In 1968, Washington D.C.-based Monument Records released Tony Joe White’s first single, “Polk Salad Annie,” a delectable blend of swamp rock and Mississippi Delta Blues that was immediately likable and addicting and unlike any other Top 40 record of the era. After nine months of circulation, the record never broke into the popular charts and was deemed a failure by the record company.
Yet, requests for the record trickled in from remote Southern U.S. locales, where White had toured, and a few visionary disc jockeys, recognizing the excellence and hit potential of the record, continued to play it. The unlikely hit single that sang of a staple food product of the pokeweed plant known to Southern culture – “poke sallet” – began a slow rebound and eventually climbed to #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 in July 1969, nine months after its release.
Here’s hoping it doesn’t take blues fans as long to find White’s new album, Hoodoo (Yep Roc Records). At 70 years old, the songwriter of one of the most beloved blues songs to ever hit the popular charts – “Rainy Night in Georgia” – has released a quietly stunning, guitar-driven blues album featuring a low and thumping bass line sure to fondle your blues hungry heart and shake the beer in your glass.
The blend of instruments – guitars, thumping bass, a touch of harmonica and keyboards – have such an organic and impromptu sound that it is no wonder White boasts that much of the album was recorded live to tape on first takes. It sounds like a flawless live performance. White’s fluid sliding guitar merges seamlessly with Steve Forrest’s bottom-feeding bass and Bryan Owen’s steady percussion, to create a simple but atmospheric and seductive blues music.
The autobiographical songs of hungry life in the rural Southern U.S. are heartfelt testimonies from a master of blues philosophy. “Alligator, Mississippi,” with its chugging chainsaw guitar, has all the muscle and drive of an alligator wrestling its dinner. “Gypsy Epilogue” fuses the dying embers of a gypsy campfire with an understated slide guitar adorning the sentiment – “can’t eavesdrop on the future, can’t dance with the past.”
The most striking songs are eyewitness accounts of the natural disasters too familiar to the people, often the poor people, of the deeply Southern U.S. The cyclic narrative of “Storm’s Comin'” embraces familial bonds with White’s touching patriarchal voice hurrying his family away from danger with just a degree of desperation:”Kids get up, get your clothes on, storm’s comin’.”
The catastrophic 2010 Nashville floods are documented in “The Flood,” where White and his touring band are forced to higher ground in the mountains where they witness an unrecognizable Nashville below, with “guitars floating down the river and drum sets washed up on the road.” These storm-themed songs come from a voice that has intimately respected the ravages of nature.
Listening to White is like listening to the elder father at the family supper table, who holds you spellbound with tales of storms, lovers and family bonds. He grips the listener in a warm cocoon of fascination while never abandoning a rich and rowdy blues spirit. Hoodoo is a splendid blues album, maybe the best we’ll hear this year.