In America Tony Joe White is known largely for his1969 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 playing?
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 bands?
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 tunes.
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 and saws.
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.