The meaning of the words used to describe certain kinds of music can be murky at best. Take, for instance, the typical urge to call the music of Tony Joe White “swampy.”
Yet it’s true that White, the 72-year-old songwriter behind the enduring hits “Polk Salad Annie” and “Rainy Night in Georgia,” was born on the Louisiana bayou, as were other performers whose music has been identified similarly: the swamp pop of Bobby Charles, say, or the swamp blues of Slim Harpo. It’s also safe to say their music reflects their place of origin: unhurried, steamy, a little bit mysterious.
White, who plays the Bull Run in Shirley on Aug. 4, has been making sounds of that sort for half a century now. Though he made an initial splash – Elvis Presley, one of his heroes, made “Polk Salad Annie” a fixture of his Las Vegas live sets – he’s been in no rush to chase that early success.
“Not a day goes by, really, that I don’t have a guitar lick, a song, or a title or something in my head,” White says in his husky baritone, on the phone from his home in rural Leiper’s Fork, Tenn. “But I’m not really striving for no big thing.”
Over the last few years, with the help of his son Jody, White has released two albums on the Yep Roc label, 2013’s “Hoodoo” and this year’s “Rain Crow.” Together, they’ve reaffirmed the sneaky impact of his understated style.
When Jody graduated from college more than a decade ago, he began handling his father’s business affairs. Eventually he moved behind the mixing board, too, in an antebellum home in Franklin, Tenn., that’s been converted into a recording studio.
“All of a sudden it got ahold of him,” White says of his son. “He’s got a real good ear, and he’s a real good mixer. He knows the swamp, you know?”
White says it was the French who started calling his music “swamp rock” – amusingly, they rhymed the first word with “amp” – when he released his debut album, “Black and White,” in 1969. His song “Soul Francisco,” an ode to the West Coast hippie movement, had become a surprise hit in France. Traveling light in Europe (“just one guitar and a Coca-Cola box,” he says), he played halls that held a thousand or more.
“And they danced,” he says.
Especially in those early years, audiences were often stunned to find out the singer was a white man.
“That was, uh, pretty constant,” rumbles White, who says his mother was half Cherokee. As a newcomer, he opened tours for Creedence Clearwater Revival and Sly and the Family Stone. One time in Boston, on a bitter cold night with fresh-dumped snow on the ground, White and his drummer prepared to take the stage ahead of Sly when the promoter suggested they needn’t bother. Sly and his band were late, and the crowd was getting restless.
“I don’t think it would be good to have a white boy walk out onstage right now,” said the nervous promoter. But White wanted to earn his money. He asked to play one song.
Onstage, he dialed in his amplifier and launched into the blues standard “Baby Please Don’t Go.” He then held the audience rapt for the better part of an hour, until the headliner arrived.
Yet White, the youngest of seven children, says he was uninterested in picking up a musical instrument until his brother brought home an album by Lightnin’ Hopkins.
‘Not a day goes by, really, that I don’t have a guitar lick, a song, or a title or something in my head.’
“I was gonna play baseball,” he says. “But that night, I borrowed my daddy’s acoustic guitar and took it to my bedroom, and it started being a regular habit.”
As a young man in the mid-’60s, he toured a modest circuit from Louisiana and Mississippi to the east Texas coastline, usually with a drummer as his only accompaniment. While on a six-night-a-week residency at a go-go club in Corpus Christi, his drummer’s father, who owned a music store, suggested he stop by.
“He said, ‘Man, we got something in today you need to come plug up to, the way you pat your foot and everything.’ I went down the next day and plugged it up, and it was just real natural.”
The effect was a Maestro Boomerang “wah” pedal made by Gibson, which gave White’s electric guitar sound its distinctly expressive tone. A few years later he bought a Colorsound Fuzz Box while in England.
He’s still got them. “Those two pieces are constantly close to my feet onstage,” he says.
But that’s as close as White ever gets to frills. After playing the Ryman Auditorium with Dave Grohl’s Foo Fighters a little over a year ago, he invited Grohl out to Leiper’s Fork for a fish fry.
“He said he’d never had fish cooked over a wood campfire in a pot,” White recalls, “so I said, ‘Y’all come.’”
In his down time, which is most days, White catches crappie in a lake near his home.
“I freeze ’em in water, and they taste just like when you caught ’em,” he explains. “I don’t do hush puppies, french fries, and all that.” No frills: “Just eat the fish out of the pot.”
TONY JOE WHITE
At the Bull Run, Shirley, Aug. 4 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $40. 978-425-4311, www.bullrunrestaurant.comJames Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.