Tony Joe White is the sort of music you reach for when you want folks to know you’re serious. It’s emotion-rich music often referred to simply as ‘the truth,’ and on the Louisiana native’s new project, Hoodoo, he’s letting it pour straight through the speakers.
A collection of nine songs cut mostly in single takes, Hoodoo showcases the gritty swamp blues that made the singer famous with tunes like 1969’s “Polk Salad Annie.” Known through the ranks as an expert songwriter (everyone from Elvis Presley and Tina Turner to Chris Young have covered his songs), Tony Joe’s low delta-drenched voice belies his age on Hoodoo as the 70- year-old singer’s unique half whisper/half growl is as potent as ever. Call it mysterious or call it menacing, Tony Joe’s delivery is gripping as he spins dark tales tackling everything from shadowy women to suffocating alienation to growing up poor in the South.
I was sittin’ in a graveyard late one night, comes the album’s first line on the opener “The Gift.” Over a steady blues/rock beat meant to emphasize the story, Tony Joe details meeting a strange but powerful woman while alone in the cemetery with nothing but a guitar and a bottle of wine. Vaguely reminiscent of 1930s blues man Robert Johnson’s “Crossroad Blues,” the supernatural nuances are fascinating while the raw and open production style matches the rough narrative. Tony Joe’s music owes much to the blues and it should remind younger listeners of the sounds heard in the 2006 delta blues-based film Black Snake Moan. Songs like the John Lee Hooker-esque “Who You Gonna Hoodoo Now” or broke-down-and-scared “Alligator Mississippi” are steeped in the genre’s gritty realism. On “Holed Up,” a bleak and alienated existence is described in the lines, Dishes in the sink/chicken bones on the floor/I may be losing it/I don’t need it no more. Over a never-ending, three-chord pattern, frayed electric leads fight against the monotonous song structure as if trying to escape. Tony Joe’s eye for detail and his band’s powerful accompaniment drive the project through some dark territory.
Tony Joe draws inspiration from such sources as growing up poor as the son of a cotton farmer (the clawing “9 Foot Sack”) to the historic Nashville flood of 2010. On “The Flood,” an epic 7-minute tune that opens to low-end blues riffs and buzzing amplifiers, the story starts on a rainy night in Memphis before revealing its true subject just past the halfway point. There was guitars floatin’ down the river/drum sets washed up on the mud, he sings of what met him in Music City. With music that rises and falls on his command, Tony Joe allows stories to develop naturally. The quick “Storm Comin’” builds and swells to a tornado’s oncoming destruction. There’s a happy ending this time as Tony Joe appears to take pleasure in building narrow escapes into his music.
Some of the album’s finest moments are found on the beautiful ¾-time “Gypsy Epilogue.” Winding guitars accentuated by dramatic cello meet listeners with a deeply-held mysticism. There’s a sense of respect for the unknown here and in many ways that’s what ties Hoodoo together; we may not know what’s coming, but when it arrives, it’s the only truth we’ll know. And on Hoodoo, Tony Joe does his best to provide a soundtrack for that moment with a transcendent set that is gripping and powerful.
Key Tracks – “Gypsy Epilogue,” “The Flood,” “Who You Gonna Hoodoo Now,” “Holed Up”