The first song Tony Joe White ever finished was “Polk Salad Annie,” the popular late-Sixties tribute to Southern women and edible weeds. Half a century later, he’s grown into a bluesy, backwoods folk hero, celebrated for his swampy guitar playing, slow-motion delivery and signature songwriting. He’s still an active musician, too, regularly recording and touring as a 74-year-old road warrior.
As this week’s guest on Walking the Floor, White talks about Wille Nelson’s golfing etiquette, Lightnin’ Hopkins’ studio routine and his own approach to tracking down the muse. Our list of episode highlights is below, followed by the full premiere of Chis Shiflett’s podcast.
White’s songwriting process involves the great outdoors and a bit of booze.
For White, having a productive day normally hinges upon having a good time. He approaches his songwriting from a similar perspective, coaxing out new musical ideas with a little help from a few beers and some fresh air. “I usually have a guitar lick or something going in my head just about all the time,” he explains. “When I get home [from touring] and can get out[side], get a six pack of cold beer and go down by the river and build a little fire and get an acoustic guitar, usually something will come along. But I don’t push it.”
He comes from a big family of musicians.
“I had five sisters, an older brother – he’s the oldest, I’m the youngest, and we had them girls in between us – and then Mom and Dad, and all of them played guitar and piano and sang,” he says of his childhood in rural Louisiana. “We’d sit on the porch at night – it was a cotton farm – after you’d been working all day, picking cotton. I was 6 or 7 years old at the time, and I’d sit on the porch after dark, listening to them all harmonize and play a lot of gospel.”
He once played backup guitar on a Lightnin’ Hopkins record, and watched the blues legend collect his money in a liquor-store paper sack.
“He had a big paper sack with a big ol’ jug of wine in it,” White says of Hopkins. “And he come right on in to the studio. He stopped for just a second and looked at me and said, ‘You playing with me, boy?’ I said ‘Yeah,’ and I went into ‘Baby, Please Don’t Go,’ or one of his licks or something, and he said, ‘Alright.’ He just turned around, walking into the booth and said, ‘Turn it on,’ and they turned that tape on, and me and him played 13 to 14 songs with only him stopping to hit his wine.”
White and Hopkins hadn’t rehearsed the songs, so White simply followed along, learning each composition as it unfolded. By the time the session wrapped up, Hopkins had finished his wine. White watched as the blues icon prepared to leave, carrying the paper sack that had once carried the wine. “He walked over to these two guys in suits with ties, and they dropped 10 $100 bills in that sack,” he remembers. “His wife folded it up and they walked out.”
Golfing with Willie Nelson is, predictably, a hazy experience.
Longtime friends, White and Nelson occasionally join each other for a round of golf on Nelson’s private course. During their first game together, White learned that his partner’s recreational habits extended all the way to organized sports. “He had a golf cart that had a full bar inside it, with everything in the world that you can imagine – and Willie didn’t even drink!” White says. “At that time, 11 o’clock in the morning, I just had a Coca Cola or something going. Willie got on the first tee and he already had a little smoke going, and he reared back and took a huge blow at the ball and it went straight up over his head about a hundred yards and almost hit him coming down. And it landed. And he turned to me and said, ‘Now, Tony Joe, this is what golf is all about: hang time!’ And any time that ball was up in the air, he was having him some puffs.”
Pop artists, blues singers and country icons have all covered White’s material – a feat that the songwriter attributes to the universality of his writing.
“I always thought it was the simplicity of the song,” he says, when asked to pinpoint a reason for his music’s popularity to other performers. “The way we’d cut it, it could hit anybody from Charlie Rich to Tina Turner to Elvis Presley. It didn’t have any boundaries. It was there. It was real.”