Tony Joe White has always sung in a low growl that made him sound like an older man. Even as a 20-something-year old back in the 1960s when he crooned classic self-penned tunes like “Polk Salad Annie” (with the immortal line, “Gator’s got your granny, chomp chomp”) and “Rainy Night in Georgia”, White sounded like a grizzled musical veteran. His voice never changed much. It got a bit deeper, darker, and murkier as he aged, but his distinctive style remained easily recognizable.
White died of a heart attack at the age of 75 back in October 2018. He left nine unfinished vocal and guitar demos that had never seen the light of day. The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach has produced and arranged these songs for a posthumous release called, Smoke From the Chimney, with the help of Nashville session players including guitarist Marcus King, keyboardist Bobby Wood, and fiddler Stuart Duncan. White himself, whose nickname was the Swamp Fox, is one of the original creators of swamp rock, a genre rooted in south Louisiana and characterized by a mix of New Orleans rhythm and blues, country and Creole styles that somehow mimics the gurgling sounds of bayou waters. White’s guitar playing stands out in the mix because of this quality, especially on cuts such as “Scary Stories” and “Boot Money”.
Auerbach put White’s identifiable vocals front and center. The pleasures of listening to White’s voice and guitar playing have remained constant even as he has grown older. He continued to evoke rural Louisiana country life where Spanish moss and cypress trees grow among the alligators. The songs themselves are somewhat generic. The best ones concern a bass fishing contest (“Bubba Jones”) and the title track about old folks sitting in front of the fire. “Some things are special / They don’t ever fade away,” he sings in a voice that captures the gratifications and damages of aging. That is true of the album as a whole. One’s appreciation of the record depends on the gestalt of the project rather than the individual tracks.
Smoke From the Chimney doesn’t offer any surprises. The music fits in the groove of what White has always done. Fans of Tony Joe White will delight at hearing him deliver one more set of ditties in his characteristic drawl. His swamp-flavored guitar playing comes off loud and clear. Auerbach does a good job of keeping the material true to White’s distinctive style.
However, the album problem won’t charm those who have never heard White before. Like the food from the region, not everyone has a taste for okra, bullfrogs, and crawdads. The ingredients may not sound appealing to the uninitiated and initially may be off-putting for those not from the area. But for those that are, there can be nothing more delicious than Cajun cooking. The same is true for White’s music. What makes it special depends on how open one is to his “haw haw haw” vocals and bubbling guitar sounds. Pass the gumbo, please.