Tony Joe White – Bad Mouthin’
Yep Roc Records
12 songs – 51 minutes
75-year-old Tony Joe White’s muse shows no signs of deserting him just yet. His latest album, Bad Mouthin’, released on Yep Roc Records on 28 September, features five original tracks and covers of seven classic blues songs, all played with a raw, primal intensity.
Perhaps best known as a nonpareil songwriter of Americana (“Polk Salad Annie”, “A Rainy Night In Georgia” and “Steamy Windows” are just a few of his many songs covered by the likes of Elvis Presley, Brook Benton, Dusty Springfield, Eric Clapton and Tina Turner), White has been releasing albums under his own name since the late 1960s. Bad Mouthin’ is his first album since 2016’s Rain Crow however and sees White mining a deeper blues vein than in his previous releases.
The majority of the tracks on Bad Mouthin’ feature White by himself, singing in his ragged, ancient, ageless half-whispered voice, while accompanying himself on the beaten-up 1965 Fender Stratocaster that has been his main guitar throughout his career. He also adds brief harp to some tracks. White’s long-time drummer, Bryan Owings, provides sparse accompaniment of some tracks and Steve Forrest adds bass to two songs.
The cover songs are all very well-known but are all given a different perspective by White. His version of “Baby Please Don’t Go” is probably closest to Lightnin’ Hopkins’ typically idiosyncratic interpretation, while Charley Patton’s “Down The Dirt Road Blues” is played at an upbeat clip in an almost country style with White’s vocal conveying the underlying threat in the lyrics perfectly. John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom” is slowed right down, while Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man” drops the loping groove and the pleading vocal of the original in favor of a sense of dark intimidation and foreboding. Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Awful Dreams” also reaches depths of unexpected despair, while “Heartbreak Hotel” is slowed down and turned into a funereal, mournful, pared-back cry of despair.
White’s own songs include the title track and “Sundown Blues”, two of his earliest recordings from 1966, recently rediscovered and recorded anew for this record. “Rich Woman Blues” first appeared on his 2004 album, The Heroines, while “Cool Town Woman” comes from 1991’s Closer To The Truth and “Stockholm Blues” is on 1970’s Tony Joe.
There are no solos on Bad Mouthin’. This is a collection of pared-back songs reflecting White’s mythical America, where life is hard and cruel and fate may (and probably will) play a bad hand to anyone. White’s hagged, weary voice is the centerpiece of each song on an often startling release.
Given the sheer number of classic songs that Tony Joe White has penned over the years, it is perhaps a shame there are no new songs on Bad Mouthin’. On the other hand, engineer Ryan McFadden and producer Jody White have coaxed and captured some timeless performances from White. This is the stark, brutal blues of someone like John Campbell, fed through a swamp filter. If William Faulkner played the blues, it would sound like Tony Joe White on Bad Mouthin’.