Even at 63 years old, Tony Joe White has the kind of coolness that can't be manufactured -- the laid-back, almost insolent demeanor that Marlon Brando channeled in The Fugitive Kind. The Louisiana-born songwriter speaks with an impenetrable drawl spiced by a lifetime spent sucking crawfish heads and sings with the urgency of a man on Angola's death row.
Since the late 1960s, White's churned out classic songs such as "Polk Salad Annie," covered by the likes of Elvis Presley and Tom Jones. He enjoyed a spate of solo country hits in the mid-'70s and recorded a disco album for Casablanca called The Real Thing. After a few decades under the radar, spent working with superstars such as Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, and Joe Cocker, he's recorded three studio albums in the last five years, including this month's Uncovered, which guest-stars Clapton, Mark Knopfler, J.J. Cale, and the late Waylon Jennings.
Because of his slow-building success, the Swamp Fox remains something of an enigma.
"If people don't hear you, they think you've given up or quit," White says, on the phone from his home studio in Lieper's Fork, which lies about 30 miles southwest of Nashville. "All that time [out of the spotlight], I was doing stuff with folks like Tina and Buddy Guy. I was working. I never had any choice about doing music."
He lets out a warm chuckle and adds, "I never thought about quitting or starting. I've always felt like a receiving station for the songs. When something comes to me, it'll be in my head for three or four days, until I'll sit down with a cold beer or maybe build a fire down by the river, and I'll just sit with it and see what comes out.
"When it's through with me, I let it be through with me," White says of the process, which, last month, earned him a nomination into the Nashville Songwriters' Hall of Fame.
"If these songs would ever leave me alone, I'd be a good fisherman," he notes. "Right now, I've got four tunes going -- and until I get 'em out of my system, I won't sleep good. Last week, a song came at about 3 a.m. It just tapped on my foot and said, 'Get up -- I'm here.' It stood at the end of my bed, just standing there and looking at me, so I sat up and started jotting it down. After I finished it, I come to find out that it was a bluesy, funky thing called 'Goin' to the Cut Off,' about back when I lived in Germantown and me and Duck Dunn would go down to Tunica to go fishing."
Most of White's songs are about going fishing or hunting, facing temptation from the sheriff's daughter, or being a poor boy a long way from home, yet their themes -- poverty, racism, longing, and loneliness -- resonate long after the lyrics have faded away.
Take "Rainy Night in Georgia," one of his first tunes, penned in 1969. A lonely poem set to a country waltz, it describes the plight of a man seeking shelter in a cold boxcar instead of his woman's bed. Deceptively simple, the song became a huge crossover hit for soul sensation Brook Benton a year later.
"I've been wanting revenge on that song for 30 years," claims White. "Brook inspired me so much. I never did like my version of it [on White's first album, 1969's ...Continued]. It didn't have soul in it -- I was playing guitar too fast, doing a ballad like a horse wanting to run. I played Brook's version 50 times in a row, and I finally came up with my own take on it."
Although White's newest version, released on Uncovered, features a full band, including a Hammond B-3 player, a cellist, and a choir of back-up singers, it's ultimately a Spartan exercise.
"Being cool, musically, breaks down into 'less is best,'" he explains. "Like overdubbing a guitar, when you get so many licks you can put on a song that you get anxious about it. Half 'em, and then half that, and it'll sound cool. Clapton, Knopfler, and I all talk about that space -- instead of putting something in there, just let it be."
For his live shows, White prefers an even more stripped-down approach. "I play wild guitar with just a drummer, which adds a swampy aura to the whole thing," he says. "That gives me the freedom of playing without thinking twice. I don't have to tell him the key or nothing."
Onstage, he says, "I just feel really cool and really good about the music. I get to do it the way I love to.
"My popularity -- or the lack of it -- never really catches up with my thoughts too much," White muses. "If I get my music down right and it's happening, I'm vindicated."