[23 January 2005]
Tony Joe White’s music is generally described as swamp rock, and it is true that he was one of the first performers to have a hit record with that sound. Back in 1969, when “Polk Salad Annie” became a hit record, there were other bands monkeying with various combinations of music from the lowlands of the Southern United States, but the mainstream public had never heard most of them. “Polk Salad Annie” contained all the elements of the form as well as the style that identifies Tony Joe White’s music to this day: the low, intimate, growling voice, the economic blues guitar style that is always in the service of the song, never calling attention to itself with long flashy solos.
White has had a long career, but stardom has eluded him since his initial string of hits in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Much of the ‘70s were spent on projects that tried to inject White’s signature sound with a danceable (read: disco) beat; these were neither commercially nor artistically successful. During the ‘80s he concentrated mostly on songwriting rather than performing, but the ‘90s proved something of a renaissance. The Beginning (2001) was a totally honest, straight-ahead album featuring only White and his guitar recorded in his home studio. Now White has released one of the finest albums of his career, The Heroines. The title no doubt refers to the fact that White has invited some of his favorite female singers to share the spotlight on his compositions. Of the 12 tracks here, two are brief instrumental guitar interludes which open and close the album. Of the remaining 10, five are duets with distinctive female singers and the other five are just Tony Joe.
It says a lot about White’s commitment to presenting the song vs. his ego as a performer that the first voice heard on The Heroines is not White’s, but rather guest vocalist Shelby Lynne’s. Her voice is the perfect vehicle for “Can’t Go Back Home”, and a great match for Tony Joe’s growl. White’s guitar work subtly emphasizes elements of those lyrics and perfectly supports Lynne’s vocals. What’s wonderful about the concept of this CD is that the duets are all great and help supplement the basic sound of White’s voice and guitar work enough that the listener’s interest never flags. Hot, sweaty blues-inflected numbers like “Ice Cream Man”, “Back Porch Therapy”, and “Rich Woman Blues” stand out all the more when contrasted against the varied sound of the duets.
Besides the slinky, confessional “Can’t Go Back Home”, White peforms “Closing in on the Fire”, a song infused with R&B’s frantic energy, with Lucinda Williams and a horn section. His heavy guitar solo propels the track into another dimension entirely. “Playa Del Carmen Nights” is a beautiful samba-inflected ballad featuring White’s daughter, Michelle. “Wild Wolf Calling Me” features Emmylou Harris, and is a perfect folk/country ballad punctuated by some fine harmonica work and a touch of fiddle. “Fireflies in the Storm” is a haunting rocker done up nicely with Jessi Colter. Closing out with the fast Texas stomp of “Chaos Boogie” and the bookend instrumental “Gabriella’s Affair”, White checks in with an album that manages to present everything that’s best about his writing and performing style without a weak track in sight.