Some people recognize their calling late in life, some never find their way. Corey Ledet knew early on that his career path was being a zydeco accordionist. “I would sit down and practice writing my name on how it would look on billboards and stuff,” Ledet recalls, in addition to the long hours spent practicing the squeezebox. He became a professional drummer at age 10, heeding the beat in the Houston-based Wilbert Thibodeaux and the Zydeco Rascals. He held the drum chair until his junior year in high school when he began sitting in with other bands and trying to start his own outfit.
At age 12, he began dabbling with the accordion, taking a few lessons from his cousin, Leon Sam, but learning mostly through a process he calls “hard studying.” He caught any band he could, devoured all the zydeco, Creole and Cajun recordings possible and spent countless hours watching video documentaries and concerts with friend and musical mentor James Adams.
Two years after graduating high school, in September 2002, Ledet realized another dream, something he refers to as spiritual, by relocating from his native Houston to Parks, Louisiana, where most of his father’s family still resides.
By January 2003, Ledet had his Corey and His Zydeco Band up and running, ready to take on the zydeco nation but very differently than Keith Frank, Chris Ardoin and J. Paul, who were pushing the envelope in the contemporary nouveau direction. Instead, Ledet’s main influence was Clifton Chenier — to this very day, Ledet is among the few who can quote the solos of the zydeco founding father perfectly.
It didn’t hurt that Ledet’s grandfather, Buchanan ‘Tbu’ Ledet, was one of Clifton Chenier’s first drummers. “Before it was Robert Peter, it was my grandfather,” Ledet says. “When Clifton hired Robert Peter, he told him, ‘I want you to sound as close to this man as possible.’ So he would go by my grandfather’s and study with him. When you hear Clifton’s drums, that is how my grandfather would back up Clifton way back when.”
Since January 2003, Ledet has quietly recorded a litany of CDs, including his most recent release and hands-down apex Nothin’ But the Best. Interestingly, only now has Ledet become comfortable in his own sonic skin, departing from the footsteps of others. His 2004 debut disc, 3 Years 2 Late, had a myriad of styles — first-generation zydeco, Creole, nouveau, R&B, swing-out, etc., an approach he employed for the next several records. “I was new, trying to get people to notice me, have this demographic notice me and that demographic notice me. It was always a case of me trying to prove myself,” Ledet explains. “Whereas now, with this last CD, it was more like I’m going to go into the studio and play what I want. I am going to play it at ease and just be me and write a few songs from my point of view.”
Newly comfortable with himself, Ledet wasn’t afraid to take chances. He performed the entire CD on his favorite instrument, the piano accordion, and included a few bluesy numbers such as a rollicking version of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “The House is Rockin’.” Yet, the biggest dice-rolling move was inviting fellow accordionists Anthony and Dwayne Dopsie, sons of the late Rockin’ Dopsie, Sr., and the brilliant West Coast accordionist André Thierry to record on the album.
“I decided to call them up and say, ‘Hey, you want to jam on the next record?’” Ledet shares. “They all went, ‘Yeah, let us know when we can come in.’ They all came in and we had a good time doing it. Also, it was another way for showing a zydeco brotherhood because now with the contemporary set, everyone is fighting amongst each other and everyone wants to be the number one this and the number one that. In my opinion, it’s killing the culture because the culture is more than just one person.”
As a result, Nothin’ but the Best features some of the most torrid zydeco ever recorded. Ledet and Thierry swing like crazy on Clifton Chenier’s “I’m the Zydeco Man,” while Ledet and Anthony Dopsie stage a jaw-dropping accordion clinic with “Rockin’ Zydeco.” Ledet and Dwayne Dopsie slow things down a bit, but still burn through a rendition of Jimmy Reed’s “Baby, What You Want Me to Do?” Not only are these collaborative tracks riveting, but the cresting B3 organ solos from Ledet and Anthony give the arrangements an extra boost of bottled-up energy. In short, it’s an ideal initiation to true zydeco.
Ledet’s strategy is already paying off. The response at the Montana Folk Festival in Butte was ravenous and overwhelming, something Ledet attributes to “me being me.” In September, Ledet plays the Maui Jazz and Blues Festival, sharing the stage with jazz icon Louis Hayes, blues legend Joe Louis Walker and Louisiana roots musician/former Radiator Camile Baudoin.
“As far as creativity goes, I feel more comfortable getting up [on stage] or going into the studio being me versus having the idea in my head [that] ‘I hope people like this.’ Somebody out there is going to like it. They just have to hear it.”