Swamp-rock master Tony Joe White is back with a new album, "Rain Crow," scheduled for release May 27, and The Times is premiering a characteristically sultry and atmospheric track, "The Middle of Nowhere."
Over a loping drumbeat, throbbing bass and eerily distorted guitar, White, who wrote the songs with musician-actor Billy Bob Thornton, conjures pictures from a backwoods gathering as he sings, "I could ride on the tailgate of my daddy's truck/he would take me to the river I could hear the boys cuttin' up."
The tale, White says, was inspired by a man with Down syndrome he knew growing up.
"Billy Bob Thornton and me had no idea where this song was headed when we first met," White said in a statement. "After he showed me some words on the first verse I still didn't know where it would go. Then, it went back to the river where I grew up, and one of the other farmers had three sons, one who was named Joe and he faced his life with Down's, but he was my best friend and I could understand him when he talked.
"Joe was somewhere between 18 and 25 in those days," White continued, "and his mission in life was to keep his preaching to us boys on the river and to keep an eye on the crossroads. His folks' house set up on a hill and from that vantage point, Joe could see everything that went on at the crossroads. The song will say the rest, but it is all about Joe."
Thornton hasn't been swimming in free time, given the prodigiuos amount of recording and touring his been doing with Americana-country band the Boxmasters, but he says he was happy to carve out some time to collaborate with White.
"What an honor to be a small part of a song by one of my heroes and a true legend like Tony Joe White," Thornton said in a separate statement. "Growing up in relatively the same neck of the woods down south, I share his love for storytelling in song. When you listen to Tony, he invites you in to a world and, for a few minutes, you become part of that world. And it ain't easy to get out either."
Born in Goodwill, La., White, 72, has long channeled the mystery of the region's bayou culture in his songs, most famously in his 1969 hit "Polk Salad Annie," which reached No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and quickly became a favorite of another celebrated Southern rocker, Elvis Presley, who sang it regularly during his concerts in the '70s.
The new album was recorded at White's home studio in Franklin, Tenn., just outside Nashville. It was produced by his son, Jody, and "summons recollections of long ago, when animals foretold the weather, tongue-talking worshipers proved their faith by handling snakes and a 'bad wind' could drive a man to edge of insanity," according to his label, Yep Roc.
"Rain Crow" is the latest in a string of latter-day albums in which White continues his exploration of the music that surrounded him growing up, and which helped him to create a signature sound that had a kinship with that of John Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival, with whom White was on the pop charts in the 1960s and '70s.