Some people swap stories around the campfire; others, like Tony Joe White and Shelby Lynne, write songs.
They wrote a handful together a few years ago, when Lynne, who grew up in Alabama and resides in California, was living near White’s place in Franklin, Tenn.
“We were brought up similar,” drawls White, who hails from northeast Louisiana. “She came over and said, ‘Where do you go to write songs?’ I said, ‘I bring cold beers and an acoustic guitar and build a campfire close to the river [Leipers Creek] behind my house.’ She said, ‘Mind if I come over some time?’ “
One of the resulting songs, “Can’t Go Back Home,” is the lead track of White’s new album “The Heroines,” which Sanctuary will release Sept. 28. The disc, which follows his 2002 album “Snakey,” features duets with Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, Jessi Colter and Lynne.
“If you’re looking to describe ‘cool,’ just look at Tony Joe,” Lynne says. “There’s such a vibe about him. And he taught me a lot of things: He said, ‘If you didn’t live it, don’t write it.’ “
White, of course, embodied the term “swamp rock” with his 1969 top 10 hit “Polk Salad Annie.” The Tony Joe White Music Publishing (BMI) writer also penned Brook Benton’s 1970 classic “Rainy Night in Georgia,” which was a top five hit. And among those who have recorded his songs are Elvis Presley, Dusty Springfield, Ray Charles and Tina Turner.
He estimates that 85% of his songs are written around the campfire, “because I got Indian blood in me [Cherokee], I guess. I got to be out there among the sounds.”
He and Lynne co-wrote “Can’t Go Back Home” in one night.
“We went in and cut it in my studio here and got her beautiful voice on it and kept it for everybody’s entertainment the last five years,” White continues. “Then my son Jody-who takes care of my business-came to me with the idea of doing a duet album. So I took Shelby’s track and added my voice to it.”
White and Lynne performed together three months ago at a show in Birmingham, Ala., and “completely freaked out the whole place,” White says. As for future collaborations, he says, “she’ll have to come back here because I don’t think she can build a fire at her place in L.A.”
Besides Lynne, White collaborates with his wife, Leann, with whom he wrote three songs and two instrumentals on “The Heroines.” For her part, Lynne doesn’t look to collaborate with anyone else.
“We get together and light a campfire and sit around and drink a couple beers and talk about life and being southerners-and how we feel comfortable with each other just being southerners,” she explains. The BMI writer adds, “One of the best things in life is when you’re given a gift, and Tony Joe’s such a gift to all of us who love the roots music.”
Excerpted from the “Words & Music” column in the Sept. 25, 2004, issue of Billboard. The full original text is available to Billboard.com subscribers.
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