Caught by the River

Rain Crow by Tony Joe White

20th May 2016

Out today via Yep Roc Records. Review by Jeb Loy Nichols

Rain Crow –
I saw you walking on a rainy day
Nothing over your head
You were smiling just like a sunny day
Was there something in the thunder being said?

Every couple of years it happens. Often in the spring. When things are on the change. The trees and shrubbery and untended lengths. Those things planted and not planted that sprout and then sprawl. Wherein live a multitude of wordless beasts. That fly and crawl and dash and burrow. At unlikely angles. This thing that is in no way a part of that world and yet, in some unsayable way, belongs there.

A new Tony Joe White record. Every time it happens the world is made just a little bit better. A bit more strange, a bit wilder. A bit less dull. I’ve been looking out for them, and welcoming them, since I was a teenager. Since I was living in Texas nearly forty years ago. Listening to Tony Joe White has made me, in some large way, who I am.

It all began due to a chance remark by Dan Del Santo. I was over in his house on the East Side. His wife too was there and I was delighted. I was what? A teenager and I felt small. I felt confused and under siege. With all my desperate youngness. But to sit with Del Santo was magic. He filled the room and I watched. Playing his Gibson L-25 guitar. Some old blues kind of tune. The house being a little run down but agreeable. He sat and strummed and then later said something about Tony Joe White.

Dan Del Santo spoke the name Tony Joe White as I’d heard him speak other red-letter names; reverence was involved, and delight, and a kind of brazenness. A presumption of alikeness. I paid attention. I did my best to always pay attention.

I’m thinking now of how when he said the words Tony Joe White, I nodded and filed them away, already on the lookout. Wanting to have the things Del Santo had, wanting to love what he loved. An eager and dutiful student. And how I felt a month later when I bought my first Tony Joe White record. As if in the presence of some superb secret. In the hard sun, outdoors, in a flea market. South of town in a disused timber yard. Saturday morning. Where the timber yard sign used to be it now said Scorn Porn; below that it said Reside With Me Oh Master. Another sign said Fresh Funnel Cake Here Today. Tony Joe was on the cover, wearing a flat brimmed hat; on the back he was riding a horse. It cost me fifty cents. The record was called Tony Joe.

I hurried home with my record and my bottle of root beer and I came through my yard and pushed open my door and went quick into my room and the first Tony Joe White track I ever heard was Stud Spider. The very first. I put the needle on and there it was. Side one, track one. It leapt out. I was mystified. I was only a kid.

What intrigued me was the sound of it. The ooze, the seep, the puddled noise of it. As if listening to the muttered grunts of thunder clouds. The uneven flow of water. The clatter of tractor wheels. Sounds that inhabit the world in a guileless way. Tony Joe White sang, and played, and wrote, like autumn.

They began, slowly, to pile up. A little stack of Tony Joe White records; I kept them separate from my other things. I kept him away from Johnnie Taylor, from Merle Haggard, from Bob Wills, from Bobby Womack. From George Jones and The Carpenters. He was over there, detached, a dissenter. He was no game player or realist. Nothing practical. Not a technician or craftsman. He was only ever entirely himself. Impossible, unreasonable. A disputant.

Tony Joe White, my Steppenwolf, referred to himself as ‘The Tennessee Swamp Fox’. Allying himself with the nonhuman, the untrainable, the questionable, the shadow being. On the ceaseless prowl.

I liked his pace, his flow, his delivery. His reluctance. The way he waited, the way he watched. Or so it seemed. So I believed. It felt to me like he went about things in a slower fashion than did the average citizen. The generally accepted standards of speed and acquisition are not what you got when you were dealing with Tony Joe White.

Tony Joe White is old and isn’t old at all. I know very little about his personal way of being; his position in society. I know nothing of his family or his choice of holiday locations. I don’t know if there are siblings or a wife or left behind children. I don’t know if he worries or if he wakes frightened. I don’t know where he lives. What do I care about Tony Joe White in the world? You start caring about Tony Joe White in the world and you got problems. Big problems. Of the kind that warp basic reality. It’s the song for me, not the singer. What do I care for Tony Joe White’s heart? His home place? His patriotic allegiances? His wardrobe? I’m a record buyer. I buy records. I don’t buy people. I buy music. You care about the singer just a smidge too much, get interested in him as a man, and you know what you got? You got a disaster on your hands.

Rain Crow, the new record, is a gulf storm that blows in quickly and wets the world, leaving it bathed and battered. Tony Joe’s allegiance to the South, to the Country, to the Land, is complete. This is music that bubbles up and rains down, music made for rural unrest.

I don’t know if Rain Crow is the best record he’s ever made, it’s like asking what the best storm you ever saw was, or the best wave, or the best spring. Just know this: this is strong medicine and it stinks of the soil; this is as real and as great as it gets.

Tell me a swamp story
Not like the ones on TV
I want something that makes me shiver
Feel a coldness in my knees
– Tony Joe White

This article contains extracts from The Always Outside by Jeb Loy Nichols.

Jeb’s Jukebox
Jeb Loy Nichols