Like the whisper of a steamy twilight breeze carrying smoked pine tar scent, the hushed musical tones of Tony Joe White’s singing still the mind, jar the soul, and cause a deep craving for more. You almost feel him before you hear him. A Louisiana cotton farm upbringing instilled his matchless inflection, and when he wrote and played guitar, his words and notes were enveloped in a wondrous patchwork of country, rock and hoodoo juju timbres. Tony Joe White began delivering the first songs of what became known as the “swamp-rock” genre — including his classics “Polk Salad Annie” and “Rainy Night in Georgia” — in the late 1960s. The Swamp Fox, as he was called, left this world two years ago. But as he affirms in the sweeping, nostalgic title song here, “Some things are special, they don’t ever fade away.”
Tony Joe White is as special as they come, and he’s back in glowing spirit, assisted by the Midas touch of the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. “Smoke from the Chimney” contains nine songs that White left behind as demos, discovered recently by his son. That they never previously saw the light of day is quite surprising, because they surely rank among his best. Dressed up as they are here, they’re massive. And heady. Auerbach gathered a perfectly understanding band of some of Nashville’s finest players, and with himself on guitar, cut the album live on the floor to the smoking fire of White’s recorded voice and guitar. The results are both startling, and natural, sounding as similar as can be to one of White’s vintage Muscle Shoals sessions, but even better by way of Auerbach’s use of today’s technology.
White sets the first scene with “Smoke from the Chimney,” its melodies wrapping the listener in a cozy blanket of familial tenderness. But as endearing as that is for an album-opener, don’t get too comfy. Because White promptly kicks your ass across a butt-strewn, dusty lot with “Boot Money,” the stomping excitement of a simple, defiant experience enhanced by Auerbach’s incredibly frenzied guitar. “Del Rio You’re Making Me Cry” then changes the landscape dramatically, but without a hitch, eliciting a luxurious feeling of gliding off into a Southwestern sunset by its beat, and by the gut string Flamenco-style guitar playing of Billy Sanford. “Over You” continues in that spirit, a lush country song with mature character about a 7- year-old kid’s first brush with puppy love, and how it transcended.
All of White’s songs are essentially character studies with tons of character. They’re usually poignant, now and then humorous, and they always land some kind of right punch dead-on. Take “Bubba Jones.” A grinding, rolling, Memphis to Louisiana groove paints a vivid picture of a codger doing his damned best to be the best damn fisher of largemouth bass. Guest guitarist Marcus King unleashes with a vehemence in the song, the fire in his solo emulating the excitement of the moment the man lands the record bass. Who else does that but Tony Joe? And by the way, with just a few possessed rips, Marcus King justifies his rapid ascent to the upper echelons of Southern guitar slingers.
Posthumously released albums of enhanced leftovers by artists of significance can be tricky, and oftentimes fail. “Smoke from the Chimney” deserves awards, and in multiple categories. Avowed fans will be thrilled with it, and it’s a great album to turn someone on to the genius of Tony Joe White. Rest in peace, Mr. White, but please do visit again, with another batch of gems like this.
Tony Joe White
‘Smoke from the Chimney’
Label: Easy Eye Sound
Release: May 7, 2020
Produced by Dan Auerbach
Recorded and Engineered by M. Allen Parker at Easy Eye Sound
Vocal Engineering by Ryan McFadden
Additional Engineering by Caleb VanBuskirk and Trey Keller
Assistant Engineering by Michael Deano and Mickey Smay
Mixed by M. Allen Parker and Dan Auerbach at Easy Eye Sound
Mastered by Ryan Smith at Sterling Sound, Nashville, TN
Executive Producer: Jody White