UNCOVERED • Tony Joe White
In their vastly entertaining (and unfortunately near-impossible to find) documentary, Searching For Tony Joe, directors Christopher Chaput and Joseph Strickland chronicle their road trip from Austin to Nashville, undertaken in an effort to meet Tony Joe White. Along the way they ask numerous people if they have ever heard of the man, finding that a surprising number claim no knowledge of the writer and performer of such classics as "Polk Salad Annie" and "Rainy Night In Georgia."
Though under-appreciated in his own land, Tony Joe has never stopped making music. Since the late Sixties he has continued to write and play his tunes, landing covers along the way by Elvis Presley, Tom Jones, Ray Charles, Aaron Neville, Conway Twitty, Tina Turner, Hank Jr.--and those are just the household names. He has continued to tour and perform in Europe and Australia, and released at least one perfect record--One Hot July--as recently as 1998.
Two years ago, White proffered The Heroines, at first glance your standard "guest artist" CD. But nothing Tony Joe does can ever be considered standard. A true original, his guests were all women, and singularly appropriate ones at that: Jessi Colter, Shelby Lynne, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, and his talented daughter Michelle White. After two archival live releases, The Swamp Fox returns with Uncovered, another guest star turn. This time though it's the boys; both the ones you might expect--Mark Knopfler, J.J. Cale, Eric Clapton--and ones you might not, like Michael McDonald and Waylon Jennings (through a song White recorded for a Jennings record before the artist's death). Where they all meet the master is on the playing field of laid-back Southern soul. Much better known than their host, to a man the three superstars defer to the King of the Swamp Groove, improving their game in the process. Clapton turns in some of his most in-the-pocket playing, McDonald accentuates the smokiness rather than the stridency of his sound, and Knopfler shows more sensuousness in his singing than he has in a quite some time. Like the rambunctious twenty-somethings in Searching For Tony Joe, they seem transformed by their interaction with someone who has weathered a life in the slimy business of show with unequalled artistic integrity and consistently high-quality work.
At a New York performance to promote the record, White proved that the guest appearances on half the record were but icing on a cake comprised of ten terrific tunes. His self-possession, sly wit and sexy music are a potent and timeless combination. He remains living proof that rock & roll rebellion needn't involve screaming or profanity. By churning out one great recording after another, regardless of label or current trends, Tony Joe White remains a true iconoclast. As the man explains in the tune "Rebellion," "I'm in this thing for life / I didn't come here for just one song." • Michael Ross
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