Album Reviews

Tony Joe White

Rain Crow

Artist:     Tony Joe White

Album:     Rain Crow

Label:     Yep Roc

Release Date:     05/27/2016


Pull up a chair. There’s a nice campfire here in these woods, and Tony Joe White will regale us with his swamp stories as no one else can tell them. These are tales of animals foretelling the weather, tongue-talking worshipers reinforcing their faith by handling deadly snakes, a “bad wind” driving a man insane and a special affection for a Downs Syndrome child. White unveils a special swamp language in tunes like “Conjure Child,” where a young girl loses her sight but discovers a powerful magic within her just in time to ward off two thugs. In “Tell Me a Swamp Story” he begs his older brother not to revisit a very scary tale involving a fireball. These omens and voodoo-like imagery were all part of White’s growing up. He explains it this way, “You know, sometimes it’s just swamp and funky music and blues. But I do feel like a messenger on certain songs because when I start to get the first words going, something tells me, ‘You can finish this.’ Someone up above is sending it down and saying, ‘Translate this into something.’ So, yes, sometimes I am a messenger.”

This is Tony Joe White’s 19th studio album. Much like his previous release, Hoodoo, he’s accompanied by Bryan Owings on drums, Steve Forrest on bass and Tyson Rogers on keys. The nine songs were written by Tony Joe, or in collaboration with his wife, Leann; with “The Middle of Nowhere” co-penned by Billy Bob Thornton. His son, Jody, produced this effort, which, as you’ve likely guessed already, is more about the story songs than about the swampy groove laid down on Hoodoo. Yes, those grooves and White’s unique haunting voice are still here, keeping us spellbound. And, I wasn’t being too cute in my opening about the campfire. Here’s how Tony Joe explains his songwriting process, “I’ll build a campfire somewhere around my place ‘it’s probably my Cherokee blood but I always feel like I need to build a fire when I write. A guitar is brought out, I’ll get a cold beer and I’ll play one or two for Jody and he’ll be, ‘Yeah, that’s cool, man.’  A few more weeks, maybe I’ll have another. Some of these songs are two or three years old.  But these are all my latest songs over the past three years.”

The Swamp Fox has helped us with nice explanations of the songs. I’ll reveal just one here and leave the rest to you. For the title track, he writes, “I used to hear the rain crow mentioned back in the early days on a cotton farm by the swamp. It seemed, my father and the other men around on the farms were always needed rain for the crops, and every now and then one of the men would say ,’I heard a rain crow this morning’, and everyone would breathe easier because it usually rained when he called…”

Tony Joe White is a national treasure, too often overlooked and taken for granted. He has plenty more to say as evidenced by this effort. Catch him on tour with stops at Joe’s Pub in NYC on 8/3 and City Winery in Nashville on 8/13.

– Jim Hynes

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  1. Heard him do “Conjure Child” last night in Asheville, almost fell out of my chair it was so good. He is better than ever.