Fish Fries and Polk Salad: A Conversation with Tony Joe White

Tony Joe White experienced a major revival in 2014 when he accompanied Foo Fighters on the Nashville episode of their HBO documentary series Sonic Highways and subsequently joined them onstage for the documentary’s mini pop-up tour at The Ryman. But the author of “Polk Salad Annie” hasn’t stopped writing or recording since he debuted in 1967 and began a long relationship with the state of Alabama.
“When I did ‘Polk Salad Annie’ in Nashville at RCA, all of the musicians on that were from Muscle Shoals,” he said. “They were up here playing country and western to make a living, and all of a sudden, I come into town with something a little funky. We hit it off. And I said, ‘Boys, next time I cut, I’m going to have to come down there and hang with y’all.”

So he did. In 1991, Closer to the Truth was the first record that he actually recorded in Muscle Shoals, despite having worked with much of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section in Nashville for years: Norbert Putnam, David Hood, Roger Hawkins, Barry Beckett.

That was the first record that he did on his own terms. What was perceived as a “break” was more of a break from labels. It was released on his own label, Swamp Records.

“I’ve been hanging down there for a good while, and I’ll probably come back again,” he said.

At this weekend’s Billy Reid Shindig, which follows his trip to Birmingham, White will “finally play live in Muscle Shoals.”

And he’s still close to another Muscle Shoals legend that recently experienced his own revival: Donnie Fritts. White appeared in the 2015 documentary short Undeniably Donnie, alongside folks like Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and John Prine. The short documented John Paul White’s meeting with Fritts and the recording of his first “proper” record, Oh My Goodness, released on Single Lock Records last year.

“Donnie Fritts was in the whole mix from the very first on ‘Polk Salad Annie,’ hanging out up here in Nashville over at Combine Music with Billy Swan, Kristofferson and me and a bunch of other people,” he said. “And me and Fritts, man, we just hit it off. He just loved to hang out and he wrote some good songs. We loved to throw knives. We would just throw knives inside of Combine Music. [laughs] We had knife marks everywhere. We came down and when Jerry Wexler came in from Muscle Shoals, me and Fritts were out there throwing these big long knives against the wall. And they looked like they didn’t want to get out of the car.”

At some point he stopped aiming for the four-minute radio hit like “Polk Salad Annie” and started playing music the way that he wanted. Nine-minute, swampy blues jam sessions.

“I had already moved from Memphis up to here and found a spot out here by the river,” he said. “Music became really important to me — songs and words — and not having anyone direct me and get me to do it for radio or TV or whatever. It became important to me to not go to that. I’d say it has been since we started Swamp Records.”

This year, he added Rain Crow to his that uncompromising catalog.

“It’s sitting there right on top with like a big ol cork with a minnow holding and a crappie about to hit it,” he joked. “When I walked out of the studio, I told my son, ‘Boys, don’t cut nothing else — don’t add nothing, don’t take nothing away. Simplicity is hard to get.”

He remains the unlikeliest of friends with Dave Grohl and his Foo Fighters bandmates. When the band debuted Sonic Highways at The Ryman on Halloween of 2014, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer pulled his bus into White’s Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee homestead for a fish fry.

“After that Letterman show [White’s performance with Foo Fighters on Late Show], I had him and — it was supposed to be him and his driver out for a fish fry, because he had never had fish cooked on a wood fire,” White said. “He said, ‘We’re coming out to The Ryman, and we want you to come out to The Ryman and sit in with us and do ‘Polk.’”

“And I said, ‘We’ll get to that after we get to the fish.’ So I had a freezer full of filets put up of crappie and Jody [White’s son] called me after New York and I got home and he said, ‘You better have a lot of fish thawed out.’ And I said, ‘Why? Ain’t nobody coming but Dave and his driver.’ And he said, ‘Nope, he’s bringing everybody.’

“And he brought everybody in the band with him. It was 12 or 14 of them. And I said, ‘Boys, we don’t have no hushpuppies or french fries.’ And we just sat there and ate fish right out of the pot. That’s all we did. Those boys — and girls, too — they ate and ate. They wiped me out. I still need some fish now.”

Tony Joe White performs in the WorkPlay Theatre on Thursday, August 25. The show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets are $18. No opener is listed on the bill. For more information, visit workplay.com.

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