Deeply rooted in the South, songwriter and performer Tony Joe White made one last musical trip back to the swamp before his death at age 75 in October 2018 — to re-record his deep and durable 1969 Top 10 hit “Polk Salad Annie” in his barn studio in Leipers Fork, Tennessee. Joined by bluesman Robert Cray, longtime accompanist Bryan Owings on drums, and a three-piece horn section, White turned his amplifier up and ignited the session, caught on this special vinyl-only release that’s out July 23, 2019 on White’s own Swamp Records. The A-side of “Polk Salad Annie (50th Anniversary Edition)” features White leading an eight-piece band through a riveting, raw-boned performance of the song, and the B-side is an instrumental-only mix. The single was produced by Jody White, Tony Joe’s son and manager, and engineered by Ryan McFadden, who both also played those roles in the making of the senior White’s blues-drenched much-lauded 2018 album, Bad Mouthin’.
White was playing the rough-and-tumble crawfish circuit, a network of roadhouses stretching through southwest Louisiana and Texas, when he penned both “Polk Salad Annie,” a song about a swamp-raised “girl who made the alligators look tame” and “A Rainy Night in Georgia” — the numbers that would elevate him to the world’s stage and make him a songwriter of choice for Elvis Presley, Eric Clapton, Tina Turner, Brooke Benton, Dusty Springfield, Robert Cray, Kenny Chesney, Willie Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Mark Knopfler, and many others.
“I was playing gigs at the time, when I realized that it was the people writing the songs who were really making the money,” White explained in 2018, after recording Bad Mouthin’. “Those were two of the first songs I wrote. From then on, it seemed really natural to keep writing.” White believed in composing songs plucked from his own experience. So it was with “Polk Salad Annie.” Like his “Annie,” White grew up in the swamps — the youngest of seven children on a cotton farm about 20 miles from the nearest town, Oak Grove, Louisiana. White credited the region with instilling its sounds — old bluesmen beating on worn guitars, voices echoing across the water, the hissing of cottonmouths and the grunting of ’gators, the cry of harmonicas, and the stomping of feet at Saturday night fish frys — in his music.
When “Polk Salad Annie” was first released in 1968, it failed to chart and his then-label, Monument Records, considered it a failure. But the song gradually built airplay and enthusiasm until it entered the charts in June 1969 and reached #8 in early August. With its distinctly American story and sound, “Polk Salad Annie” set White within a cosmology of artists — including the Band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Bob Dylan — who would eventually be acknowledged as cornerstones of the Americana music genre.
The new “Polk Salad Annie (50th Anniversary Edition)” hews close to the original’s arrangement, although White’s commanding baritone voice has an even more Mt. Rushmore-like character, and there’s also a granite-like surety in the big tone of his 1965 Fender Stratocaster and 1951 Fender Deluxe amp. The groove has indomitable strength and depth, and the horns and Cray’s guitar fills and solo nod toward Memphis R&B and blues. Altogether, it’s a potent balance of soul, virtuosity, and humor, while sounding utterly unforced and natural.“That was one of my dad’s strengths as an artist and man,” Jody White relates. “He was always laid-back, nonchalant, and cool. “He was also a gentleman, and classy. He would never brag about himself — although I don’t know an artist or songwriter who had such a lack of musical boundaries and appealed to as many songwriters in as many different genres as he did. And he had his own guitar style, which was also laid-back, even while it drove every band that supported him and every song he played.”
White was born in 1943 and began playing guitar and singing in the magnolia groves and bayous around his family’s home. When he began performing, it was initially solo, in the tradition of most of the music he’d heard played live. “My style comes from hearing blues singers play guitar with maybe just a harmonica or stomping their feet for accompaniment,” he explained. Adding a drummer, he cut his teeth playing school dances and then moved on to the watering holes of lower Louisiana and Texas. Two years after “Polk Salad Annie” peaked, Brook Benton’s recording of “A Rainy Night in Georgia” topped the soul charts. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history — a history that includes more than a half-century of touring, recording and writing hits and much-loved classics: Dusty Springfield’s “Willie and Laura Mae Jones,” Eric Clapton’s “Did Somebody Make a Fool Out of You,” Tina Turner’s and Kenny Chesney’s versions of “Steamy Windows,” Willie Nelson’s “Problem Child,” Robert Cray’s “Don’t Steal My Love” and “Aspen, Colorado,” and many more.
“Polk Salad Annie (50th Anniversary Edition)” is a fitting tribute to White’s long, strong career and a reminder of the vitality he displayed until the end.