America was a strange place in December 1980 when Tony Joe White played Austin City Limits. The nation recently elected Ronald Reagan President over Jimmy Carter to signify a change in the popular consciousness. The country’s values were in transition as was its tastes in music. Outlaw country, disco rock, rap, and punk had all found their way to the pop charts, but there seemed to be no clear forward direction.
Music on television was also undergoing a transformation. The age of lip-syncing had ended and music videos hadn’t found their way on the airwaves. In this pre-MTV era, artists sang and played their songs with few gimmicks. The Austin City Limits set didn’t even have its faux city skyscape in the background in this reality TV broadcast from a different era. One can even see the boom mikes and oversized cameras make unintended on screen appearances.
White’s performance and song lyrics are overtly concerned with keeping things real. The Louisiana electric gee-tar man only brought a bare bones band to help him, Steve Spear on bass and Jeff Hale on drums, and White played several songs by himself on acoustic guitar. The Swamp Fox (as White is called in France, according to a European documentary about the man) took obvious pride in getting down and dirty rather than using gimmicks to get his musical points across. He smiled as he snapped down chord licks hard on the strings on greasy, Southern-style tunes like “Even Trolls Like Rock and Roll”. And he was not afraid to let the grin invade his voice while making “ooh-wee” sounds of pleasure. White’s joy was infectious, judging from the laughter of the crowd during songs like “Lustful Earl and the Married Woman”.
White didn’t talk much between tunes. He did mention to the Lone Star crowd that he wrote his hit song “Rainy Night in Georgia” when he lived in Corpus Christi before he launched into a brooding, atmospheric version. One can almost hear the raindrops fall as his guitar gently wept. White also introduced his top 10 record from 1969, “Polk Salad Annie” with the same spoken word spiel he did back in the day, plus he added a few more sentences to the delight of the crowd about Annie drying out and smoking the leaves.
Speaking of talking, the self-professed redneck rapped on the appropriately entitled “Swamp Rap”. To a musical backdrop that owed much to the then recent hit “Rapper’s Delight”, White wryly commented about being a hick who drives a pick-up truck with mud flaps, his preference for slow dancing, and his thoughts on fake cowboys. White had a thing about fake cowboys: remember 1980 was the year of the movie Urban Cowboy and the resulting craze for snakeskin boots, 10-gallon hats, and other fashion fads among those who never went west of Manhattan. The show started with White teasingly singing “Mama Don’t Let Your Cowboys Grow Up to Be Babies” as he was afraid the media glare on Western heroes will turn them into spoiled sissies.
White was not embarrassed to cite the term redneck and two of the best songs from this 1980 show are reminiscent of recent hits for “I’m a Redneck Woman” Gretchen Wilson. White’s “Red Neck Women” (he spells redneck as two words) is a hard lovin’, beer drinkin’ lady who owns a four wheel drive vehicle and parties all night long. When this Louisiana man sings “I Came Here to Party”, he sounds a lot like Wilson crying “Here for the Party” and the untamed intent of both characters is the same. It’s difficult to figure out if White was ahead of the times, Wilson a retro artist, or if the trope of a wild country child who likes to have a good time drinkin’ and screwing is timeless, but it really doesn’t matter. The Louisiana man’s performance made his songs sound dangerous and nasty in a good manner. Just the way he whipped the guitar strings and swallowed words like “to have a little fun” in a manner that conveyed something naturally feral has more significance than the fact of whether the theme is original or not.
Despite using the term redneck, the Swamp Fox was clearly not racist. The most affecting song here, “Willie and Laura Mae Jones”, addresses the topic of race relations directly. (If the title sounds familiar, Dusty Springfield recorded this White composition on her classic Dusty in Memphis back in 1969.) The song concerns two farmers of different color who were friends back in the country while eking out a living as farmers, but who couldn’t hang out with each other in the city due to social and peer pressures. “That was another place / and another time” Willie sadly told his white friend, and White’s vocals effectively captured the wretchedness of the situation.
Back in 1969, it appeared that White was going to be a major star based on the success of his first songs. During the ’70s, his material was covered by such luminaries as Elvis Presley, Ray Charles and others. But by 1980 the 37-year-old was more of a cult figure than a star, despite touring with big name artists like Creedence Clearwater Revival and James Taylor. This concert reveals White’s tremendous ability as a songwriter, guitar player, and singer. He should have been more famous, but with the hindsight of history one can see that he wasn’t gonna fit in during the Reagan era. White’s still out there making music, most recently contributing to Shelby Lynne’s latest CD, Suit Yourself. White has always been content to suit himself, as Lynne puts it. This new release of this old White show is a welcome document that showcases the Swamp Fox’s considerable talents.