Tony Joe White is a one-man genre, the first and perhaps only progenitor of a particular, potent strain of swamp rock, which he alone seems to have the musical gifts to play: a deep voice that has gained grit over the years, a guitar filtered through an arsenal of old fuzz boxes, a scowling harmonica, and an eye for backwoods characters.
"Swamp rock is kind of bluesy, but you can dance to it," White says, in his signature baritone with a laid-back Louisiana accent. "This blues has a beat. The guitar is bluesy, and some of the words are. But it's going to make somebody move some part of their body."
Born in Goodwill, Louisiana, in 1943, White has been playing swamp rock for decades, ever since he began idolizing blues guitarists like Lightnin' Hopkins and John Lee Hooker in his teens and taught himself to copy their licks.
From that youth obsession grew a solid career as a performer and songwriter. His Southern tales — "Polk Salad Annie," "Roosevelt and Ira Lee," "Willie & Laura Mae Jones," and his most well-known composition, "Rainy Night in Georgia" — have been recorded by a wide array of singers: Elvis, Dusty Springfield, Mel Tormé, Waylon Jennings, Tina Turner, Hank Williams Jr., Joe Cocker, Conway Twitty, Shelby Lynne, Hem, and Tom Jones, among many others.
As a solo artist, White has only been moderately successful in America, although like many roots musicians of his generation, he is revered in Europe. In fact, France gave him his first number-one hit ("Soul Francisco") in 1969. In Europe and Australia, he says, they play him about every hour on some radio station somewhere: "In America, the radios play flavors of the week and that type of thing. When people don't hear you over here for a while, they think you must have been eaten by a shark."
White resurrects many of his old tunes on his latest album, Deep Cuts, but adds a new twist: ProTools. He recorded the vocals, guitar, and harmonica parts on reel-to-reel in his own studio, then gave the recordings to his manager/collaborator/son Jody White. "He takes it over to his studio and loads the analog onto his ProTools, then he has his way with the songs," White says.
White calls the result a "techno-swamp album," which isn't as incongruous as the concept might sound. The added elements are most noticeable on new instrumental tracks like "Set the Hook," which opens the album with a computerized growl and percolates while White dispenses some roughed-up Stratocaster licks. On other tracks — like the new version of "Soul Francisco" — the live and programmed elements blend organically, like algae and moss in swamp water.
"I think it came out really cool," White says, although he admits, "I don't want anyone to mess with my songs except blood. Jody's my own blood, so he knew what he could make sound better and what he could leave alone. He really did a cool job of preserving the old style and adding the 'now' to it."
Most of the songs on Deep Cuts date back several decades to White's earliest releases, but as the album title implies, these aren't the obvious hits rehashed and repackaged. Instead, Jody culled from 40 years of his father's albums, many of which remain out of print.
"He took it all the way back to 'As the Crow Flies,'" White says, referring to his 1972 hit. "It was pretty cool that he was into the old songs, because people of his generation would have never gotten to hear any of these types of songs unless there was some sort of rhythm behind it."
The songs aren't dusty chestnuts, however.
"Those tunes are still in the mix on stage, especially in Europe and Australia," White says. "Those are the songs the audience screams for a lot. I don't have a set list when I play. I just go out and let the crowd move me along." According to White, response to the new interpretations has been largely positive. "I know they like to hear those songs a certain way, but all of a sudden they're up there rockin' and dancin' and hollerin', so it must be working."
Rather than replicate the computerized beats on stage, White will continue touring with longtime drummer Jeff Hale and the Moogie Man on keyboards. "His name is Tyson Rogers, but I call him the Moogie Man," White says. "He's got a little electronic Moog thing that he does on stage, like an electronic keyboard with a B3 on top. It sounds down in the swamps a little more, like the boogie man."
White says he always looks forward to playing in Memphis, where he lived for 14 years beginning in the 1970s: "It's like going back home in Louisiana. It's going to be fun. Every time I play in Memphis, the crowd really gets wild."
Tony Joe White, with Tyler Keith & the Apostles
The Hi-Tone Café
Friday, July 11th
Doors open at 9 p.m.; tickets $15