Many of us have long thought of Tony Joe White as a blues artist. After all, Eric Clapton covered White’s “Did Somebody Make a Fool Out of You” and more recently Robert Cray covered two songs and invited White to play on his album with the HI Rhythm Section. Those songs were “Don’t Steal My Love” and ‘Aspen, Colorado.” So, it shouldn’t be a revelation that White is reaching back to his roots after 50 years of making his name in the more popular genres of rock, country, R&B and Americana. Bad Mouthin’ is as basic as it gets, often just White with his beat up guitar and harmonica in a rack. It features two lost songs from 1966 before his hits, “Rainy Night in Georgia” and “Polk Salad Annie.” He offers five new versions of some of his previous tunes mixed with five familiar covers from legendary blues artists.
The Swamp Fox recorded one of his recent albums around a campfire on his property. He stays with an unconventional approach here, recording in his barn, n two former horse stalls. Engineer Ryan McFadden says, “The next stall over had a dirt floor covered with glued composite board. Tony cancelled the first session, saying he couldn’t sing in there because of the smell of the glue. When I went back, Tony had filled the stalls with bowls of coffee grounds, cups of rice, dryer sheets and decorative brooms made of bound twigs that were drenched in a cinnamon scent, sold at grocery stores around Halloween.”
White is all about keeping it real. His haunting deep voice and raw guitar style are the essence of The Swamp, a place devoid of technology and aspects of slickness. He puts it this way, “If there’s anything like a line connecting everything that I’ve done, I would say it’s realness. Even my songs that are sweet little love ballads – those are all real, inspired by real love and real life. Being real, being focused on what’s really going on around you, is something I learned early in life. When you’re a little kid growing up down in the swamps, and you step on a cottonmouth…that’s real.”
White is 76-years-old, so he brings a world of perspective to these selections. He cut a few tunes for a local record company in Corpus Christi, TX. One of them is the title track, originally recorded with a band and background singers. This “Bad Mouthin’” is done with White’s long-time touring companion, Bryan Owings on drums in the two-man format as is the other one, “Sundown Blues.” Three other White tunes have shown up before on different albums, story songs – “Stockholm Blues,” “Rich Woman Blues” and “Cool Town Woman.” White sings about places and people that are rough-edged as he comes from those places. Here’s a lyrical excerpt from “Cool Town Woman” – “I been missing you baby/But my alimony ain’t been paid/And cool town woman is so bad to/Carry a blade.”
In addition to revisiting his catalog, he nods to his influences, covering Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man,” Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Awful Dreams” (which follows “Bad Dreams” in the sequence), Charley Patton’s “Down the Dirt Road Blues” and the oft-covered Big Joe Williams’ “Please Don’t Go.” Interestingly he covers a once contemporary Elvis Presley, transforming “Heartbreak Hotel” into a slow prison march tempo to convey exhaustion. And yes, as you listen, you’ll inevitably compare White’s rudimentary approach to that of John Lee Hooker and he renders “Boom Boom” so authentically that you might think that White penned it. This and “Awful Dreams” are as good as any of the White originals.
While this writer would have preferred some new material, White reaffirms the simplicity of the blues. He takes us to The Swamp, a place inhabited by tough, uncompromising folks who survive in a hand to mouth way. It’s a place where White feels very comfortable.
- Jim Hynes
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