Growing up in north Louisiana’s West Carroll Parish, Tony Joe White picked cotton on his dad’s farm and pokeweed in the woods and fields. When he wasn’t working or going to school, White and his friends swam in the Boeuf River and roamed the swamps. And there was music. White’s parents, brother and five sisters sang and played gospel and country music on the family’s front porch. But youngest child Tony Joe didn’t make his own music until his big brother brought a Lightnin’ Hopkins album home. Struck by the blues, that’s when he started sneaking his dad’s guitar upstairs to his bedroom.
After high school, White performed songs by Hopkins, John Lee Hooker and Elvis Presley in Texas and Louisiana clubs. He and his wife, Leann, a school teacher, were living in Corpus Christi when he wrote his first songs. He purposefully decided to write about the life and colorful characters he’d known in Louisiana.
Luckily, an exploratory drive to Nashville got White an audition with Bob Beckham, a music publisher. Beckham liked White and his songs enough to book a recording session for him. In the summer of 1969, White’s steamy country-funk song, “Polk Salad Annie,” began its ascent into Billboard’s Top 10. The following year, Brook Benton took White’s heartrending ballad, “Rainy Night in Georgia,” to number one on Billboard’s soul chart and number four on the pop chart.
Many others recorded his songs, including Elvis Presley (“Polk Salad Annie,” “For Ol’ Times Sake,” “I’ve Got a Thing About You Baby”); Tina Turner (“Steamy Windows,” “Undercover Agent for the Blues”); Dusty Springfield (“Willie and Laura Mae Jones”); Eric Clapton (“Did Somebody Make a Fool Out of You”); Willie Nelson (“God’s Problem Child”); Kenny Chesney (“Steamy Windows”); and Tom Jones, Ray Charles, George Jones, Wilson Pickett, Waylon Jennings, Jerry Reed, Jessi Colter and Hank Williams Jr.
For his latest album, Bad Mouthin’, White revisits his early songs and some blues standards that inspired him. In advance of the album’s September 28 release, the 75-year-old singer, songwriter and storyteller spoke to OffBeat in his inimitable low and swampy Louisiana drawl from his home in Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee.
You’ve lived in the Leiper’s Fork area south of Nashville for 26 years. You must like it up there.
I like water. I like rivers. I like woods. Real pretty land out here. And there’s a lot of land on each side of me. So, it ain’t nobody close. You can crank your guitar up loud as you want to.
Does Williamson County, Tennessee, remind you of West Carroll Parish?
Not too much. Because West Carroll was cotton fields and the Boeuf River swamps. Daddy had 40 acres close to the river. We thought we had it made. We never did know we was poor. We raised our own vegetables and pigs and beef. And you always had a good horse you could ride and take to the river and swim him across. When I look back on it now, it really was a good, peaceful life.
What else did you and your friends do when you weren’t working?
Boys that lived a mile or two from us, my cousins, we would all meet down on the river after picking cotton or whatever. We’d swim the river and go way back in the swamps. Just looking. We’d come up on a gator or two, a cottonmouth snake, stuff like that. But they didn’t bother us, we didn’t bother them.
Was music a big part of your life early on?
My mom and dad and my brother and all the girls, they all played guitar and piano and sang. They had great harmonies. Daddy played guitar like Chet Atkins. I was 10, 11; I would just sit and listen, mainly.
What inspired you to play music?
My bother brought a Lightnin’ Hopkins album home. I mean, it was the start of Tony Joe White, really. I started borrowing my dad’s guitar, learning blues licks and stuff. I carried that guitar to my room every night, without daddy seeing where I took it. He was real particular about that guitar. And then he saw me at breakfast next morning, after I’d left his guitar up there. He said, ‘Boy, I want that guitar back on the couch as soon as you get through eating.’
Blues artists told me their fathers beat them for doing that.
My dad said, ‘Show me a couple of things you been picking up.’ And I played a little of ‘Baby, Please Don’t Go.’ Man, his eyes lit up. After that, it was all right with him. He really was proud of it, once he heard some of the stuff coming out of me. And then when I went home after ‘Polk Salad Annie’ came out, ol’ daddy, he was beaming like a fox.
You were a hometown hero in West Carroll Parish?
They even had Tony Joe White Days. People barbecuing and cooking shrimp and crawfish everywhere. And I’d come down with my drummer and we’d play. Sometimes my sisters would sing with me. It was a big day all the way around, man.
Can you talk about the origin of “Polk Salad Annie”?
