Tony Joe White died in 2018 with more than two dozen albums under his belt. The King of Swamp Rock was best known for his country soul hits covered by other artists, including “Polk Salad Annie” (Elvis Presley), “Rainy Night in Georgia” (Brook Benton), and “Willie and Laura Mae Jones” (Dusty Springfield). White chewed and growled his bluesy lyrics more than sung them and played his guitar as if he was chopping down a tree. Although he had achieved some mainstream success as an individual artist as early as 1968, by the mid-1970s, White was largely forgotten and off the charts.
In 2001, after more than 30 years in the business, White released his first solo record, The Beginning. He issued it on his label (Swamp), and his son and manager Jody produced it. The ten-song opus was recorded at White’s Church Street studio in Franklin, Tennessee, and the credits reveal the intimate nature of the music, simply reading “Tony Joe White – Vocals, Guitar, Harmonica, and Foot”. His foot provides percussion.
The Beginning’s conceit, as suggested by its title, is that this is White’s first record that is authentically and solely his. The austere nature of the recording highlights the honesty of his performance. The songs share a nasty edge. White’s not trying to be a nice guy. “He can’t stop the thoughts running through this head,” he sings on “Wonder Why I Feel So Bad”. White can be crude and rude and maybe a bit crazy. We are meant to identify with the first-person narrator, but he can be difficult, and that’s inseparable from his charm. He’s a raconteur with a naïve understanding of his predicament.
White has a low voice and often sings at a muted volume, so one must listen carefully. He expresses a sense of confidentiality as if what he sings is just between him and the audience. He doesn’t strain to reach a note. That would ruin the informal effect and the friendliness of his persona. Meanwhile, the lyrics keep things general with vague title references such as: “Going Back to Bed”, “Down By the Border”, “More to This Than That”, and “Drifter”. There is no song (or lyric) called “The Beginning”.
It’s the distinctive White sound, that swamp rock vibe he’s often credited with creating, that makes the album so good. There’s something almost primal about its appeal. The music comes from deep in the chest (as well as his foot!) and somehow short-circuits the brain into grinning. There is nothing special about the individual songs, but taken as a whole, they offer sonic revelation. “Some people talk just to hear their lips rattle,” White croons on “Rebellion”. White meant it maliciously against conformity. However, this is true about his tunes. People listen to him sing and play to hear his idiosyncratic “rattle”, not necessarily the topics he’s singing about.
The Beginning failed commercially when first released and never cracked the Top 200 Billboard charts. It went out of print and would continuously be rediscovered by new fans. New West Records issued a limited-edition color vinyl pressing for Record Store Day Black Friday last year, which sold out. The record will be available again on black vinyl (as well as a limited edition Opaque Blue Vinyl edition) and CD for the first time in 20 years from independent retailers and New West Records. The music has been remastered for quality and, for some reason, resequenced with new cover art.