Tony Joe White / Juanita’s – Little Rock, AR.

One of my favorite John Prine songs “Paradise” starts off, “there’s a backwards old town that’s often remembered, so many times that my memories are worn.”  I’ve always felt a kinship to that song, especially in the second verse “where the air smelled like snakes and we’d shoot with our pistols but empty pop bottles was all we would kill.”   My older brother and I, along with our two cousins, spent our summers at my grandparent’s house near the Dudgemona River.  While our mothers caught up on the front porch amidst a collection of hair style books and Southern Living magazines, we’d set out for grand adventures in the branches and creek bottoms of the Dudgemona.  This was the same area of piney woods that the West-Kimbrell gang traveled and the native indians before them.  Armed with pellet rifles and homemade bow and arrows (made for each of us by our grandfather Louie), we built forts and let our imaginations run wild. It was a great time and place to be a kid.

My grandparent’s property held an old Caddo indian mound.  In fact, my grandfather’s vegetable garden sat on top of that sacred burial ground.  Any given day, you could walk his garden rows and kick up handfuls of pieces of indian pottery.  If you got lucky, you might spot an arrowhead.  We spent many summer days combing that garden for treasures.  But out in the cattle pastures there was one thing that we were warned to stay away from.  It was a poisonous plant called “pokeweed”.   My great-grandmother, Lucy O’Bryan, called it “polk salad” and every spring she would gather and cook it.   She believed that eating polk salad once a year was good for you.  She said, and I quote, “to clear the bile out of you.”

Tony Joe White, the son of a poor cotton farmer from a town called Oak Grove, too grew up playing in the branches and creeks of Louisiana.  And in 1969, Tony Joe’s song “Polk Salad Annie” reached no. 8 on the Billboard charts.  His lyrics are rich in characterization.  So much so, that anyone who has grown up in the south could certainly find a sense of familiarity with them.  There is Polk Salad Annie, Old Man Willis, the High Sheriff of Calhoun Parish and the Backwoods Preacher Man.  There is the beautifully haunting story of irony and racial divide in Tony Joe’s “Willie and Laura Mae Jones.”  My favorite song has always been “Roosevelt and Ira Lee.”   It’s a funky song about two boys playing in the swamp lands and stealing chickens.  I’d actually go so far as to say that it could make the cut for one of my personal favorite top 10 songs of all time.

Tony Joe White made his entrance to the stage just as I would have imagined him to.  The lights went black and instrumental music began to shake the speakers.  I couldn’t identify the track but let’s just say that Sylvestor Stallone could have come boxing through the crowd at any minute with a towel around his neck and the music would have been fitting.  Tony Joe was escourted to the stage by three men.  A drummer would join him later, but for the first few songs, it was just a man, a Fender stratocaster (a gift from Waylon Jennings) and a whole lot of funk.  He played some favorites like “Rainy Night in Georgia” and a few requests before closing the show with “Polk Salad Annie.”  I heard an interview with Tony Joe where the reporter asked if he ever got tired of playing his old songs over and over.  He replied, “They’ve been so good to me, I can’t turn my back on them now.”

In the darkness of the room, I’d forgotten about one important part of Tony Joe’s wardrobe.  His guitar strap is made out of a rattlesnake skin.  And right about the left shoulder area, the snake head is still attached, mouth open, fangs and all.  As Tony Joe exited the stage, the music critic that I’d befriended leaned in for a handshake.  I knew that as I turned around I would surely brush shoulders with Tony Joe White, the old swamp fox himself.  I told myself to try to BE COOL but as I turned around Tony Joe’s left shoulder met my left shoulder and there I was… looking that rattlesnake head right in the eyes.

Check out Tony Joe White’s latest work “HOODOO” here.  He also made an appearance on Lucinda William’s new album “Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone” which was released last week on Highway 20 Records.

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John Prine “Paradise

The Johnny Cash Show: Tony Joe White “Polk Salad Annie

 “Hoodoo” Album Interview

Willie and Laura Mae Jones

Roosevelt and Ira Lee

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My great-grandmother, Lucy O’Bryan Abels, gathering polk salad in “the Sassafras” / Folklore Preservation Magazine, 1979.

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