire of cover tunes, his laidback, country blues-inflected vocals learned to thrive against the roil of an R&B backbeat. His signature sound was completed when he began to introduce original songs drawn from his experiences and upbringing. A trip to Nashville in 1966 was marked by one lucky break after another, and his fruitful recording career began at the fabled country-soul crucible of Monument Records. Gems like “Polk Salad Annie” and “Rainy Night in Georgia” were just the beginning, as he proceeded to write, record, and perform regularly through the present day, finding great success both at home and abroad. Through the years, his songs have been recorded by everyone from Tina Turner to Elvis Presley to Dusty Springfield.
Despite his illustrious past, White feels no pressure to top himself. “There’s not a push nowhere,” he concludes. “Maybe I’ll stop playing shows and making records when the songs quit coming to me. But they still come to me. You see, I don’t work for a song—but once I get a hold of it I don’t let go. I just keep writing, and when I do, I want to go out and play it for somebody. It’s the songwriting that keeps me going.”
In fact, even with HOODOO in the can, White’s already gathering new material. “Yesterday I was fishing,” he says,” and a guitar lick comes into my head…then it lays back there. It’s still in my head, every 30 minutes it comes back. So I know that I gotta build a fire, sit down, and figure out what it’s gonna tell me.”