Tony Joe White – Speaking Of The Source

The spark that originality lit Tony Joe White’s muse was The Blues and now he has made an elemental, stone blues album called Bad Mouthin’ to make that very point. His distinctive guitar playing and unique voice have made him a global legend of music. Pete caught up with Tony again for the lowdown….against the background of what sounds like macaws and an electrical storm.

Joshua Black

I’m still grateful for the unedited version of Polk Salad Annie that you played for me at The Borderline! How are you, maestro?

Oh yes I remember that..the 45 single did fade pretty fast! – but you asked that night and you got, Pete…

And whilst on that night, how is your lad Jody? It was fun bearing witness to your gig over here with Jeff Beck and Lou Reed!

(Laughs) Yep – and he had to hear it from you, to believe it happened! He wasn’t around then to be at Crystal Palace. Yes, we did talk about my time with Elvis, I recall?

Yes, when Elvis recorded Polk Salad Annie live and wanted you the writer there!

Yep, he flew an airplane down to Memphis to pick me up, that’s me and my family..we got to see him and the band record the song. In fact, he recorded it six times. Then every night we’d get to hang out in the dressing room, play a little guitar.

It was good, man! Good times with The King….he always treated me good!

This album of yours, Bad Mouthin’…this is what I would term absolute stone blues, in all respects. Have you been wanting to do this for a while?

Yes. I had in mind to make this kind of album for quite a long period. You know, when I was young I was just so struck with Lightnin’..with John Lee…affected my playing, the way I sang, everything, I guess. When and where I grew up, blues was just about the only music I heard and truly loved So I’ve always thought of myself as a blues musician, bottom line, because the blues to me is real, and I like to keep everything I do as real as it gets. So, yes – I thought it was time to make a blues record that sounds the way I always loved the music, the feeling of it, the impact

On this record, a lot of it sure sounds like your ’65 Strat

(Laughs) Sure is…my best friend, that guitar! Plus a coupla others, on some tunes on there…so, I know how to play it, I now how to sing it. We moved my studio around, here at the house. We fixed the barn up, so we could have the space in there and some of the gear. Then we could get the best sound on the acoustic guitar and the harmonica..and the foot tappin’ on the ground….plus we used drums on a couple of the numbers

That Strat and that wah pedal – that’s the sound of Swamp Rock, to me

Yeah – and the Tone Bender, which I got over in England..around ’65 I guess

How did you get such a clean guitar sound?

I made it work..oh and there’s kinda two rooms in the with me and the microphone over in the control room and the Fender amp in the other..well, you can get the separation easy that way and record.

Do you remember the Excello record label? They had Slim Harpo and got a similar sound on the recordings.

Him, Jimmy Reed…that’s a model for the sound BUT I don’t try to sing like them, I am going for my own delivery, my way of doing it. The blues guitar I’m playin’ has a lot of Lightnin’ Hopkins..that’s the way it kinda worked out!

When you were young, did you hear these records on the radio? Or on the jukebox?

Mostly, Pete on the jukebox. Down in Texas, I was living in Texas. There was an old blues club out there and they had the best jukebox in the area. Reed, Hooker, Wolf – you name it. Then later in Nashville there was a very cool record store. There was a radio show from it and I would stay up til twelve or one o’clock and that’s what they played – The Blues. Back then, we didn’t have television..there wasn’t much to do anywhere, really – except entertain yourselves. So we could play music, to stay sane and stay keen. My Mom, my Dad, my brother..all played and sang. Could be Country or Gospel songs. Then my brother brought home a Lightnin’ album when I was sixteen and that was it for me..

I do a Hopkins song called Hello Central..sounds so fresh, even now..albeit rearranged a bit

Great song! After I started writing and doing my own stuff, I still wanted that blues guitar happening in’s in my bones!

You have a song on here Cool Town Woman – reminds me of Leadbelly. Skips along

Puts a little breeze in the room…that lighter thang.

I don’t know whether you know Taj Mahal

(Warmly ) Yeah! I met him! I’ve played with him on shows here and there. Not together but on the same bill. England, Belgium, Germany.

The other song that really turned me on here was your version of Heartbreak Hotel

That’s another tune I feel in my bones..they all come from upstairs, somehow.

Bryan Owens, your drummer here, he has such a great feel…

Been with me about fourteen years now. Can play blues, ballads..and yes he has just got such a smooth feel to what he contributes..

Could you tell me about Stockholm Blues, on the album?

Stockholm Blues is about the early days, playin’ around Europe. I think it was probably my second trip over. We got to Stockholm and played in a club, for a bunch of radio people and others. All I had was a guitar and a Coca Cola box! It’s about keeping on, finding the resolution to do that.

I’m glad you included Baby Please Don’t Go

Now that had to be on there, because I always loved Lightnin’ Hopkins’ version of that song. That many people have done, of course. Mose Allison, man – he used to do it

Is Boom Boom a favourite?

Ah well we used to do that with the full band – organ, bass, drums and all. But this time I wanted to cut it right back to basics, for this album. A little slower, a little more funkier.

Johnny Cash must have heard very similar music to you, early on

Y’know, when I was young I would not make an effort to listen to Country music. Never. It was that blues radio. For me! Sounded dangerous. When you’re a little kid growing up down in the swamps, and you step on a cottonmouth … that’s real…

Pete Sargeant


(Many thanks to Tony and Claire Horton)

All Photos Credited To Joshua Black

You can listen to the album’s title track in this article.

Tony Joe White’s new album ‘Bad Mouthin’ is out now on Yep Roc Records.

You can read our review of the album here:

For more information visit his official website: