In America Tony Joe White is known largely for his 1969 hit “Polk Salad Annie.” Some may be familiar with “Rainy
Night in Georgia,” as performed by Brook Benton and a host
of others, but few are aware that White wrote it. In Europe
and Australia, it’s another story. Over there, White’s brand
of sensuous swamp rock continues to pack clubs and theaters,
and women of all ages suffer weak knees at the sound of his
deep drawl—think Elvis first thing in the morning.
Through four decades, the Louisianaborn
picker has released more than
two-dozen records, dealing out funky
rhythm guitar and snakey solos. On his
latest outing, The Shine [Swamp], this
groove master employs his vintage Stratocasters
and “Whomperstomper” to
deliver a lecture on wringing sultry soul
out of a minimalist attitude.
How did you get started on guitar?
Everyone in my family played piano
and guitar. When I was 15, my brother
brought home an album by Lightnin’
Hopkins. It was just him, an acoustic
guitar, and his foot tapping, and I
thought, “Man!” After everyone went to
bed, I would sneak daddy’s old Kay sunburst
guitar into my room to learn some
of those Lightnin’ Hopkins licks, and
later on a little John Lee Hooker stuff.
Is there a Louisiana style of guitar
The Louisiana stuff, like Cajun music,
was south of me. I was up in the Delta
where it was more about Lightnin’ and
Muddy Waters. My thing had blues roots,
plus I was hearing a lot of Elvis Presley
on the radio. I would say that the river
and the swamps had more of an effect
on my songwriting.
There is a minimalist approach to your
music, lots of space, and no wasted notes when
you play guitar. Where does that originate?
That comes from playing in the nightclubs
in Louisiana and Texas all those
years ago. I usually had a drummer, but
sometimes I had nothing but a Coca-
Cola box and my foot. People would
come and dance—I mean get down and
do the “Alligator” on the floor and everything.
Sometimes with a bass, sax, and
B3 organ player it would take a lot longer
to get the people going. I figured out
early in life that taking a “less is best”
approach is a cool thing to do with
music. Simplicity is really hard to get.
Sometimes you will try to overdub
another guitar, or record another person,
and the music will talk back to you.
It will tell you that you are crowding it,
and that you need to give it some room.
To this day, I have to watch it.
I was talking to Eric Clapton, who
added some parts to a song on my last album, Uncovered, and he said, “I went
through it one time, then I went through
it again, then I listened overnight and
erased two thirds of my parts.”
Did you keep the bass going with your
thumb before you started playing with
From the very start, even in high
school playing for the dances in Oak
Grove Louisiana. Sometimes the drummer
would just have a cardboard box
and his hands. I carry so much of the
music with my guitar—that old Strat
has such a big fat sound. My thumb
pretty much takes care of the bass. Still,
it is fun every now and then to have
someone come in on synth bass, or have
Duck Dunn play Fender Precision. It
gives you a little more room to play
some higher licks. The main thing,
though, is the song: If you are feeling it,
and it comes across to the people—that
is the deal.
“Ain’t Doin’ Nobody No Good” on Shine
has you overdubbing acoustic and electric
guitars, wah, and fuzz parts, yet it still never
gets busy. Did you plan that out?
That was one take through with
drums, the bass, and me. I listened right
after we got finished, picked the guitar back up, and added a little bit here and there.
Then there might be another little opening
so I would put a little wah on it and a little
fuzz way in the background. They are all delicately
done but not planned. The planning
comes in when I am listening back. I might
say, ‘that’s way too much, it’s getting it done
without me doing anything,’ so I will leave
it alone. But sometimes it’s good to have a
little [Maestro] Boomerang Wah; it has been
associated with me since the early days, with
“Polk Salad Annie.” I still love to use just
little touches on certain things.
Is the “Whomperstomper” a fuzz/wah?
The Whomperstomper is the Boomerang
Wah. The fuzz that sounds like a big bumblebee
is a Colorsound Tonebender that I bought
in England back in ’69. Both of them are still
the originals; I just fix them up every year
or two because you can’t find anything that
sounds like that. I’ve got a guy here in
Nashville, and if he doesn’t have the part he
knows where to get it. We just keep taping
them up and sending them to war.
There is more nylon-string guitar on this record
than previously. You seem to favor it for the minor
I’ve always liked Spanish music. I like the
sound of the nylon when I write a song that
calls for it. A guy in Albuquerque, New Mexico,
named Lorenzo Pimentel made my
nylon-string. It has a little turquoise alligator
up on the headstock, and feathers around
the sound hole. The old man and his three
sons still work in an old house using knives
Tell us about your Fender Stratocasters.
One is an all-original 1965 Lake Placid
Blue. The sunburst is a ’65 also, but there
are a couple of things that I had done to it,
like blocking the tremolo in the back—so if
I break a string I can still finish the song.
That one is the most unbelievable guitar. I
can fly from here to Australia and the guitar
will still be in tune when I land.
What amps do you use?
I use a Fender Blues DeVille with four tens.
It is the first one that they made, and it’s a lot
like a Super Reverb or Bassman. It has a tone
that I really like. When they came out, the guy
from Corner Music in Nashville called me and
said, “We have an amp that you ought to listen
to.” I hit one chord and said, “It’s bought.
How many do you have?” He had two, so I
bought both and I still have them. The next
year they changed the circuitry and it was not
even close. There’s a guy in Sydney, Australia,
that loans me one when I tour over there—it
sounds just like the ones I bought.
How do you mic your amp?
I use an AKG 414. I put it on a short stand
about three inches from one of the bottom
speakers. It doesn’t seem to matter which
side. It really makes a Strat sound like it
ought to sound. I’ve been lucky to find the
right guitar and amp combination.
Do you mostly use the neck pickups on your Strats?
I’m always switched to the front pickup.
It never moves from there, live or in the studio,
because if the sound gets shrill, or trebly,
it doesn’t go with my voice. I keep it down
there—low and in the swamps.