Tony Joe White is still king of the swamp. Although no Granny-masticating lizards of the “Polk Salad Annie” persuasion loom large in Smoke From the Chimney, Tony Joe White’s latest unboxed swampthings collection, his signature bigfoot backbeat still tramples the scenery, splattering the surrounding foliage with murky swamp funk.
This posthumous collection was curated by son Jody White from tracks his dad recorded in his home studio over the past 15 years. The songs were often little more than rough cuts, with White’s Strat as the sole accompaniment. Producer Dan Auerbach (Black Keys) befriended father and son over a decade ago, and although they talked about collaborating, they never got to work together. After his father’s death in 2018, Jody contacted Auerbach about nine demos he felt were worth releasing. Auerbach fleshed them out with the help of musical friends including Paul Franklin on pedal steel and soulful Southern rockin’ bluesman Marcus King, releasing the project on his own Easy Eye Sound label.
White’s downhome-spun tales of poor souls battling both real and metaphorical swamp creatures are timeless accounts of downtrodden denizens getting by against all odds with pride, grit, and a whole lot of heart.
“Workin’ real hard / dollar-fifty a week / put a little money in my pocket / the rest down in my boot / I may be a poor man / but I always got some loot,” White moans on “Boot Money,” a swampy parable with Auerbach’s guitar providing the forked lightning bolts for White’s rumbling, bigfoot thunder.
The closest White comes to critter chomping on this outing is protagonist “Bubba Jones” getting a beatdown from a largemouth bass. The hapless angler is ready to rumble with his big-mouthed nemesis, chunkin’ a fortune in plastic worms and auto lures over the side to no avail before tossing over a handmade lure his grandpa carved. The beast jerks so hard Bubba swallows his chaw of Redman, saving himself from strangling by a huge self-administered infusion of Gator-ade as the monster catch snaps the line and dances away to fight another day. Marcus King illuminates the scene with guitar-induced sheet lightning so severe that it appears it’s gonna electrocute Bubba before he gets down to business.
White calls up some non-amphibian monsters with “Scary Stories,” fireside yarns of things that go bump in the night. The scene is set with rain drumming on a tin roof and the wind swirling with ghosts on the loose. Everything is fine ’til there’s a scratching at the door and a tapping on the window pane — and somebody whispers “please don’t tell that one again.”
White steps out of the swampland for a minute on “Del Rio, You’re Makin’ Me Cry” waltzing across Texas with a Marty Robbins-style narration of a faded love.
Thomas Wolfe told us a long time ago that you can’t go home again, but nobody ever learns. On the title cut, White’s wistful recollections of things past are kept alive in a waking dream seen through a sheen of tears. Roy Jacildo’s B-3 adds a churchy feel and Auerbach’s electric and Billy Sanford’s gut-string guitar flesh this one out from a solitary guy on a stool with an acoustic guitar presentation to an arena-worthy anthem.
White is still the biggest, baddest creature in the swamp, his massive footprint enshrined in the funk for us mere mortals to look upon and marvel.