Blue Notes

Tony Joe White Reminisces on a Career Inspired by Lightnin' Hopkins

The last time we saw Tony Joe White he was in town to play at the original Walter’s on Washington maybe 15 years ago. We'd met White earlier for what was supposed to be an interview at the old Days Inn at I-10 and T.C. Jester, but upon arriving found White and his drummer in the motel office and the parking lot crawling with police. Just prior to his arrival, a maid found a dead body under the bed in the room that had been allocated for White.

“Yeah, that was one of the freakiest days I’ve ever spent on the road,” laughs White, the swamp-rocker whose signature 1969 hit “Polk Salad Annie” became a linchpin of Elvis Presley’s live sets. White also wrote hits for Brook Benton and Tina Turner, among others, and is one of the most nonplussed individuals in the music industry.

“You know, man, for all the people I’ve gotten to meet and hang out with, from Elvis to Willie to people like Tina Turner, Mark Knopfler, and others who’ve cut my songs, what I really dig is living out here in this little town and just sitting on the back porch and watching the fall weather come on,” he says.

White, who plays Dosey Doe Saturday with drummer Fleetwood Cadillac, lives these days about 50 miles outside Nashville “at a wide place in the road where everybody knows everybody else and no one much cares about all the music business hoopla," he says. "We’re all just folks around here.”

While White, who says he knew by the time he was 15 he was going to be a musician, is happy to talk about artists and celebrities he’s intersected with, he wants to make clear the effect Houstonian Lightnin’ Hopkins had on his career.

“I grew up on a cotton farm in North Louisiana with a brother, five sisters, my mother and father, and we could all play guitar and piano,” White explains, “so I was around music all the time, there was music every day. But one day my brother had been off somewhere and he came home with an album by Lightnin’ Hopkins and it just set me on fire. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever heard, and that was about the time I started takin’ my daddy’s ol’ guitar up to my room to practice late at night.

“These people at Warner Brothers knew I loved Lightnin’,” White recalls, “and they heard he was out in Los Angeles cutting California Mudslide (and Earthquake) and they arranged for me to fly out there and play on the album with him. So I’m in the studio with my guitar when he comes in with his wife. They’ve got this paper bag with a jug of wine in it and Lightnin’ gets the jug and comes through the control room and over to me and says ‘so you’re gonna play with me, boy?’ and I said, ‘yessir,’ and he said ‘show me something,’ so I played some licks off his records and he says, ‘OK, fine, let’s do this’.” So we cut 14 songs in one long session, then Lightnin’ packs up his guitar and the lady takes the paper sack over the producer and he drops 14 one-hundred dollar bills in the sack and they left. And I remember thinking that’s how you do it: no royalties, no contracts, just play the stuff, get the money, and go on about your business. Old Lightnin’, he was something else.”

Several times during the interview White mentions how important Texas was for his career.

“I spent 12 years and really got my start down in the Corpus Christi area, and then I did some time in Memphis, but Texas was always a big part of whatever I was doing as far as touring and finding an appreciative audience.”

Golf brought White into Willie Nelson’s orb and he and Nelson maintain a long friendship.

“I’ve gotten to hang with a lot of cool people, but Willie’s in his own class,” White laughs. “I started doing those first charity golf tournaments that Willie and coach Darrell Royal used to host at The Woodlands before they moved it to Austin. Man, we'd play golf all afternoon then we'd pick and sing in the hotel rooms all night. Talk about some parties. Lordy, Houston has always been loaded with panthers.” [The rest of us call them cougars, but TJW prefers panthers.]

Willie’s Zen is something else that White has noticed and attempted to pick up over the years.

“Willie has the Cadillac of all golf carts,” White explains. “It’s amazing how much liquor and stuff he has on that thing. One day we went out to play and of course Willie told me to have whatever I wanted but he didn’t have a drink, just lit up a reefer. So Willie puts his ball on the tee, takes a big drag and is holding his breath, and he hits this ball that goes almost straight up. I doubt it went a hundred yards. And Willie’s holding that smoke in and watching that ball and it seems to take forever to come down. After it hits the ground he exhales and grins and says, ‘Tony Joe, that’s what it’s all about.’ And I’m like, ‘what’s that, Willie,’ and just grins and says, ‘hang time, it’s all about the hang.’”

White’s first success came via “Polk Salad Annie,” which he cut for Fred Foster’s Monument Records label. White regrets never having met labelmate Roy Orbison.

“It just never happened that we were together,” says White. “Roy was such a one-of-a-kind talent. That thing he had, he could do soul, rock and roll, country, ballads, rockers, he just had almost no limits as far as talent goes. I really wish we had met.”

Monument was somewhat outside the established Music Row pecking order, but White says Nashville attitudes rarely impacted him.

“My career was so outside the mainstream country set of people who run that side of Nashville that it never really had much effect on me," he says. "I just was never part of that scene and system. I moved here from Memphis, which is also a great music town, it has all that Sun Records history and Stax and all that, but you don’t see billboards coming in from the airport of Elvis or Carl Perkins or Johnny Cash. But in Nashville there’s someone’s picture on a big billboard everywhere.”

White recalls a significant visitor during his time in Memphis.

“Waylon and Jesse called and said they were driving through, so I told Waylon to just come on over to my place,” White recalls. “So they drive up in that big gold Cadillac Waylon loved and he opens the trunk and I see a guitar case in there. So Waylon looks at me and says, ‘you like Strats [Fender Stratocaster guitar model], so open that case.’

“It was a tweed case and I opened it and there was 1958 Strat in almost mint condition. Waylon had gotten it from some relative of his, but he tells me he wants me to have the guitar, and I’m like ‘I can’t take your guitar,’ and he says ’if you don’t get that guitar and put it in the house, I’m going to put it in front of the car and run over it, because I play Telecasters,’ he continues. "Man, I’m thinking that the Japanese were paying $40-50,000 for some of those vintage Strats at that time," he says. "Anyway, I kept the guitar but I don’t play it. I keep it locked up.”

Now 72, White says his health is good and he’s looking forward to the coming tour.

“We’re doing New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Lafayette,” says White, “so there’ll be lots of kinfolks. And I’m really looking forward to getting back to Houston because it’s been a while and it has always been good to me.”

Tony Joe White performs at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, October 17 at Dosey Doe, 25911 I-45 N., The Woodlands.
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William Michael Smith