Tony Joe White's swamp rock legacy plays on with posthumous 'Smoke From The Chimney' album
After Tony Joe White died, his son took to the archives.
He dug through a Franklin storage unit, finding boxes of reel-to-reel tapes with hundreds of demos from White's five-decade career as an enigmatic swamp-rock singer-songwriter.
"My dad didn't have a record deal from '78 until the '90s, but he had a home studio — which was a dangerous combination," said son-manager Jody White. "He was always making music and always recording and always putting it to tape."
Jody White fired off one track in an email to Nashville producer-Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach, who talked for years with Jody White about making a record with his dad but never previously connected.
Auerbach's response was instantaneous.
"He was like, 'Damn. What else do you have?'" Jody White said, adding: "He literally dug into it."
Auerbach took hold of nine unreleased Tony Joe White demos, transforming vocal-and-guitar performances to full-band arrangements that pay homage to the legacy of a songwriter whose songs were recorded by Elvis Presley, Waylon Jennings, Ray Charles and Tina Turner.
Tony Joe White — known for a Southern sound straddling blues, rock, R&B and country — died in 2018 at his home in Leiper's Fork, outside of Nashville. He was 75.
Called "Smoke From The Chimney," a posthumous Tony Joe White record releases Friday via Auerbach's Nashville label Easy Eye Sound.
"I was blown away," Auerbach told The Tennessean. "There's so much variation. It wasn't just one thing. That's obvious because it's Tony Joe. But when you're faced with this whole little bundle of brand new songs and they all fit together like some strange puzzle, even though they're not the same genre, I just love that so much.
"[It's] stuff that makes you feel good. I connected to that."
Tony Joe White recorded the backbone of "Smoke From The Chimney" roughly three to five years before death, per his son. But the songs time-travel through decades and genres impacted by the singer.
The record starts with a five-minute title track that wraps listeners in Tony Joe White's warm, nuanced Louisiana-raised voice. It takes listeners to new renditions of "Billy," originally cut by Jennings in the 1970s, and "Del Rio You're Making Me Cry," a 1980s co-write with wife Leann White previously unreleased by the singer.
Songs build around a vocal and guitar track where Tony Joe White sometimes played his familiar Stratocaster. It hops genres from backwater rock in "Bubba Jones" to soul-and-blues tall tales on "Scary Stories," with his leathery voice stringing together each vignette.
"I don't know what it is," Auerbach said about Tony Joe White's voice. "It's like a perfectly worn in baseball glove. It's perfect and uniquely American."
And a slew of ace Nashville players aided in bringing depth to songs unearthed by Jody White. Auerbach joined the session band, as did standout guitarist Marcus King, Grammy-winning fiddle player Stuart Duncan, go-to pedal steel musician Paul Franklin, and keyboardist Bobby Wood, known for working with Presley, Garth Brooks and Wilson Pickett, among others.
Finished renditions "floored" Jody White, he said.
"The way this whole thing came together was so meant to be," Jody White said. "The way these demos all came together and the fact that Dan [was] willing to take on songs that were so unclassifiable, genre-wise. And what it sounds like now? It's crazy. It's like a dream."
The sessions felt like "magic," Auerbach said. He placed photos of Tony Joe White on the Easy Eye studio console. The images still sit there today.
"We try to cut these songs like we would if he were there," Auerbach said. "We charted it out and we played along with him."
And with "Smoke From The Chimney" done and unexplored tapes still in the vault, could more music be coming?
"Only time will tell," Jody White said. "I think Tony Joe is still involved in that process, in some way, shape or form."