Joel Savoy’s Honky Tonk Merry-Go-Round is a real sweetheart of an album—an informal gathering of accomplished young Cajun musicians taking their turns on tried-and-true honky-tonk numbers in a recording environment that transforms what might have been a dancehall or concert-stage platform into a more-intimate, front-porch music setting. Merry-Go-Round also celebrates the Cajun love affair with honky tonk, which dominated Cajun music during the late 1930s and 1940s into the 1960s. While honky tonk music is sometimes regarded a “foreign element” in the Cajun tradition, Joel Savoy’s Honky Tonk Merry-Go-Round also demonstrates through thoroughly infectious renditions and casually superb performances the ways in which a new generation of young Cajun revivalists have taken the honky tonk influence on Cajun music to heart, falling in love with the drone, wail, and two-step dance rhythms that comprise the raw roots of the Cajun music tradition.
Organized as a January 2013 offering from the Acadiana Center for the Arts “Louisiana Crossroads” concert series, Joel Savoy describes his Honky Tonk Merry-Go-Round as “kind of like live karaoke with a great house band. Lots of people come up and sing, mostly locals who like old country stuff. It’s always a riot!” January’s live shows served as a performance platform for headliner and Louisiana country star Jimmy C. Newman, who took his turn alongside a number of honky-tonk-minded young musicians scattered around the country (mostly in Oregon and North Carolina) who, like Savoy, are proficient in old-time country and other varieties of American string-band music.
Recorded in December 2012 during rehearsals for the concert series, the Honky Tonk Merry-Go-Round CD release shines its spotlight exclusively on local talent, musicians and vocalists drawn from the ranks of a decades-long renaissance in Cajun and Creole cultural and music traditions re-interpreted by rock-raised generations hell-bent on infusing their inherited traditions with new energy and new meaning. Standout tracks begin showing up early, especially Courtney Granger’s veteran rendition of “You’re Still on My Mind,” a George Jones classic that also introduced the genre of country-rock on The Byrds’ 1968 game-changing Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Equally compelling are a pair of vocal performances by Kelli Jones-Savoy (she and Joel were married in March 2012) and North Carolina émigré Emma Young, who create perfectly melded female harmonies on the dreamy ballad “No Letter Today” as well as the upbeat title tune, “Honky Tonk Merry-Go-Round.”
Kudos also go to a forceful version of “Honky Tonk Angels” by Yvette Landry, a practiced honky-tonk vocalist and bass player with both the Lafayette Rhythm Devils and the all-female Cajun group Bonsoir Catin. And closing out the brief-but-rousing, free-flowing talent show, The Red Stick Rambler’s Chas Justus bids the listener adieu on an appropriate high note, wringing every last emotional drop out of “Miss the Mississippi and You,” riding out on a happy crescendo of its yodeling chorus. “Miss the Mississippi,” a big hit in 1932 for “the singing brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers, also appeared on Rosanne Cash’s The List, a 2009 album that strongly resembles Honky Tonk Merry-Go-Round in its spare arrangements, dedication to song versus performance or interpretation, and in its informal, almost intimate, approach to the recorded soundscape. Both albums also make the point that simplicity of approach and veteran musicianship can happily co-exist in American roots music. Musically compelling from first note to last, Honky Tonk Merry-Go-Round is a swinging, upbeat confection that reminds us we can pay our respects to time-honored American roots music while also having one heckuva lot of fun.