Stroke of genius 

After golfing and fishing, Tony Joe White makes music

Tony Joe White defines laid-back. The north Louisiana-born blues rocker recorded his signature song, "Polk Salad Annie," in 1969, followed soon after by soul classics "Willie and Laura Mae Jones" and "Rainy Night in Georgia." On those songs, his breathy baritone is only slightly louder than a speaking voice. He doesn't sound like he expended any more energy than necessary.

It doesn't sound like much has changed for him. Talking by phone from his home in Leiper's Fork, Tenn., he tells the story of Waylon Jennings giving him a guitar as if Jennings gave them away every day.

"He gave me a '58 Strat he had in his trunk," White says. "He said, 'I use Telecasters and I hate these ol' Strats.' I said, 'Well, I use Strats and I don't know what to say.'"

Before Jennings died in 2002, the pair demoed a track that appears on White's upcoming album, The Heroes. The album is a follow-up to 2004's The Heroines, which featured duets with Lucinda Williams, Jessi Colter and Emmylou Harris among others, all women White has worked with or written for over the years. The album's standout track is "Can't Go Back Home," a duet with Shelby Lynne, who covered "Rainy Night in Georgia" on her latest album, Suit Yourself.

By now, White has figured out how to mix business with pleasure, and you get the feeling he does pretty much what he pleases. He records with his friends, and does much of his work at his own studio in Franklin, just outside of Nashville. His son, Jody, manages him. If he's collaborating with West Coast-based artists such as J.J. Cale or Lucinda Williams, Jody sends the tracks as computer files to them so they can add their parts on and send them back.

When White feels like writing, he takes an acoustic guitar -- maybe some beer -- down to a creek on his land and builds a fire. He works on the song for a night or two until he has it nailed down. He doesn't write fast, only seven or eight songs a year, he says, but he's satisfied that the songs are "truthful and right."

If nothing is coming to him, he doesn't force it. He spends time on his land or plays golf with his drummer, Jeff Hale, whom he refers to on stage as "Swamp Man Loose." White's a 12 handicap, and it seems appropriate that he plays with classic hickory-shafted golf clubs.

"About 18 years ago, I got into Bobby Jones and started studying his way," White says. "I had all these graphite clubs and anti-hook and anti-slice clubs, and I got to collecting these old wooden shafted clubs and shooting even better." He plays when he gets time on the road, and has played in Europe and Australia. "England always has a game waiting on me somewhere," he says. On one trip, he played the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland, the home of the British Open.

White occasionally performs with a full band, more commonly touring with only Hale accompanying him on drums. Though his records have all the trappings of soul albums -- B-3 organs, horns, backing vocalists -- live he is just as soulful because his vocals sound felt and private. But things never settle into a sleepy groove. His guitar solos surprise with periodic blasts of distorted guitar as intense as anything on the Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat.

In the past few years, he has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, so much so that his tour schedule is more hectic than it was during the heyday of "Polk Salad Annie."

"It seems like I've been in Europe or Australia three and four times a year," White says. "That kind of knocked out the brim and fly rod fishing pretty quick. I told Jody, 'Hey man, I didn't get into this to mess up my fishing.'"


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