Home Read Albums Of The Week: Tony Joe White | Smoke From The Chimney

Albums Of The Week: Tony Joe White | Smoke From The Chimney

Dan Auerbach & some Nashville aces pick up where the late swamp rocker left off.

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THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE:Smoke from the Chimney is a nine-song album of never-before-heard Tony Joe White tunes produced by Dan Auerbach and fleshed out by Nashville’s most seasoned studio musicians. The album started out as a collection of unadorned voice-and-guitar demos from White’s home studio, before being transformed into full-band arrangements harkening back to the albums he recorded in the late ’60s and early ’70s in Nashville and Muscle Shoals, just as he was emerging as an internationally recognized songwriter and recording artist.

It takes a keen eye and a steady hand to restore something great from the past; to take the time to examine, catalog, and care for every last task without resorting to bolt-on mail-order parts and cheap paint. What was always great deserves that extra care and attention to detail, and when the time came for White’s son and manager Jody White to revisit his dad’s catalog of unreleased songs, he knew Auerbach was the one to make them shine once more.

In the last 10 to 15 years of his life, White would preserve new compositions or revisit older tracks in his home studio with only a guitar — usually his Fender Stratocaster — and that inimitable voice. Most of that material would ultimately wind up on his late-career albums. But when an unproven song didn’t make the cut for a release, or if he couldn’t get another artist interested, the song stayed right where it was as Tony Joe moved on to other things. This dismissal was not a reflection of the song’s quality; in fact, it meant quite the opposite, as he would often reserve his best material for other artists.

After his father’s death in 2018, Jody started transferring those multitrack home recordings to digital files. Looking back on the moment he unearthed the demo of Smoke from the Chimney, he recalls a mix of happiness, gratification, and shock. As he continued to find other songs that didn’t make an album, he moved the material into a separate folder. Within a year, those select recordings would evolve into Smoke from the Chimney. Jody says that even in those basic tracks, that definitive Tony Joe White groove instantly stood out. “He always finds a tempo and a pocket that is exactly right. And it’s a little bit different than anybody else would choose themselves,” he says.

Ever since meeting Tony Joe backstage at an Australian music festival in 2009, Auerbach sought to make a record with him. For nearly a decade, Jody tried to line up session time but Tony Joe demurred. “For one reason or another, my Dad would never just want to go into a studio and write with somebody, or go work with somebody,” Jody says. “He liked to do it at his place, and his way, and it turned out how it turned out, you know what I mean? So, this album really all worked out perfectly. He was making these tracks for Dan all along, but we just didn’t know it.”

Auerbach agrees. “Jody and I had been talking about this record for so long, and it didn’t happen for a reason,” he says. “It’s because it wasn’t supposed to happen. I was in a nervous cast of characters until the last few years, and if you’d given it to me any earlier, it wouldn’t have been right. I felt like all these people on the record were the right people and they laid in there behind Tony Joe. It felt really magical when we were making it happen.”

“These songs feel like a collection to me and they all seem to work together, in a weird way, even though they’re so different,” says Auerbach. “There’s some heartbreaking ballads and some really raunchy carnal blues. But it all works together like scenes of a movie.” The cast of musical characters brought in by Auerbach to accompany White’s guitar and vocal recordings includes legendary keyboardist Bobby Wood (Elvis Presley, Dusty Springfield, Wilson Pickett), Nashville pedal steel ace Paul Franklin, next-generation guitar hero Marcus King and Grammy and ACM award-winning fiddler Stuart Duncan, just to name a few.

Jody believes that his father would love the way Smoke From the Chimney turned out. “I feel like it’s validation that Tony Joe was one of the greatest of all time,” he says. “That he could make something so potent, even so late in life, is something that not many people can do. I think it’s going to make people who loved him already love him even more.”