I had moved to Corpus Christi and was playing the clubs. I started to write a little bit there. I said, ‘I really want to write something that I know about.’ After I finally got the talking part of ‘Polk Salad Annie’ finished, the next part of it just flowed in there. I knew two or three Annies down Boeuf River. They picked cotton. They were good-looking girls and we all went to school together. I had plenty of characters to draw off of. Roosevelt and Ira Lee, Willie and Laura Mae Jones. We picked cotton together. All of them were real people, real stories.
There’s a song called “Old Man Willis” on your second album, 1969’s …Continued.
Old Willis. He had four raccoons, a cat and a hound dog that lived right in that house with him and his kids and his wife. He’d always want me to come over there and hang out with him, because he knew I carried that guitar anywhere I went. I’d play him a little Jimmy Reed or Lightnin’. And the raccoons would be sitting at the kitchen table, eating out of a plate just like his kids were. That’s the way they lived.
Old Willis made moonshine back in the woods. He hit on his own supply a lot. He’d get buzzed up and jump his horse up on your porch. Man, we scattered like chickens. And mama was hollering at him and daddy was hollering at him. He’d usually do it one time a week.
Later on, after ‘Polk Salad Annie’ was happening, I was on tour with Creedence Clearwater Revival. We were playing in Oakland, California. I was sitting in the dressing room when a note came back to me that said, ‘Old Man Willis’ two daughters want to know if they can come back to the dressing room.’ They lived in California at that time. I said, ‘Oh, God. Man, I don’t know. They may be coming back here with pistols and stuff.’ Because I wrote about the whole family. But they came back and they were pretty as ever and really sweet and really proud of the song.
Like many of your songs, Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 hit, “Ode to Billie Joe,” is a story song set in the Deep South. Was that song a big influence on you?
I was living in Texas and my writing really hadn’t kicked in yet. A few licks on the guitar of ‘Polk,’ maybe. I heard ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ on the radio and I said, ‘Man, I am Billie Joe. I know that life. I’ve been there. I did everything except jump off the Tallahatchie Bridge.’ So that song inspired me more to write about something I knew.
And later you worked with Bobbie Gentry?
Years later I flew to London to do her TV show. I’m sitting there, just can’t take my eyes off her. And she’s playing that little guitar. It was so cool, man. And what a voice. I thought she would go on for a long time. But she wrote me a letter and said, ‘We’ll still get together, maybe, and try to write the song we were talking about. But right now, I’m pulling away from the music business.’ I framed that letter. I still have it in my studio. Hand-wrote.
Of course, you also met Elvis Presley, another one of your inspirations.
Back in Corpus Christi, I was doing a lot of Elvis on stage. I had my hair combed like Elvis. A big wave. I could sing him, copy him to a T. After ‘Polk’ came out and I was living in Memphis again, Elvis’ producer called me. He said, ‘We’re flying a jet down to pick you and your wife up. We want you to come to Las Vegas and watch Elvis record “Polk Salad Annie” for six nights, every night he does it on stage.’
Every night in Las Vegas was so wild. Elvis was putting out. He said, ‘You know, I feel like I wrote “Polk Salad Annie.” I can sing it.’ I said, ‘That’s for sure.’ We went back to the dressing room after the show each night. He had an acoustic guitar back there. He’d say, ‘Break me out a blues lick, man. Show me two or three licks I can do.’ And I did him a John Lee [Hooker] or a Lightnin’ Hopkins thing. I saw him later back down at Stax in Memphis, when he did ‘I’ve Got a Thing About You Baby’ and ‘For Ol’ Times Sake.’
I always wanted somehow do something in respect for him. I finally got to do it on this blues album I just did. ‘Heartbreak Hotel,’ but I do it bluesy style. Because, when he sang, he had a lot of blues in it.
And he was planning to record “Rainy Night in Georgia,” another one of your songs?
He was sitting in the back seat of a limo on tour, singing pieces of it. Felton Jarvis, his producer, told me after Elvis had passed on, ‘We was getting ready to nail “Rainy Night.”’ I said, ‘In that limo, sure sounds like he was fixing to nail it.’
In addition to your new album, you’ve got tour dates in the U.S., United Kingdom and Australia coming up this year.
I was thinking about fishing a lot, but it’s looking like a busy fall for me.
You’re in demand.
Hey, let’s hope so. The people know I love what I’m doing. And when it’s just me and a drummer, they feel like they’re a part of it. I got 1,500 more drummers in my audience, playing along.