Tony Joe White

Tony Joe White

Tony Joe White is a man that needs no introduction. Over the past six decades he has become a legend of the blues guitar, revolutionising the swamp rock sound and influencing countless number of players along the way. Having grown up on the music of TJW, it was quite a moment to be able to sit down and chat to the man himself as he sat in his hotel room in Sydney on the Monday of the Labour Day weekend. Having arrived in Australia a couple of days prior to having a chat, Tony as you would expect was out and about on the waterfront that morning – which meant that our chat was delayed to a little later in the day. Talking about how good it is to be back in Australia, a sly smile appears on White’s face as we begin to chat.
“I’ve walked a couple of miles this morning and watched the fisherman catch some fish and that’s how I have enjoyed the morning man! To be completely honest with you, it’s great to be out here in Australia because we have just come out of some really bad weather back home. It was really cold and there was a lot of ice and snow down in Tennessee and it was right behind us when we caught the plane to come over. So we went from that to now 85°F (29c) and man this is really lucky. We have been in a real cold snap since November so it’s a welcome change to be out here and in some nice weather,” Tony says.
Hoodoo, the latest studio album from Tony Joe White, is a groovy blues guitar album. With just guitar bass and drums and a little overdubbing, the sound that is produced by three guys is quite remarkable and very enjoyable to listen to. The main reason to the ease of listening of this record is through the process that White took when recording. In 2015, the majority of recording studios use digital recording techniques with Protools and then send it off to mastering. However, there is a minority that still record reel to reel and use the old school methods to achieve the sound that they are after. Although it may seem like a laborious task and a timely process, the end result is often debated as a much warmer and organic tone. For Hoodoo, the old school method was used as White explains.
“The recording was at my studio in Franklin, Tennessee, and is built inside an 1800s house with a lot of wood in it and great acoustics. It’s still the old 16-track tape reel to reel and these were some songs that I had been working on for quite a while. I would call my drummer and bass player at any time of the day and night – which was good because I didn’t feel any constraints of people looking over my shoulder all the time. The songs were recorded quite like how I wrote em’. I wrote them sitting by the river with a campfire and everything in the studio was live and raw. I’d only play about 20 or 30 seconds and then hit record and see what happens. It was amazing seeing how they played with just their hearts having never heard the songs before. The songs on Hoodoo are mostly first takes with very little overdubbing.”
Having listened back through White’s extensive back catalogue before the interview, it’s easy to hear that he is a truly great songwriter and able to match simplistic yet truthful and intriguing lyrics with bluesy licks and grooves. One of the centrepieces off the new release is ‘The Flood’ which hit Nashville back in 2012. “That was nearly three and a half years ago now. When it hit Nashville, I was playing in Memphis that night in a blues club and we got up the next morning and tried to make our way home, the whole interstate was closed from Memphis to Nashville and usually a three and a half hour trip turned into an 11-hour commute. When we got into Nashville, most of the recording studios were all flooded out. Just like the song says, ‘Drum sets stuck in the mud and guitars floating down the river.’ The ceiling in my studio is 11 feet high and the water was right up to it. It was one foot from leaking into the next floor up, which houses all my guitars. It was a pretty scary experience,” he says.
A few weeks ago Tony got up on The Late Show with David Letterman to play his 1969 classic track ‘Polk Salad Annie’ with the Foo Fighters. It’s an epic five minute performance and available to watch on YouTube. The opportunity to perform came through White’s involvement in the Foo Fighters mini series for their latest album Sonic Highways. “Dave (Grohl) had come about five months earlier down to Nashville to film that episode for the series. We did about two days of talking and playing guitar and hanging out and then about four months later he called and asked if I would do the Letterman show with them. Letterman usually sits behind his little desk while the artist is performing but he came over and said it was one of the best he’d seen on the show,” White says.
With so many classic tracks such as ‘Rainy Night in Georgia’, ‘Undercover Agent For the Blues’ charting well for White over the years, you may begin to wonder whether the commercial success creeps into the writing process. “You can’t tell if a song is going to be a hit. You’ve just got to feel the song and let it out.”
One of the dates on this month long tour of Australia is the Barwon Club on April 2. With support from Chris Russell’s Chicken Walk, Tony can’t wait to play a smaller more intimate venue. “That show will be good I think – I love to play little club shows. It’s a more intimate setting and that’s good with me. I hope to see you at the show man!” I booked my tickets months ago.
When&Where: Ding Dong Lounge, Melbourne – April 1 & Barwon Club, Geelong – April 2
Written by Tex Miller, Photo by Anne Goetze