SHINE ON TONY JOE WHITE
[A few years back, Byron Bay, Australia]
The night had come down slowly, warm and beautiful, and I was waiting side of stage for the show to begin. There was a light coming from the artists’ trailer behind me and it spilled over toward the stage.
Suddenly I was engulfed by an enormous sillhouette – an image of a man in a cowboy hat splayed along the ground. Larger than life, a legendary figure printed like black ink on the grass.
It was then that I knew I was standing in the shadow of Tony Joe White. (Henceforth referred to as TJW.)
[A few months ago, Philadelphia]
It was a fifteen hour drive from Nashville but it was worth it. I was playing the opening set at World Cafe for TJW. Due to difficulties with the P.A. my set was cut from 45 minutes to 30. Things like that always fuel my performance, sometimes a little anger is good. I played and had a good time although I did swear quite a bit. After the show, I got to chat with TJW for a good half hour or so about his gear and stuff.
He is a quietly spoken man who looks like Elvis Presley. In fact, they were friends in the 60s (Elvis covered some of his songs including ‘Polk Salad Annie’). You get the feeling that he doesn’t say anything unnecessary to any conversation. I told him about how I was there in Byron Bay. He said Jack & Meg White had come up to say hello that day, why hadn’t I? I’ve thought about it and the truth is that I hadn’t felt worthy… And then we talked about his guitars and stuff.
TJW is all about the groove and the tone. I dare anyone to find a better guitar tone, whether he’s playing his ’65 Stratocaster or his Pimentel nylon string (handmade in Albuquerque by an old luthier family originally from Mexico). He plays with a tender touch, at times as if he is caressing a woman – after all, they say that tone is in the fingers.
He has the same gear he bought back in the Golden Era – the original electric guitar, Colorsound Supa Tonebender, the Maestro Boomerang wah pedal – all from the ’60s. His Fender Tweed 4×10 is most likely from 1973. He’s kept all this gear in ship-shape condition and the sound is pure splendour. If you can, get up close to the amp and let that holy analogue tone wash away your digital sins… I did just that at a recent show in Nashville. (See pic.)
His new album is called ‘The Shine’ and some of the songs were co-written with his wife, Leann. “They’re all about truth and life,” he says. The band got together in his living room and just played. The grooves are there and it’s the kind of record you can drive to and cover some miles before you know where you are or how far you’ve gone. This music can ease your weary mind and just make you feel instead of think.
Guitar sounds range from gorgeous warm distortion (on ‘Tell Me Why’) to that beautifully tender nylon string (‘Season Man’). These different textures weave through the album creating a synthesis of opposites that melds into one – that unmistakable artistry of TJW.
The feel he gets from his classical guitar is almost Latin at times and I could easily hear Bebel Gilberto singing some of these songs.
This dude (and he is a Cool Dude) has had the kind of career every shy singer-songwriter dreams of – songs covered by artists like Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Etta James & Dusty Springfield; touring all over the world with just enough fame to get an audience but not so much he can’t walk down the street; song royalties without having written a song he’d be too embarrassed to sing… These are the things we gentle folks dream of as we drive our old cars across America in search of an audience and a new song.
TJW continues to be a “season man, moving with the change… moving with the rains…”
The new album : The Shine, (Swamp Records)
Also recommended: Deep Cuts (Swamp Records)
TJW at Mercy Lounge, Nashville.