Tony Joe White

Smoke from the Chimney

When Tony Joe White died in 2018 at age 75, just after the release of Bad Mouthin’, that raw collection of originals and blues covers seemed an appropriate epitaph for the Louisiana singer/songwriter/guitarist. When son Jody discovered nine unknown demos, Black Keys guitarist/producer (and Tony Joe admirer) Dan Auerbach took it from there.

In later years, White favored minimalism, performing with only his ’65 Strat and a drummer. Auerbach opted to reimagine the full-band sound of White’s late-’60s and early-’70s studio recordings, with occasional strings and backup singers. He recruited three guitarists; himself, Nashville session vet Billy Sanford and, on selected tracks, Paul Franklin’s pedal steel. The swampier material, with small bands framing White’s voice, are the most effective, with Auerbach’s intense solos enhancing “Bubba Jones,” “Boot Money,” and “Scary Stories.”

The large ensembles, unfortunately, often overwhelm White’s voice. Sanford’s graceful nylon-string embellishments and Franklin’s sympathetic licks enhance the ballad “Del Rio, You’re Making Me Cry.” Sanford’s subtle tic-tac bass stands out on “Listen to Your Song.” Adding new accompaniment to enhance any vintage recordings, however, poses inherent risks. Most such projects yield results ranging from ineffective to unlistenable; this one falls somewhere between.

This article originally appeared in VG’s July 2021 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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