Smoke from the Chimney
Easy Eye Sound
Smoke from the Chimney, a nine-song album of never-before-heard Tony Joe White tunes, is the posthumous album that most thought never existed. Produced by Dan Auerbach and rounded out by Nashville’s most seasoned studio musicians, Smoke from the Chimney started as several unadorned voice and guitar demos from White’s home studio before being transformed into full band arrangements hearkening back to the albums he recorded in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s in Nashville and Muscle Shoals—just as he was emerging as an internationally recognized songwriter and recording artist. The sound of White’s voice on these recordings resembles that of his voice on his biggest hit, “Rainy Night in Georgia.” Amidst this group of high caliber musicians, the clear highlight and lure of the is album is White’s one-of-a-kind lived-in baritone.
In the last 10 to 15 years of his life, White would preserve new compositions or revisit older tracks in his home studio, supporting his vocals with only his Fender Stratocaster. After his father’s death in 2018, Jody White started transferring those multitrack home recordings to digital files. Looking back on the moment he unearthed the demo of “Smoke from the Chimney,” he recalls a mix of happiness, gratification, and shock. As he continued to find other songs that never appeared on an album, he moved the material into a separate folder. Within a year, those select recordings would evolve into Smoke from the Chimney.
“These songs feel like a collection to me, and they all seem to work together, in a weird way, even though they’re so different,” says Auerbach. “There’s some heartbreaking ballads and some really raunchy carnal blues. But it all works together like scenes of a movie.” Auerbach brought in an interesting array of accompanists, some seemingly symbolic in nature to support White’s guitar and vocal recordings. They include legendary keyboardist Bobby Wood (Elvis Presley, Dusty Springfield, Wilson Pickett), Nashville pedal steel ace Paul Franklin, next-generation guitar hero Marcus King, drummer Gene Chrisman (Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson), bassist Dave Roe (Johnny Cash, Jerry Reed) and Grammy and ACM award-winning fiddler Stuart Duncan, just to name a few. Auerbach contributes electric and acoustic guitar, bass, drums and percussion.
Fishing songs have long been the subject of many a blues song, think Taj Mahal for example. Yet White’s “Bubba Jones” already ranks as one of the best. The tune follows a mostly fictional character on his chase to land a world-record largemouth bass. In signature Tony Joe White style, abetted by Auerbach’s down-home production, Bubba Jones’s tale unfolds with a rollicking backbeat and deep and smokey vocal delivery—not to mention sweltering slide guitar from Marcus King. Auerbach pegs “Bubba Jones” as quintessential Tony Joe White. “No-one else could do it like Tony Joes does,” says Auerbach. “When is the last song you heard name check Red Man and Gatorade?”
A second single, “Boot Money,” remind of another huge hit from the Swamp Fox, “Polk Salad Annie.” White had a knack for relatable songs to the working man, describing his stash in the boot this way, “I may be a poor man, but I always got some loot,” sung in his deep gravelling not unlike John Lee Hooker style, it comes across as instantly credible. You always have the feeling that White knows the characters he writes about. And its stripped-down production relative to many of the other tunes helps immensely. Auerbach himself handles the howling guitar lead. “We tried to do our best to honor Tony Joe and his sound with those tapes,” Auerbach says. “We cut the sessions live as a band with Tony’s voice and the guitar tracks. It wasn’t pieced together in a computer. It was real players in a room together, making music.”
The sweeping opening title track may leave one wondering why they bathed Tony Joe White in so much instrumentation, especially given White’s work over the past decade but fortunately Auerbach takes a somewhat varied approach to these nine. Intimacy, an endearing aspect of so many of White’s recordings is mostly preserved on “Del Rio, You’re Making Me Cry.” Listen to “Over You” imbued by Franklin’s pedal steel, and Wood’s B3 and you’ll be transported directly to that “Rainy Night in Georgia” vibe. The spare whispering haunting quality of “Scary Stories” is vintage Swamp Fox stuff too, another that Auerbach handled carefully in terms of accompaniment. One can almost envision the scene as White refrains “move closer to the fire.” While “Someone Is Crying” arguably suffers from a bit too much production the melodic closer “Billy” feels just right.
Everything fans liked about Tony Joe White is here, perhaps not as raw in some places as many would like, but it’s a batch of good songs spiced with a couple of outstanding gems that leaves one wondering how they never made it to an album.
- Jim Hynes
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