It is upsetting when, having enjoyed someone’s body of work so much; to have listened to their latest release with such relish, only to find out that they have sadly passed away. So it is with sorrow I listened again to the latest release from Tony Joe White. The album, called Bad Mouthin’, was released just a month before his death at the age of 75. But music is, and always has been, a celebration of life: be it tales of love, loss, happiness or sadness… and so that is how this review is approached…a celebration of a man of music, undervalued by the wider audience but fully appreciated by his fans, peers and fellow musicians.
Tony was born in 1943 in Louisiana to a part Cherokee family and therefore was exposed to many different types of music as he was growing up. His musical career started, as many do, by working the club circuits. He moved to Nashville in 1968 where his natural and insightful talents were further recognised and the following year released his debut album, Black and White. That album spawned his first chart success when Polk Salad Annie entered the top ten in the US. Over the course of his illustrious career he released over a dozen albums and provided songs (and successful ones) for such diverse artists as Elvis Presley, Brook Benton, Dusty Springfield, Eric Clapton and Tina Turner…he wrote Turner’s Steamy Windows, for example.
This is first true blues album as his previous works have had a more country and Americana base… although his guitar style has always been very much the blues. His guitar of choice, and used on this album, is his trusty 1965 Stratocaster pushed through a vintage Fender Deluxe amplifier which is a combination guaranteed to give warm and authentic tones to all he plays. With his trademark vocals, sparse harmonica and, perhaps a knowing portent of what was to come, the songs are shot through with superbly realised emotions of loss and sorrow. He describes this collection thus: “I’ve always thought of myself as a blues musician, bottom line, because the blues is real, and I like to keep everything I do as real as it gets. So, I thought it was time to make a blues record that sounds the way I always loved the music.” Listening to these twelve tracks will convince you that he achieved that expertly.
Opening and title track, Bad Mouthin’, is a recently rediscovered song of TJW’s from 1966 but recorded anew here. It is a simple song with him playing that Strat in such a distinctive way and punctuating the lyrics occasionally with neat harp. His vocal style is wonderful to behold: a sort of half whispered, an almost frayed voice that sounds just great to these ears. The first cover is the classic Baby Please Don’t Go. Played slightly slower than the original on acoustic with only his harp for accompaniment, it is one of the better versions you are likely to come across. (Budgie’s version will always be my most beloved version). Cool Town Woman is next and this is an updated version of his own song from his ’91 album Closer To The Truth. Here it is just TJW, his acoustic, harp and his foot stomping time. His low register, breathy vocal gives a depth the original didn’t have. This is a sheer delight. Hooker’s Boom Boom is transformed into a much slower blues with a booming bass and drums adding weight to his subtle guitar. He takes a classic it and makes into…a classic! It is a very clever interpretation and respects the original while making it more than worth a listen. Jimmy Reed’s Big Boss Man gets a similar reworking as the pace slows and the vocal is pitched more toward the accusatory rather than pleading sense in the Reed original. The acoustic guitar is brilliant in its simplicity. Sundown Blues is another rediscovered from ’66 song and has bass and drums adding a great backing to the Strat, harp and voice. Even with the ‘woke up this morning’ structure the guitar and harp lift it above anything of that ilk. Rich Woman Blues is a new version of his song on the ’04 album, The Heroines. With the aged and yet ageless voice TJW employs here, it takes on a new lease of life and the acoustic guitar is entrancing. Bad Dreams goes back to the Strat with a 55 second instrumental where the tone and playing make the hairs on the back of the neck stand up…I could listen to a whole album of this fretwork. That leads seamlessly into a cover of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ Awful Dreams, and the playing continues in the same vein as the mournful vocals wring even more emotion than the original. Charlie Patton’s Down The Dirt Road Blues is next for the TJW treatment. This is, unexpectedly, a fast-paced reading with a rapid drumbeat behind the strummed Strat and harp. Although this lifts the album out of the slow and mournful, it is the least immediate of the lot. Stockholm Blues first appeared on the 1970 album, Tony Joe and gets the acoustic and low, breathy interpretation here, and is just great…the lyrics are genius too, even if there are ‘ants in my sugar bowl’. The final track is quite a surprise as TJW takes on Heartbreak Hotel…yes, that one! I have never been an Elvis fan so I can’t say I was looking forward to this. However, the way it is slowed down to an almost funereal speed and the histrionics of Elvis replaced with a vocal full of despair, it actually makes sense for the first time. The acoustic guitar suits the delivery perfectly and, if it weren’t for the lyrics, it would take some identifying.
I love this album for many reasons…it is a fine epitaph for such a talented man; it stands on its own as a fine body of blues; it is played with such stunning and effective simplicity that even if the content is mainly on the painful and depressing side it is still a delight to listen to. OK, there are no solos to speak of, but the playing consistently fascinates and makes every track worth listening to carefully so that all of the nuances are realised.
No, there is nothing particularly new; it is an album of old songs put across in different ways but it is a constant pleasure.
NINEdoodle paws out of TEN …
- Bad Mouthin’
- Baby Please Don’t Go (originally an old folk song, in this form probably adapted by Ray Henderson, Buddy DeSilva and Bud Green)
- Cool Town Woman
- Boom Boom (JL Hooker)
- Big Boss Man (J Reed)
- Sundown Blues
- Rich Woman Blues
- Bad Dreams
- Awful Dreams (Lightin’ Hopkins)
- Down the Dirt Road Blues (Charlie Patton)
- Stockholm Blues
- Heartbreak Hotel (Tommy Durden, Mae Boren Axton)
All songs by Tony Joe White except where indicated.
Tony Joe White: vocals, guitar, harmonica
Steve Forrest: bass
Bryan Owings: drums.
Recorded in two horse stalls in Tony Joe White’s barn with the 1951 Fender Amp in the back of his Land Rover…yes, really!
Produced by Jody White and engineered by Ryan McFadden.