You might not recognize Tony Joe White
by name but chances are you recognize his songs.
A musical lone wolf born and raised on a Louisiana cotton farm about twenty miles from the nearest town (Oak Grove), White's unique blend of country funk and blues proved fertile for soulful singers from Elvis Presley
("Poke Salad Annie") to Brook Benton
("A Rainy Night in Georgia") to Dusty Springfield ("Willie and Laura Mae Jones") to Eric Clapton
("Did Somebody Make a Fool Out of You") to Tina Turner ("Steamy Windows") to Willie Nelson ("Problem Child") to Robert Cray
("Don't Steal My Love" and "Aspen, Colorado"). "Polk Salad Annie" climbed to number eight on the 1968 pop charts; two years later, Benton's lush vocal took "A Rainy Night in Georgia" to the top of the soul charts. Bad Mouthin'
, White's final album before his October 2018 passing, is most likely the record that he always wanted to make. He converted two horse stalls in his barn into a home studio, and parked his 1951 Fender Deluxe guitar amp in his land rover back behind the barn so he could still PLAY LOUD without overpowering the vocal, bass and percussion recordings, then cut every song in either one or two takes on his favorite 1965 Fender Stratocaster. Bassist Steve Forrest rumbles in for a few tunes; Bryan Owings plays drums on a few more.
Time added a whisper to White's inimitable drawl and grumble voice, but on Bad Mouthin'
, wrought mainly from the acoustic blues traditions of Mississippi John Hurt
and Lightnin' Hopkins
, that voice remains as quietly powerful as a morning sunrise.
"Baby Please Don't Go" conjures up the midnight spirits from Robert Johnson
's famed crossroads encounter with the devil, with White's acoustic guitar rumbling under his vocal like the sound of a tractor from a neighboring farm. Tunes by John Lee Hooker
and Jimmy Reed
further twist White's blues screws: Owings add just enough backbeat to keep "Boom Boom" moving while White's vocal sounds like dynamite detonated in a deep cavern, full of echo and power, and his electric guitar sound scrapes at the music like a dog nursing an sore open wound, curiously if painfully impossible to ignore. His vocal in "Big Boss Man" bubbles up hurt and frustration like a blues fountain, too.
White's original "Bad Dreams" flows into Hopkins' "Awful Dreams" like wax from a melting candle, his blues guitar slowly strangling out the heavy sound of a man wrestling down his demons alone in the cold, dark midnight of his soul. Bad Mouthin'
closes with a trip to "Heartbreak Hotel." A scream disguised as a whisper, corralling its sadness and anger into terrifying quiet, the way that White groans, "I get so lonely I could die..." leaves no doubt about it. Bad Mouthin'
is just as much a blue mood as it is a collection of blues music. "When and where I grew up, blues was just about the only music I heard and truly loved," Tony Joe White reflected upon its release. "I've always thought of myself as a blues musician, bottom line, because the blues is real, and I like to keep everything I do as real as it gets. So, I thought it was time to make a blues record that sounds the way I always loved the music."