By convenient circumstance, I recently caught Tony Jo White on a Sunday night at the Thunderbird Caf in Lawrenceville, a rapidly changing for the better part of Pittsburgh, Pa. In a small but sweet back room, White put on a low key show that shows both his voice and his ability to get in a groove and jam are still potent. His methods are easily understood, he comes out, looking vaguely like a long and lean version of Charlie Rich, when the Sliver Fox wore a similar kind of hat, and plays either spooky ballads or a bluesy, rumbling groove that runs for many verses and becomes a long jam. His hits (or “best known songs” if you prefer) , “Polk Salad Annie” which is probably most famous because of Elvis’ version (Tom Jones actually slays it as well) came off with the needed amount of snap to the choruses. And then there’s “Rainy Night in Georgia” a tune I always forget TJ wrote until he starts singing it or someone puts a Tony Jo record on. It’s a sweeping slow number whose chorus changes are really gorgeously bittersweet. The man has soul, there’s no doubt. And rock gigs like the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival gave him serious rock chops for awhile as well.
What he doesn’t have is many moves musically. He has his style and that’s what he does. Yet sometimes musicians stretching just for the sake of stretching, particularly when they are 67 years old, can often turn ugly. On White’s new record, The Shine, he does try on a few wrinkles including a quiet but electric soul number with a drum kit, “Tell Me Why” which he can sing—just barely. The same cannot be said for the next tune, track five, “All” which is just too much singing for him at this point. Then in the next cut the man turns and magnificently sings one of his patented dark swampy and menacing murder ballads, “Long Way from the River.” The new record is solid and worth a listen if you’re a fan. TJ is an odd kind of quiet treasure in his own way. The man has been around and has now far outlived most of the more flamboyant personas—Elvis and Gram Parsons I’m looking at you—who to some degree copied some of his mannerisms and mojo. Longevity can settle a lot of old scores.