When it comes to the tools of songwriting, Tony Joe White favors the basics--air, fire and beer. "I couldn't just sit down and write a song--something has to come, like a title or a guitar lick or a line or something," White says of the method that created "Polk Salad Annie" and "Rainy Night in Georgia," his two biggest hits. "It just comes from the air. And then I'll usually go down by the river out here and build a little campfire and get my guitar and work on it until something starts coming."
White's method produced a sound that was dubbed swamp rock, a low-down growl of a voice with a thick drawl over a fuzz box and wah-wah-pedal-enhanced guitar sound he called "whomper stomper." His '69 debut Black and White produced "Polk Salad Annie," but White was more than a novelty artist. He also proved he could write standards. Brook Benton's recording of "Rainy Night in Georgia" made them both wealthy.
White got out of character with a disco album, Eyes, in '76. White says today that the original tracks were pretty cool. "But then they got a hold of it and started adding a bunch of strings and stuff like that, and it started sounding like Barry Joe White."
But it was another family member, White's son JD, who got the songs together for his latest project, The Heroines. When he asked his dad to pick female artists he'd like to sing duets with, White came up with five who he'd worked with and liked--Shelby Lynne, Lucinda Williams, Michelle White, Emmylou Harris and Jessi Colter. The Whites dug up some demo tapes the band had done some five years back with the air, fire and beer method and started fitting the songs to the performers. The sound is classic TJW swamp rock with the best in female Americana singing over the top.
White already has plans for a follow-up called The Heroes, male artists who've recorded his songs, including Joe Cocker, B. B. King, John Anderson and Hank Williams Jr. "The Heroines right now is causing a lot of action all over the world," White says. "So we'll see what happens with it, and if it's cool, we'll probably head on into The Heroes. "
Tony Joe White plays the Sunday Night Roots Series at the Pour House at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 14. Tickets are $15.