“I play a bit wilder on the guitar when it’s just me and drums. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve always played that way… if I have a band with me, I don’t play nearly as wild.”
So says The Swamp Fox. Mr Tony Joe White. His deep, heavy drawl echoes over phone lines as he muses on playing with keyboardists and not, and you can picture him somewhere in Louisiana, perhaps in a wooden shack with guitars hangin’ on the walls.
“We’re workin’ on a new record at the moment, we’ve got about ten or 15 songs, we’re lookin’ to play some of these new ones [at Bluesfest]. The new record though, I don’t think it’ll be out ‘til about June. But we’re lookin’ forward to doing these tunes on stage and lettin’ people know where I’ve been.”
Tony Joe White has been everywhere over the past 45 years. He’s been in places others can only dream of – having his songs covered by Elvis and Joe Cocker, Ray Charles and Tina Turner. Some of his songs have become larger than life – ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’, ‘Polk Salad Annie’ – and it’s the songs which keep him going, which fuel his drive, that get him out of bed every day.
“It’s the songs man, writing. This last year I’ve been on a streak of songs, I don’t know where they come from, up above or wherever… I always thought, if I quit writin’, then I go fishin’. The songs come to me and I get to play ‘em, they’ve been recorded by some of my heroes, Tina Turner, Waylon and people like that… and not only that, but usually they call me and want me to come to the sessions and play guitar and harmonica, so I’m a part of it – it’s a double barrel shotgun.”
One particular song White wrote, or co-wrote, was ‘Goin’ Down Rockin’. He wrote it with the legendary Waylon Jennings, who not long afterwards recorded the guitar and vocals for that and a number of other songs. Jennings then died, in 2002, but those songs have been brought back to life, added to by a host of musical royalty, and released on the Waylon Jennings: Goin’ Down Rockin’ – The Final Recordings album, dropping last year. Tony Joe White, of course, plays on the title track they wrote together.
“Waylon had been in the hospital and he came out to the house to hang out, play a little bit, get his chops back, and this tune just kinda popped up. He had this great rhythm going on with his guitar… and after he died, we were able to find that recording and bring it back with ProTools and add my guitar and drums and bass to him, it sounds like he was right there in the room. And he was, really. And it was no problem at all… it was all spontaneous, it all came together, it sounds like we’d just cut it together that day.”
“What I remember most about Waylon, is the friendship lasting over the years, starting in the ‘70s, and early ‘80s,” White remembers of his old friend. “He came to me one day in Memphis, I was living there, he pulled up in his Cadillac and said, ‘I’ve got something in the back of the trunk that I wanna show you man’. He said, ‘Don’t you play Strats?’ I say, ‘Yeah’. He said, ‘Well, I hate Stratocasters’, cos he plays Telecasters. And he pulled out this old, brown case, it was under his amps, someone had found it [somewhere]. He said, ‘Can you take this off my hands?’ I said, ‘Waylon, that’s a ’58 Strat!’ He said, ‘I know, get it outta my car… I don’t like ‘em’. So I’ve still got it.”
White doesn’t take that old guitar on the road, it stays at home given it’s so valuable, but it doesn’t make no never mind – as long as White has got the songs and the urge to play ‘em, he’ll be traveling and performing, him and a drummer, fuzzing and burning well into the night, just like he’s always done.
As he mentioned, he’s working on a new record, it’ll be out towards the middle of the year, and so things are good for The Swamp Fox – there could even be another 45 years left in him. “You know man, who can say about years, or time, or anything like that. I never thought ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’ would last this long, and now Boz Scaggs just cut it, three weeks ago. Like I said, if I stop writing, [then] I’ll go to the lake.”
Samuel J. Fell