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Tony Joe White | Bad Mouthin’

Swamp-rock king Tony Joe White sticks to what he does best.

David Letterman said it best. “If I was this guy, you could all kiss my ass,” he remarked after Tony Joe White was on his show a few years back. It’s one of the few times the Louisiana singer-songwriter has been given the high-profile praise he’s always deserved. Granted, White’s not complaining. After all, he wrote Polk Salad Annie and Rainy Night in Georgia. He doesn’t need to prove anything to anybody. Still, it’s hard to deny that he’s been one of the most under-rated performers of his generation. Case in point: When I saw him once at SXSW, he was playing in a small record store. And not even on a stage; he was just sitting in a kitchen chair in the corner, picking and singing. Even in that absurd setting, he was totally transfixing. Totally unique. Totally Tony Joe. Which is exactly what he remains on his latest release Bad Mouthin’. Armed with his guitar and his unmistakable stormcloud of a voice, White lazily drawls, growls and mumbles his way through a dozen-track set divided between his own material — including the title cut, reportedly the first song he ever wrote — and blues standards by the likes of John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, Charley Patton and others. Some are so sparse and quiet you can hear him tapping his foot; others kick up their heels slightly with minimalist accompaniment from a restrained bassist and drummer. Most of them are about mean women, mean bosses, bad dreams and lost dreams. Almost all of them sound like they could be field recordings from a juke joint half a century ago. That includes his unexpected but potent cover of the Elvis Presley classic Heartbreak Hotel, which actually sounds like he’s so lonely he could die. That oughta repay any artistic debt he owes The King for turning Polk Salad into a hit all those years ago. When it’s all said and done, Bad Mouthin’ doesn’t offer many other surprises besides that. But it doesn’t need to; it’s got Tony Joe doing his thing as well as he has for half a century. And if you don’t think that’s good enough, you know what you can do.

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