With The Heroines, released September 28 on Sanctuary Records, swamp rock auteur Tony Joe White gets low-down and soulful with a number of women in his life. He wrote three of the 10 songs (not counting the framing solo acoustic instrumentals “Gabriella” and “Gabriella’s Affair”) with his wife Leann, who also took the cover portrait, and he sings the balmy “Playa Del Carmen Nights” with his daughter Michelle. Additionally, four lady friends duet with Tony Joe on the LP, their presence evidencing his impeccable taste in quality women and female artists both. One by one, Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, Shelby Lynne and his old friend Jessi Colter intertwine their voices with White’s gritty, ultra-laid-back baritone, and the results of these down-home dalliances are utterly captivating.

Southern gentleman that he is, Tony Joe steps aside to permit Lynne to sing the opening verse of “Can’t Go Back Home,” which they wrote together, so that hers is the first voice you hear on the album. His duet with Williams on the smoldering “Closing In on the Fire” packs such an erotic charge that a mate less secure than Leann would’ve never permitted it. Harris joins White on the timeless country-folk piece “Wild Wolf Calling Me,” one of the conjugal co-writes, while Colter adds her knowing vocal to Tony Joe and Leann’s “Fireflies in the Storm.”

“I had known these women for a long time,” says White, “and they’ve all been like heroes to me through the years. They’d recorded my songs, and we were all good friends. Not only that, but I had loved their voices and the way they played. And all of ’em are soulful. Even though a lot of ’em do country, it’s still a soul thing to me, Emmylou especially. And Jessi Colter gave it totally up for Waylon [Jennings, her late husband] and stayed with him through the years. But she’s still got that unbelievable soulfulness in her voice.”

While he would never use these terms himself, White is the most authentic of artists, and it’s not an act — there is simply nobody more real or less pretentious than Tony Joe White. His natural southern soulfulness resonates so powerfully that his singing partners couldn’t help but be affected by it. “I swear, man, I’ve heard ’em all sing, and I’ve played guitar behind a lot of ’em on sessions for other albums, but they sang different on this album, and I don’t know what it was,” says White. “Even Emmylou was doin’ it — a breathin’ thing between her words, like Mavis Staples, man. It was like a real soulful type thing.”

Three of the five songs Tony Joe sings by himself have a narrative female presence: there’s the high-maintenance hottie of “Rich Woman Blues,” the unfaithful lover of “Robbin’ My Honeycomb” and the “cover pulling…hip slanging momma” of “Ice Cream Man.” The remaining two songs are thematic changes of pace. The travelin’-man protagonist of “Back Porch Therapy” longs for the quietude of his country home, while “Chaos Boogie” laments that the simple pleasures of existence are being obliterated by the cacophonous crush of modern life. But overall, The Heroines concerns itself with relationships of both spirit and blood.

Extending the sense of family that permeates the album is the co-production work of Tony Joe’s son Jody, who has handled his father’s business for several years. Jody recently installed state-of-the-art Pro Tools gear in White’s vintage home studio in Franklin, Tennessee, to Tony Joe’s initial bewilderment and eventual delight. “Jody hooked up some of the new electronics to my old prehistoric reel-to-reels,” White says, laughing softly. “I told him, ‘Man, my ol’ funky studio is like the Starship Enterprise in here.’ But we always run it back through analog. And now he can ship one of the girls a CD, no matter where they are, and they can put their voice on it and ship it back. For instance, Lucinda won’t fly, so Jody took that track out to L.A. and did her out there. But Jessi and Emmylou were there in the studio doin’ it.”

The concept of The Heroines was Jody’s idea, though Tony Joe came up with the title. “Jody said, ‘Man, why don’t we just cut an album with these women? You just pick some songs you’ve written and y’all together and do it.’ So we threw it together there in my ol’ studio in Franklin. Mine and Shelby’s tune was written five years ago; her and I sat by a campfire one night for hours workin’ on that tune; then we cut her singin’ it by herself. That’s her original vocal. And then, when this idea came about, I punched in my voice in on two or three spots and brought her back in — or Jody did.”

“A lot of those songs were cut late at night,” White continues. “We’d turn the tape on and just roll and rock. I’d say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a new tune I’ve written — let’s go.’ We go in about 10 at night and mess around, not do much, and all of a sudden somebody says, ‘Turn it on.’ And usually the first take would be it. Usually when I sing it with the guitar, with the bass and drums, it’s there. Emmylou’s first take on her singin’. Jessi, Shelby and Lucinda—all of ’em kept sayin’, ‘Lemme do it again, I can do it better.’ They’d do it four or five times, and we’d always go back to the first one.”

The value of spontaneity revealed itself to Tony Joe way back in the day. “I can remember exactly when I learned to really pay attention to that first happenin’,” he recalls. Believe it or not, it was on ‘Polk Salad Annie.’” He nailed the track, which would become his first and biggest hit, in a single take. “I always say, anytime I sit down out there in the studio and I’ve got a guitar in my hand and a microphone, somebody needs to have somethin’ on.”

A subsequent experience confirmed the viability of getting right down to business in the studio. “I recorded with Lightnin’ Hopkins, my ol’ hero blues singer, one time in L.A.,” he recalls, “and when he walked in, all he said was, ‘Turn it on.’ And he played 12 songs in a row—I played a little guitar and harmonica with him—and when they were over, he got up, shook my hand and walked out. That was so cool.”

Born in Oak Grove, La. on July 23, 1943, White broke into the Texas club circuit in the mid-’60s. His first album, 1969’s Black and White, contained “Polk Salad Annie”; …Continued, which came out the same year, spawned “Roosevelt and Ira Lee (Night of the Moccasin).” These rough-hewn classics served to define his down-to-the-bone sound, with its snaky, deep gut grooves. Brook Benton turned White’s “Rainy Night in Georgia” into a hit, and Dusty Springfield reached the charts with her version of Tony Joe’s “Willie and Laura Mae Jones.” His songs were also recorded by the likes of Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Etta James, Roy Orbison, Isaac Hayes, Charlie Rich, Joe Cocker and Hank Williams, Jr. As a seminal roots-rocker, White achieved cult status during the ’70s, and he closed out the following decade by writing four songs for Tina Turner’s 1989 smash album Foreign Affairs; he also contributed guitar and harmonica, as well as producing the title track.

Although White has kept a relatively low profile in the States since his early chart successes, he’s continued to draw large crowds in Europe. “It’s the type of people that know all of your songs and they’re right up on the stage with you,” he says. “So it’s not like a planned show or nothin’; the crowd starts hollerin’ requests and you play and sweat and get after it. I feel real blessed, man.”

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