It was a crazy song for a crazy time.
Tony Joe White’s “Polk Salad Annie” oozed up from the Louisiana swamp to become a Top-10 hit in 1969, the year of Woodstock, Chappaquiddick and Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon.
The bluesy romp about a backwoods woman and her dysfunctional family celebrated the wild Southern plant that’s boiled, seasoned with bacon and eaten like spinach.
But this was, after all, the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, and many mistook polk for another leafy green weed that “grows out in the woods and the fields.”
“Back then, people thought polk salad was grass,” White says in his slow, mellow drawl, laughing at the thought of it. “They’d bring me bags of grass backstage and say, ‘Hey, we brought you a little polk.”’
While he looks back fondly, White, at 63, is also focused on the present, still cooking up a tasty gumbo of blues rock. His new album, “Uncovered,” has seven new songs and a few reinterpretations of his older ones, including the R&B standard “Rainy Night in Georgia.”
A cast of stars pitched in to help him: Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Michael McDonald, J.J. Cale and the late Waylon Jennings in one of his last recording sessions.
A voice shocked Tina TurnerThe guitars pop and croak like bullfrogs over a sludgy stew of bass, drums and organ. White’s voice is a primitive growl here, a raspy whisper there. It’s soulful enough that it once threw Tina Turner for a loop.
As White tells the story — and White tells lots of stories — Turner, who recorded four of his songs for her 1989 album “Foreign Affair,” was taken aback when they met.
“She turned around and looked at me and started hysterically laughing and couldn’t get her breath,” he recalled. “She was doubling over, and I thought ‘Are my pants unzipped or something?’ Finally she got her breath and came over to me and gave me a big hug and said, ‘I’m sorry, man. Ever since ‘Polk Salad Annie’ I always thought you were a black man.”’
White spoke from his suburban Nashville studio, an old two-story house that served as a hospital during the Civil War. He wore dark sunglasses and a black broad-brimmed hat and, when the mood struck him, he’d spin another tale.
Raised on a cotton farm in Goodwill, La., about 20 miles west of the Mississippi River, he became infatuated with the hypnotic sound of Lightnin’ Hopkins.
“It was one guy with an acoustic guitar playing the blues,” he said. “I got my Dad’s guitar and started locking myself in the bedroom learning those licks.”
He was playing in clubs on the Texas coast when a Los Angeles radio station picked up “Polk Salad Annie” and launched it nationwide.
Not long after, R&B singer Brook Benton hit big with White’s “Rainy Night in Georgia,” and White was on his way. Though he’s never been a major star — at least not in the U.S., he has a larger profile in Europe where he’s known as the Swamp Fox — his work has been recorded by everyone from Elvis Presley to Ray Charles to Tim McGraw.
With a little help from his sonThe new album was largely conceived and created by his son, Jody, who asked his father whom he’d like to sing with if he had the chance.
Jody White followed the same formula a couple years earlier with the album “The Heroines,” which paired his father with Emmylou Harris, Shelby Lynne, Lucinda Williams and Jessi Colter.
All the guests on the new record were old friends of White’s, but there were some logistical issues to get around. The younger White, for example, had to travel to London to record Clapton’s parts and to California for the reclusive Cale’s. Jennings recorded “Shakin’ the Blues” at White’s home while recovering from a stroke. Knopfler laid down his track “Not One Bad Thought” on a visit to Nashville.
McDonald lives in the area and was the easiest to capture. He dropped by White’s studio one cold, rainy day for “Baby, Don’t Look Down.”
“He still had on his rain coat. And he had his cell phone in his coat and you know how he can sing, how soulful he is. He rears back and his eyes are shut and the phone falls out of his pocket and hits this wooden floor right on the beat of the snare. I told Michael, ‘Man, you’re into music so hard even your phone falls in beat.”
Most of the songs were recorded over six or seven years. Even an old pro like Clapton did several takes to get the right feel for “Did Somebody Make a Fool Out of You.” Cale went so far as to write two more verses for “Louvelda.”
“It knocked me out that they not only played, but played with their souls and hearts,” White said of his pals. “They didn’t just get in there and put their little lick or stamp on it and walk out. They stayed until it was completely right.”
And completely swampy.