Although Tony Joe White has been in the music business for around 50 years, time doesn’t mean anything to him. Music is not a career that you do for a certain amount of time and then retire for White – it’s a way of life. ‘I don’t really think about the years – it’s about the songs and the guitar licks. Last night I was outside by the campfire near the bar out in the back – had a few cold beers and a guitar. I got a new song going – there’s no time to think about the years! I have always just concentrated on trying to get the song down in my head and write it right and then record it right. Then of course I want to play it to somebody.’
For White his songs have always been about the world he sees around him – his life and other lives he’s seen. ‘For me it’s all about what’s around you. Rain on the tin roof, sitting by the river or around the campfire and the songs come from above – I just write ‘em down.’ And what songs they have been – ‘Polk Salad Annie’, ‘Willie and Laura Mae Jones’, Roosevelt and Ira Lee’, ‘High Sheriff of Calhoun County’, ‘Rainy Night in Georgia’, and ‘Steamy Windows’ for Tina Turner to name a few.
I asked White about his childhood and music. ‘I was raised on a cotton farm down in Louisiana – 7 kids and my mamma and dad – music was all we had to do. When you got through working in the day, we’d get on the porch and dad would get out a guitar – so I heard music all my life growing up. When I was 15, my brother bought home an album by Lightnin’ Hopkins and that changed everything for me!’
White released a new album last year – ‘Rain Crow’, the follow up to 2013’s ‘Hoodoo’. It was produced by his son Jody – ‘he really hears, he really knows when something is right and I trust him totally.’ The album is a strong offering from White with tough bass (Steve Forrest) and drums (Bryan Owings) and White’s signature guitar frameworking the melodies and allowing White to tell his swamp stories.
One perhaps surprising song is a co-write with Billy Bob Thornton – ‘The Middle Of Nowhere’. Thornton is no stranger to music having released his own albums in the past. ‘Billy Bob was born 60 or 70 miles from where I was. I have loved Slingblade since it came out. We got together, he brought his bass player and drummer and we played songs. The next thing I knew he was calling me from California and he wants me to come out to write a song. We wrote 3 songs but the one on the album is the best one.’
‘Tell Me A Swamp Story’ is a combination of some of those scary stories you tell each other around the campfire at night. One of the stories is a very personal one for White. ‘My little sister was 3 years old and she caught diphtheria from a cat. My dad and uncle were sitting in the living room and all of a sudden this ball of fire came in and hovered over that little girl’s bed about 3 times. My mum and dad looked at each other and said “That ain’t good”. The next day she passed away.’
The good news for Australian fans is that White is returning in April for a series of concerts. ‘I always look forward to coming to Australia – I’m looking forward to getting some of that sunshine and playin’. The people always act like they’re glad you came – it’s almost like Louisiana on a Saturday night!’
11/4 The Governor Hindmarsh, Adelaide SA
13/4 Thornbury Theatre, Melbourne Vic
15/4 Meeniyan Town Hall, Meeniyan Vic
16/4 Caravan Music Club, Oakleigh Vic
17/4 Bluesfest, Byron Bay NSW
20/4 The Basement, Sydney NSW
22/4 Charles Hotel, Perth WA
23/4 Fly By Night Club, Fremantle WA
24/4 Caravan Music Club, Oakleigh Vic