In the late 1960s, Tony Joe White came up to Music City from the Louisiana Delta and, for a brief time, became a star. His swamp-rockin’ “Polk Salad Annie” spent the summer of 1969 in the pop Top 10, his “Rainy Night In Georgia” did the same for Brook Benton a year later, and many of his best songs, including “Willie And Laura Mae Jones”, were recorded by the likes of Dusty Springfield, Elvis Presley, and Waylon Jennings, among dozens of others.
There’s good news and bad news about The Beginning, White’s self-released new album. The bad news is that the disc features very little of what first made him a success. There are no funky character sketches here, and there isn’t much in the way of Southern-drenched storytelling either. There’s not even any “whomper stomper”, White’s tag for the swampy/twangy/funky electric pickin’ style that helped make “Polk Salad Annie” one of the most indelible records ever cut in Nashville.
The good news is that The Beginning includes plenty of other worthwhile stuff. Accompanied only by his own acoustic guitar and a stomping left foot, White plays the blues here, mostly in the way he first learned them as a boy on front porches and off record players. White’s blues include many of the lowdown words you’d expect from a lifelong fan of Lightin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker, such as “hoodoo” and “mama jama,” but they include uptown ones too, like “condominium” and “debutante” and “prehysterical.” Indeed, The Beginning appears intent on proving that, no matter which side of the tracks you’re on, there are blues enough to go around.
The eleven White originals here don’t always work; it’s never quite clear, for instance, just what it is about his wealthy lover that warrants the “Rich Woman Blues”. But in “More To This Than That” and especially “Going Back To Bed”, White’s lyrics and weary moan convey a free-floating dread that’s universal. The album’s lone story-song, “Clovis Green”, about a plantation owner whose teen daughter becomes pregnant, ends with the sort of small but telling detail that is classic Swamp Fox: “A child was born in the fall, but no one mentioned the father/When all the neighbors came to call, they would say he looked just like his mother”.