Pete Johnson’s Blast from My Past: Tony Joe White – “The Best Of Tony Joe White Featuring Polk Salad Annie”

I think if I could blink something into existence, I would like to exist as something a little closer to an artist like Tony Joe White. There is something about his music and his persona that I just think is so cool. He is part of that vanishing American artist movement, that truly grew up in freedom and he developed his own style freely, by going up against opposition, whether that opposition was cultural, economic, political or regional. Adversity forges character and Tony Joe White is a true American musical character. I saw him once in NYC, and I have to say, he confounded me a bit. I was not really prepared to fully grasp his understated swampy cool. He never once reached a boil, he always kept things bubbling under with sparse guitar work that always advanced the song and made it better. He always seemed to me to be the kind of guitar player where if you asked the question, “Do you read music?”, his answer would be “Not enough so it hurts my playing”.

I think I came across this CD from the Warner Bros. music archives in the early 1990s. Being a huge Elvis and Waylon Jennings fan, I have of course loved those artists’ versions of Tony’s songs. The Elvis version of “Polk Salad Annie” is a fave simply because you can tell by Elvis’s vocal he really connected to the musical subject matter. When Elvis did that on a personal level, look out, the song had a new captain. Waylon was another artist that took over a song by force and his version of “Willie and Laura Mae Jones” is one of the best interpretations of another artist’s song he ever did. Tony Joe is such a unique songwriter and he was a product of his era. To quote his songs, “That was another place and another time”. But it always feels like he is performing these songs right now.

He was one of seven children born in rural Louisiana. He never left his roots as a songwriter. Every song I ever heard him do was a reflection of his upbringing. It did not matter if it was a hit song like “Rainy Night in Georgia” or if it was a more minor gem of a song like “They Caught the Devil and Put him in Jail in Eudora, Arkansas”. It was always coming up as a reflection of the primordial swamp that Tony Joe White’s heart beat in. Tony’s music and his career benefited from the region he grew up in. It was not a stretch for him to pick Muscle Shoals to record in for his first record Black and White. He is one of the best marriages the Swampers ever had with a player and a songwriter. One of the reasons I love Tony’s music is It did not matter what Tony Joe chose to record. Whether it was the acoustic blues of “Stockholm Blues”, which is featured on this compilation, or something a little bit more pop orientated like “I’ve Got a Thing about You, Baby”. Tony made his version of a song unique.

I have always been a big believer that it is a man who makes the clothes, not the other way around. Tony wears his songs like a loose comfortable garment, and even when he does covers of a fellow songwriter like Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman”, he stands alone and defiant in his interpretation. He cannot do them any other way but his own way. I love that. There are so many good songs on this record. Some highlights for me include “Did Somebody Make a Fool Out of You”. I can listen to the hi-hat work alone on this track for days. Whenever I play a guitar solo with an acoustic guitar this is the guitar sound that I am trying to emulate the best I can. I do not think there is a better sound to be had quite frankly. “For Ol’ Times Sake” is one of my all time favorite Country Ballads. It’s just a wonderfully constructed song with great melody that fits the vocal delivery and musical accompaniment like a hand in a glove. That pretty much sums up why Tony Joe White is one of my all time fave singer/songwriters and guitar players. But do not just take my word for it. Listen to the YouTube link and you will see I am more right than wrong. Then go out and buy this record, you can thank me later.;o)

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