By James Calemine
Tony Joe White’s work inspired many great musicians like Ray Charles, Brook Benton, Elvis Presley, Tina Turner, Dusty Springfield, Joe Cocker, John Mayall, Waylon Jennings, and many others to cover his songs.
Just tunes like “Polk Salad Annie”, “Rainy Night in Georgia”, “The Change”, and “Willie Mae and Laura Jones” rank White as a prolific songwriter. In recent years, he’s even written jingles for McDonald’s, Levi’s, and various movie soundtracks.
The Heroines emerges as White’s first record in six years, and his initial on Sanctuary Records. This ten song CD stands as White’s best in years. Recorded in Franklin, Tennessee, at Church Street Studio, The Heroines showcases White’s inimitable baritone voice and swampy guitar work.
The musical guests on this album include White’s favorite female singers——Shelby Lynne, Lucinda Williams, Michelle White, Emmylou Harris, and Jessi Colter. Three compositions White wrote with his wife Leann. In a recent interview White revealed, “Every instrumental track is a first take. Most of my vocals were first takes. And the first take from every girl was the one we used on the album.”
The opening track, an instrumental, titled “Gabriella” sounds like a virtuoso guitarist playing from some unknown open window while you walk down a dusty Mexican street. He exercises his “ladies first” gentility by allowing each female’s voice to appear first on every song. Shelby Lynne’s sultry voice seduces the listener from the start on “Can’t Go Back Home”. This midnight hour song contends as one of the album’s strongest tunes.
After all these years, White’s deep voice resembles that of Townes Van Zandt’s. Along with a Mark Knopfler-sounding riff, White’s signature seductive lyrical flair appears in “Ice Cream Man”:
“Sometimes she’s a little girl
Licking on an ice cream cone
But she can be a man handler
You know the woman is strong
She can play all day
And ride the gator all night long.”
White’s laid back sonic textures produce a musical magic. Lucinda Williams injects her own mojo with White on “Closing In On The Fire”, consummating their Louisiana heritage on this lowdown backwater song.
White employs various musical styles of blues, jazz, and country, augmented by his own low country sound to define the album’s heavy-lidded mood. On a Jimmy Reed-ish “Back Porch Therapy” White’s bourbon soaked voice prohibits one’s pulse from rising over 72. A poetic, Flamenco flavored “Playa Del Carmen Lights” features White’s talented daughter Michelle in her own vocal spotlight.
Recently, White explained his vision for The Heroines: “I know these particular women not only through their music. I know em’ from hanging out with them, doing shows with them, writing songs. Jessi, we’ve known each other since 75——her and Waylon and my wife. Michelle, my daughter, is a heroine to me, with her writing and her work. And Lucinda and Emmylou? God.”
Emmylou Harris sings on “Wild Wolf Calling Me”. With her sweet voice, the song resembles a traditional country recording. By this point, the listener realizes they’re hearing a classic album. What other songwriter features five amazing female superstars in one cohesive 49-minute recording?
The horn-laced “Rich Woman Blues” reverts back to White’s early 70s recordings complete with Lightning Hopkins guitar licks, low-bottom bass, and a front porch harmonica. In “Robbing My Honeycomb” he conjures a mean rhythm and blues feel, reiterating White’s juke joint power, and subtle guitar mastery.
The late Waylon Jennings’ wife, Jessi Colter, sings with White on “Fireflies In the Storm” which completes all guest female appearances. “Chaos Boogie” reflects on the modern day world seen through the eyes of an old country boy from the bayou. The Heroines avoids any apolitical blues. Yet, White reflects on a modern dilemma when he sings,
“Ain’t no highway that ain’t getting worked on
Automobiles ain’t got no room
Ain’t no building that ain’t getting worked on
Build them so high, they cover up the moon.
Ain’t no handgun that you can’t get a hold of
So many weapons, any kind you need
People walking around like the old west days
Get a cap busted in you for just being on the wrong side of the street.”
The final song, another acoustic instrumental that bookends the album, “Gabriella’s Affair” completes the album’s spontaneous spirit. For a shot of authentic swamp music, go out and add The Heroines to your collection.