In the days leading up to Tony Joe White's show at Joe's Pub, I had a song of his looping on the iPod inside my head. Goes "Mama Don't Let Your Cowboys Grow Up to be Babies," from his disco-untry record, The Real Thang. It soundtracked not just my anticipation at seeing the Swamp Fox far from his normal climes south of Mason-Dixon, but topped a recent immersion into country & western music (yeah, both kinds): Waylon, Tompall, Willie, Bob Wills, Hank, Lefty, Jerry Lee, Johnny Darrell, Steve Young, Mickey Newbury, Guy Clark, all pushing through my other deadlines and shoving young'uns out the way so that their three chords and the truth could ring out.
Sure, Tony's boot-scoot is both clever and biting (like the finest country cuts), but whether I'm hitting rewind or else flipping the 45 so as to get to the mono version, it starts to strike me differently. Its inverse, Waylie and Willon's "Mama Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," is without a doubt the first song I can recall reciting, back in the days of diapers and cowboy boots, while this one went unheard. And I didn't grow up to be a cowboy; I tweren't raised on chicken-fried steak and milk gravy; I never drove a truck. If anything, I more identified with Albini's sneer: "I've never seen an Indian on a horse." And I've begun to lament that my childhood didn't involve more fishing and hunting, rituals that comprise many a boyhood in South Texas.
When I was living in Texas as a teen and hepster, I flipped past the hillbilly-hick records looking for jazz oddities, for outsider noise, for chilly Euro synth-pop, for "the other." I anticipated AMM, Arthur Doyle, Adult., and Thurston Moore noise shows pulling through town, and never got a chance to see Waylon or anyone else of that ilk. And now in New York, I look back with great fondness on country music, fully removed from the redneck contingency while also remaining blissfully removed from country's current incarnation. I seek out the green green grass of home here, comforted by the country section at Academy Records, searching for sleeves featuring white cowboy hats, denim shirts, outlaw records at triple the price they would be down south. Is it simply nostalgia, that fool's sensation that leads to $95 faux-vintage Def Leppard tees and VH1 package tours of Scandal, Styx, the New Cars? (Mind your own business when eyeing my "authentic" Willie tee.) Perhaps. In the epicenter of all things skronky and out, I couldn't give a fuck about free jazz, about obtuse noise slabs, about weirdo records now. Gee, ain't it funny?
Tony Joe White - "Mama Don't Let Your Cowboys Grow Up to be Babies"
Or maybe it's just an appreciation for craft, for nailing details and human thangs rather than abstracts and the non-narrative, for witnessing elders still plying their art in a way that rings out honestly., that gives hope for my own self turning into an elder one of these years. Tony Joe stomps out in black boots, a wide-brim hat, mirror shades, sits and recreates the humidity of the south up north. While he didn't play "Mama" live, Tony Joe pulled out all of the classics: "Polk Salad Annie"; "Did Somebody Make a Fool Out of You?"; "Rainy Night in Georgia"; "Steamy Windows." He had blues about benzes and condos, rhymed "water moccasin" with "chicken," dangled garter belts over a lick copped from "La Grange" (haw haw haw), and when he slid his right foot over to that wah pedal, he unleashed the nastiest sort of swamp, whipping up a viscous, verdant fury like a mean ol' gator tail. My friend felt like he had an amoeba growing in him afterwards. Which is sorta what homesickness feels like.