There’s something about Tony Joe White, a living legend of American music, that makes his voice and guitar playing style instantly recognisable. Since releasing ‘Poke Salad Annie’ and ‘Rainy Night in Georgia’ in the late ’60s, he’s been ceaselessly writing and touring in the style that suits him best. This week, Les Thomas spoke to him about his impending Australian tour, his origins in the Louisiana Bayou and how his trademark sound caught on.
I hear it’s Groundhog Day in the US today. Have you been out touring or at home shivering through a cold winter?
We’ve been out around Texas and other places doing one-nighters and it’s probably been the coldest winter I ever saw. Today never got above freezing all day.
So I’m guessing the groundhog might have gone back into its hole today, then.
(Laughs) I don’t know what he did, but I kind of stayed holed up myself.
How long ago did you decide to leave Louisiana for Nashville?
I’d say it would be about 20 or so years. Before that I was travelling around playing a lot of covers in clubs: John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Elvis. My wife was teaching school and I started writing my own songs. I headed to Memphis with the four songs I had on tape and for some reason when I got to Memphis I just veered off on 40 East towards Nashville. And I’m saying to myself “What are you doing, man? That’s a country and western town. They don’t take with blues or swamp.”
And, sure enough, when I got into Nashville and walked around and visited a few record stores and spoke to a few people, they said “Man, you drove a long ways for nothing.”
Anyway, I went to a club that night and the bouncer at the door knew a guy that knew a guy that knew Bob Beckham the publisher. And I got a meeting with him the next morning, which is unheard of today.
You seem to put a lot of value on keeping life simple. Can you talk about that?
Yes. I always try to live close to water. I have a river running by my house here like I did in Memphis and Louisiana. I’m part Cherokee Indian; I guess it comes from that side of things. We like space, the feeling that you can get out and move about. That’s why I love Australia so much.
My mother was Cherokee and we had a little cotton farm. There were seven kids, my mum, my dad in a little place called Good Will, Louisiana. Your nearest neighbour was three or four miles away. We raised our own vegetables and worked hard in the fields. We swam in the river, then everybody would come back and sit on the porch and play guitar and sing. Mamma always made us eat a lot of Poke Salad in the Spring and she’d say “This has more vitamins than you could ever get in your whole life”.
I can’t say I’ve tried Poke Salad, but how would you describe the flavour?
I’d say it’s close to turnip greens. The only thing bad about poke, is it’s really good in the springtime, but if you eat it in summer it’s poisonous.
What was it like coming from a quite, rural background then being thrust into the limelight with Elvis covering your song?
It was pretty stunning to me to see how far music could go. Before I started writing, none of that came by cos I was just a club player. Then with my first two songs, ‘Poke Salad Annie’ and ‘Rainy Night in Georgia’ I was thrilled because I needed to get them out of my soul, first of all, cos I lived in Georgia with my sister when I got out of high school. It was a pretty shocking thing there for a while, especially over in France with a song from the same album ‘Soul Francisco’. It was in the Hippy days and that song was about the flower children and at the time there weren’t many English in France. I went over there and toured eight weeks, just me, a guitar and a Coca-Cola box. I think the people went for it because of guitar and that straight swamp stomp beat and 800-1500 people would come to dance until they were exhausted.
Have you always played Fender Stratocasters or was it Waylon Jennings that introduced you to the instrument?
I’d been using a Strat since the Texas days, but Waylon and I had become good friends since I moved to Nashville. He was one of the supporters of me and my kind of music. And one day he comes to my house in his old Cadillac and he said “
You play a Strat, dontcha?” And I said, “Yeah”. He says “I hate Stratocasters” just like that. (Laughs) Of course he plays Telecasters.
And he said “Come out here!” and opens the trunk of his car and there was a 1958 Strat and he said “I wanna leave this with you, cos I really don’t like em”. I’ve still got it in my study. It sounds great, but it’s too valuable to take on the road.
I said “I can’t take something like this. Do you know how much it’s worth” And he said “I don’t give a shit what it’s worth. if you don’t take it, I’m gonna put it in front of this Cadillac and run over it.” So I took it.
Your career has spanned six decades now. What is an average your in the life of Tony Joe White like?
Generally I try to visit Europe or Australia once a year, and I visit Louisiana, Texas, places like that and I’ve always got at least one song I’m working on in my head until I build a fire and sit down, then it comes out, so over the whole year I’d be fishing, writing a song or playing on a stage somewhere.
TONY JOE WHITE 2015 AUSTRALIAN TOUR DATES