One Track Mind: Tony Joe White, “Tell Me Why”
by Nick DeRiso
While much of Tony Joe White‘s 2010 recording “The Shine” feels so bare-bones as to be undercooked, the muscular “Tell Me Why” bubbles up with the rough moral drama of a storyteller’s yarn.
Still standing, despite years unjustly spent outside fame’s spotlight, White hasn’t stopped believing in himself, and in his work: “It’s all about the song, keeping it simple,” he sings. “You gotta have passion, gotta have soul.”
The Oak Grove, Louisiana product’s time-worn baritone has slowed some since the heyday of 1969’s “Poke Salad Annie,” but it’s still unfrayed and reliably soul-deep. White, who also plays guitar and harmonica, is then joined by drummer “Swamp Man” Jack Bruno (Tina Turner, Joe Cocker), bassist George Hawkins (The Byrds‘ Roger McGuinn, Delbert McClinton, members of Fleetwood Mac), Tyson Rogers on piano, organ and Wurlitzer; and, elsewhere on this album, by John Catchings on cello.
White, of course, is now known as a hall-of-fame footnote for his work as a composer. That started with “Annie,” notably covered by Elvis Presley; then continued with hit songs like “Rainy Night In Georgia,” by Brook Benton and Ray Charles; “Willie and Laura Mae Jones,” by Dusty Springfield; and Turner’s “Steamy Windows”; plus countless others for the likes of Cocker, Kenny Chesney, Hank Williams Jr. and so on.
Yet, moving through his late 60s, White bears that broken dream with dignity.
“Living hard and moving fast, you are dying breed,” White sings. “Fly to the edge of the Earth … and, you know, you’re still afraid of falling. You need hope? Well, it’s hard to come by. It takes courage to dust off your dreams.”
There are few answers in this world. Maybe, none. Does he dare aim for something so fleeting as celebrity anymore? Would that be a gift, or a curse?
“From the time you leave your mother’s womb and cry out to the world, your place of refuge no longer exists,” White quietly adds, like a building storm over the swamp. “Branded by the stars, captured by the moon, do you think you can even make a wish?”
White, it’s clear, can still craft songs of mystery, of wonder, but now seems to be more completely exploring the answers required of that small voice we all hear in our most private moments.
“Tell me why?” White implores. “Sometimes, it makes you crazy. You could almost die, and no one know, not even your old lady.”
His vocal boils down to a rueful whisper in the song’s final moments, repeating not even your old lady like an long-held indictment while the band settles into a humid, extended groove.
It’s a country-funk concoction that takes you right back to White’s most memorable successes, walking a line somewhere between the brooding lessons of William Faulkner and the lonesome justice associated with Elmore Leonard novels.
I’m just not sure that this is the fate Tony Joe White deserves. Even now, more than four decades after “Polk Salad Annie,” he still sounds like a superstar to me.
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