Tony Joe White – “Swamp Music: The Complete Monument Recordings” (2006)

July 26, 2012 at 10:37 am (Music, Reviews & Articles)

This review of the limited edition Rhino Handmade box set was taken from the now-defunct No Depression magazine, Jan.-Feb. 2007 (issue #67) and written by Edd Hurt…

Polk Salad Days

As an examination of the moment when down-home whites and their equally down-home but somewhat less privileged black neighbors could no longer speak to each other, Tony Joe White’s “Willie and Laura Mae Jones” is as valuable a ’60s document as, say, Haskell Wexler’s film Medium Cool. Listeners who know only Dusty Springfield’s 1969 take on “Willie and Laura Mae” might hear the song as an idyll. Certainly, her version makes explicit the conceit of Dusty in Memphis — we can all be soul brothers and sisters, if only we can get Tommy Cogbill to play bass — but Springfield inhabited a world of surfaces that White never exploited.

Born on July 23, 1943, in the northeast Louisiana parish of West Carroll, White started out as a southern white blues fan; he began playing music in earnest after he heard Lightnin’ Hopkins. After knocking around in Texas and Louisiana clubs, he landed lucky in Nashville in the late 1960s, signing with Monument Records. The label and its publishing arm made a point to encourage new songwriters and to champion all manner of sports on its subsidiary soul label, Sound Stage 7.

White began recording when many white rock and pop performers were making the transition from the post-Beatles international style to something more conflicted and soulful. His Monument work — he made three albums for the label — survives not only as first-rate music, but as a portrait of a time when white soul meant taking risks with a style and a feeling that quickly became unfashionable, even as the music’s message of hope became ever more relevant.

Swamp Music: The Complete Monument Recordings pairs the albums with singles and unreleased tracks, and includes a fourth disc of live performances. It begins with 1968′s “Willie and Laura Mae Jones”. Produced in Nashville by Billy Swan but something of a gloss on the sound of Memphis’ American Studios, it features strings that color the narration Dusty’s cover truncates. The way she renders it, the song contains tension even as it traffics in nostalgia for an era when people didn’t have “the time to think about another man’s color.” But White goes ahead and sings the last, chilling verse:

“The years rolled past our door
And I heard from them no more
Till I saw Willie downtown the other day
I said, “Y’all stop by tonight
We can sit down and eat a bite
We’d love to see your childrens and Laura Mae
He shook his head real slow
And spoke with his eyes so kind:
‘This is another place and another time’”

Nothing else on Black and White, White’s first album, is as strong, but “Soul Francisco” mentions “all them childrens with flowers in their hair.” “Polk Salad Annie”, a top-10 single in 1969, remains the definitive example of White as a groove-driven musician with a knack for simple, catchy guitar riffs.

Far more interesting are the early attempts, collected on disc one, to make White sound like a pop musician. In the liner notes, Ben Edmonds maintains that songs such as Wayne Carson Thompson’s “I Protest” and Mickey Newbury’s “A Man Can Only Stand So Much Pain” (which were likely recorded at American Studios) were “productions applied to the artist from the outside.”

This is true enough, but the manufactured emotion of 1966′s “Georgia Pines” sounds authentic, and White’s own “Ten More Miles to Louisiana” features a nicely incongruous Beatles lick. Too, White sounds less mannered on these recordings; one thing the collection makes clear is that he could be an indifferent singer, content to punctuate everything with a trademark “uh” that threatens to become as annoying a tic as Bobby Bland’s gargle.

Entirely self-penned, 1969′s …Continued stands as White’s most consistent Monument record. “Roosevelt and Ira Lee (Night of the Mossacin)” is a great slice of local color, while “Old Man Willis” seems innocuous when he sings, “He used to chase his younguns and his wife/With his Jim Bowie hunting knife,” but gets ugly when Willis murders his family. “Rainy Night in Georgia”, famous in Brook Benton’s 1970 hit version, is a place-name song that earns its sentimentality. The subtly deadly “I Thought I Knew You Well” bears comparison with a prime Box Tops production.

Most frustrating is 1970′s Tony Joe, the final Monument album. “High Sheriff of Calhoun Parrish” is inspired songwriting:

“Then there came upon my door a loud disturbance
I opened it up to the sheriff and his deputy
He said, ‘Son, did you molest my daughter?’
I said, ‘I do not know of what you speak.’”

But “Stud-Spider” seems like a piece of make-work — funky and pointless. Still, “Stockholm Blues” takes a bemused look at travel, and “Groupy Girl” ought to be a garage-rock standard on the order of Roky Erickson’s “You’re Gonna Miss Me”.

Disc four comprises two live sets. The first, done at France’s Barclay Studio in March 1969, is notable chiefly for a version of Dylan’s “The Ballad of Hollis Brown”. The second comes from a 1970 performance at the Isle of Wight Festival, with White accompanied by drummer Cozy Powell. These recordings reveal White as a compelling live performer. The take on John D. Loudermilk’s masterpiece of class warfare, “Tobacco Road”, makes one wish for a producer confident enough to impose his vision on a singer who could have enlivened this sort of material.

If Tony Joe White’s Monument work seems locked into its particular place and time, his best music transcends it. Even the ephemera here are often fascinating. As a songwriter with a tricky ear for some combination of the colloquial and the archaic, White is canny enough to achieve his effects while remaining open-ended. You never find out what happens to the subject of “High Sheriff of Calhoun Parish”. The groove songs remain compelling and the point of view unique. Rarely have down-home virtues been expressed so vigorously, or the backbeat swung with such finesse.

Edd Hurt


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