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Tony Joe White: Bad Mouthin'

Doug Collette By

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If Tony Joe White's seventeenth album, Bad Mouthin', proves anything, it's how deeply evocative of his Southern heritage are his own songs, even as they stand next to—and sound of a piece with—those of Jimmy Reed, Lightnin' Hopkins, John Lee Hooker and Charlie Patton. Appropriately, virtually all twelve tracks on this LP find the author of "Polk Salad Annie" and "Rainy Night in Georgia" playing all by himself, reaffirming the strength in the simplicity of the blues.

Not that such reaffirmation is all that necessary. When rendered in a setting of single electric guitar, harmonica and a near-whispered voice, the overt euphoria mixes with an undercurrent of dread (and vice-versa) during "Awful Dreams, " and "Sundown Blues." Along with this title tune, the latter is one of a pair of songs White first recorded in 1966 and here becomes updated with a beat of Bryan Owings' drums: the more pronounced rhythm is as suggestive of deliverance as demise. Meanwhile, the hushed harmonica on the former elucidates emotions even White's carefully-phrased singing of the lyrics cannot, as does his bittersweet electric picking.

It's a rare artist who can bring new life to (overly) familiar songs, but the Louisiana native's hushed performance of "Baby Please Don't Go" evinces the continuity of skills this seventy-six year old has practiced over more than a half-century; a span of time during which Tony Joe's material has been recorded by the disparate likes of Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson and Eric Clapton, this extended interval has allowed the man to nurtured a natural ease that permeates "Boom Boom" and "Heartbreak Hotel" (yes that one!). The seamless means by which White incorporates cover material with his originals further illustrates the history of the songs and the music that's been made of them over time.

Further befitting such experience is the technical expertise of producer Jody White and engineer Ryan McFadden. Recording in makeshift surroundings within the the artist's barn (!), the pair manage to capture the subdued spontaneity of Tony Joe White's stripped-down presentation here in a way that demonstrates the eternal truth of the blues in a song such as "Big Boss Man." And if the sound of Steve Forrest's bass is virtually inaudible on those two tracks where he appears—it's felt more than heard—that's appropriate: the barely-discernible heartbeat he supplies with his instrument is indicative of a deceptive yet distinctive intimacy that renders Bad Mouthin' simultaneously comforting and haunting.

Track Listing: Bad Mouthin'; Baby Please Don't Go; Cool Town Woman; Boom Boom; Big Boss Man; Sundown Blues; Rich Woman Blues; Bad Dreams; Awful Dreams; Down the Dirt Road Blues; Stockholm Blues; Heartbreak Hotel.

Personnel: Tony Joe White: vocals, guitar, harmonica; Steve Forrest: bass; Bryan Owings: drums.

Title: Bad Mouthin' | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: Yep Roc

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