Partial to Home: On tour with swamp rocker Tony Joe White


Birney Imes



At the head of a column two weeks ago about a walk in the rain along Moore's Creek, I quoted the opening lines from "A Rainy Night in Georgia," and attributed the tune to Brook Benton, who in 1970 took it to the top of the Billboard charts.


First thing Sunday morning on the day the column ran, my friend Gerry Jeffcoat called with feigned indignation saying Tony Joe White wrote "A Rainy Night in Georgia." Brook Benton is who had a hit with it was my feeble rejoinder.


Gerry, a retired surgeon, saw Tony Joe in the early 70s at a place in Denver called Marvelous Marv's, and I think it's safe to say the experience was indelible. He and a couple of his med-school classmates had a table next to the stage. Gerry, who has a formidable memory, says Tony Joe was the best live performance he ever seen, "and I've seen everybody, including Elvis."



Here's the headline for his obituary in "Rolling Stone": "Swamp Rock Icon Tony Joe White Dead at 75; Gravelly-voiced singer known for 'Rainy Night in Georgia' and 'Polk Salad Annie' had his songs covered by Elvis Presley, Tina Turner, Waylon Jennings."


White died in October.


Others who recorded White's songs: John Anderson, Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Joe Cocker, Shelby Lynne, Dusty Springfield, Ray Charles, even Tom Jones.


Nashville drummer Bryan Owings toured with White during the final decade of the singer's life. Bryan's dad was the late WCBI-TV meteorologist with the same name. His mother, Joanne, and two brothers, Bart and wife Linda and Bruce, live in Columbus.


When I phoned Bryan Saturday morning, he was watching a gang of turkeys frolicking in his yard. He says the birds took up residence in his neighborhood after Nashville's 2010 floods.


Bryan will soon be leaving for New Zealand where he will be playing with John Prine. It won't be his first trip to that part of the world. He toured New Zealand and Australia three times with Tony Joe.


Bryan's association with the Louisiana-bred swamp rocker resulted in a lot of international travel.


As is the case with many American musicians who fade into obscurity at home, Tony Joe's candle never flickered in Europe, especially in France.


"For some reason the French people picked up on it," said Bryan. "French fans never left him. We used to play all over France, three and four times a year."


Bryan accompanied White for recent gigs in New York City, LA and the Grammy museums in LA and Cleveland (Mississippi).


"You could be in the middle of nowhere and someone would come up and say TONY JOE WHITE," said Bryan. "He had a following wherever we played."


In a 2014 interview White talked about the genesis of his songwriting.



When I got out of high school I went to Marietta, Georgia. I had a sister living there. I went down there to get a job and I was playing guitar ... at the house and stuff. I drove a dump truck for the highway department and when it would rain you didn't have to go to work. You could stay home and play your guitar and hang out all night.


So those thoughts came back to me when I moved on to Texas about three months later. I heard (Bobbie Gentry's) 'Ode to Billie Joe' on the radio and I thought, man, how real, because I am Billie Joe, I know that life. I've been in the cotton fields. So I thought if I ever tried to write, I'm going to write about something I know about.


... I sat down and thought ... well I know about poke (sallet) because I had ate a bunch of it and I knew about rainy nights because I spent a lot of rainy nights in Marietta, Georgia.


So I was real lucky with my first tries to write something that was not only real and hit pretty close to the bone, but lasted that long. So it was kind of a guide for me then on through life to always try to write what I know about.



As for Owings, he has upcoming tours with Prine and Emmylou Harris with whom he has a long association. Still, I don't expect it'll quite be like touring with Tony Joe, who was vibrant up to the end.


"He had been doing great and we had played NYC a few weeks before he passed," Owings said. "He was rocking the joint.


"He was a great guy, a special friend."


Birney Imes ([email protected]) is the former publisher of The Dispatch.



Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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