Swamp rocker Tony Joe White claims he’s a blues man at heart. The music he listened to growing up on a cotton farm were the blues of Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Charley Patton, Jimmy Reed and others. His upcoming release, Bad Mouthin’ is an unadorned tribute to those early heroes.
White gained world-wide fame 50 years ago with a pair of songs he penned. “Polk Salad Annie,” was a hit for both him and Elvis, while “Rainy Night in Georgia,” was a runaway smash for Brook Benton.
The 75 year old from Oak Grove, Louisiana breaks things down to the bare bones on the new Yep Roc Records release. “This album isn’t a dedication,” White told us. “It’s to let all the old blues men know, wherever they are, how much they influenced my music growing up. Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, all them. Man, that’s all I listened to when I was growing up on that cotton farm.”
It is, in fact, White’s first album that could be called a true blues record. “This is it,” he continued. “I’ve been wanting to do it for a long time. Jody, my son, he’s doing all the producing, booking gigs across the world, and he’s just done a great job. He’s the one that dug up some of the old stuff. He found ‘Bad Mouthin’ in some old reel-to-reel box that I brought from Kingsville, Texas. He said, ‘You gotta do “Bad Mouthin.” That’s bluesy. If you’re gonna do Lighnin’ and those guys, you outta include some of your blues’.”
Most of the songs on Bad Mouthin’ are just White on guitar, harmonica, and vocals. On four of the tracks, his long-time drummer, Bryan “Fleetwood Cadillac” Owings backs him, and on a couple tunes, bassist Steve Forrest joins in.
“I just wanted to use the standard guitar and have that sound,” White said. “Then of course, I used my ’65 Strat because it sounds like anything you want. So, I pretty much kept the drums out of it. Ol’ Fleetwood though, he can play anything and was really hating to sit out.
White was living and playing in Corpus Christi, Texas when he wrote those first two hits in the 1960s. At that time, other songs such as the title track to this release, and “Sundown Blues” come from the same writing sessions.
Three other songs from the 12-song collection are TJW originals. “Stockholm Blues,” “Rich Woman Blues,” and “Cool Town Woman” all come from White’s past. Predominantly though, the album is a thank you to his early influences.
With a spartan guitar tone, and a voice as deep as the Big Muddy itself, White puts his own take on the blues classics. “I’ve hit a lot of their licks on my guitar over the years, especially Lightnin’ Hopkins,” White said. “But I sung it the way I felt. What I really like about this album is the absolute, authentic way it came out. Just my voice, harmonica and an old guitar. I feel real good on it.
Today we’re bringing you the premiere of “Boom Boom.” It’s Whites imagining of the John Lee Hooker masterpiece. When we asked White why he chose this particular song to add he told us, “Well, I’ve been a fan the whole time. These guys were heroes to me. I heard ‘Boom Boom’ way back in the late 60s, early 70s. I did an electric guitar version of it with drums, bass, and B-3 organ, back on my third album. It was kinda upbeat, and rocking you know? Pretty hot.
“This time, when we had everything set up in the barn, my son Jody said, ‘Why don’t you hit ol’ ‘Boom Boom’ one more time, just for old time’s sake?’ So this time, I did it on the Strat, and acoustic guitar. I let it slow down and have a little breathing room. It just had a great feel and I really liked it a lot. It’s one of only two songs on this album that has bass.”
On the 50th anniversary of the recording of “Polk Salad Annie,” we’re proud to bring you some true blues from the Swamp Fox himself. Give a listen to “Boom Boom,” which is available as a single today, and let us know what you think in the comments below.
*Feature image Joshua Black Wilkins