“I have careened through this life like a twelve-pound cannonball thrown from a privateer’s frigate toward the galleon fleet off Southwest Pass.” So writes Ralph Zachary Richard, 42, in the liner notes to Snake Bite Love, his twelfth and latest album, released last fall. When we pulled up to his home near Scott, Louisiana one cool afternoon in February, one of Acadiana’s most outspoken figures was calmly waxing his ’66 Cadillac El Dorado. In a few days he would embark on a major U.S. tour in support of Snake Bite Love, the album he hopes will establish him as a mainstream songwriter with Louisiana roots, rather than a “Cajun musician.”
Nursing a cold, he settled into a wicker chair in the spacious living area of the beautiful “Cajun-deco” cottage he shares with Claude Thomas, the Frenchwoman who is his longtime companion and business manager. Quietly articulate and open over what turned into a three-hour talk, around him was evidence of his moderate success: the swimming pool out back, the grand piano, the small recording facility. His vast yard, once lined with crops, is now studded with crawfish mounds and young trees.
“This place, it’s very vulnerable, and you see all your neighbors,” he says of his homestead. “I don’t think it’s all that interesting to live on an open prairie. I’d rather live in a forest. I do cherish my privacy, and that’s why I planted all the trees, basically.”
Do you get fans who find out where you live?
Canadians, mostly, because the Canadians will find my parents, and then my parents will always tell them where I live. My mother will drive them out here.
Do you mind that?
I’ll come out and say hello, sign an autograph, then they’re usually polite enough to leave. Sometimes they stay. My mom will make them tea or coffee or something [chuckles].
Do you envision ever moving from this place?
No, but I think it’s important for me to have to deal with Los Angeles, with Nashville, with New York, to be accessible to what’s going on there. My father gave me this land under the condition that I never sell it. And I don’t have any problem with that. I would never want to sell it. This is what surrounds me, this makes it real for me. The real wealth of Louisiana is its people, its characters.
And even though I’m out here on the prairie by myself most of the time, I still deal with this stuff. Living in a small town in the middle of nowhere is really curious. There’s something that’s almost pathological about living in a small town. There’s a potential for going nuts which is much more evident to me than in the big cities.
I run into these people at the post office, and the whole time I’m taking notes in my head. These characters, these people are accessible to me here, and they would never be accessible to me if I moved to Los Angeles. Then all my friends would be in the music business and I would never see this stuff. The ideal situation for me is half-and-half, where I can have my privacy, I can have this kind of idiosyncratic small town life, and then I can go and be in the city and meet people—let’s face it, there are not that many other singer/songwriters in Scott, Louisiana that I can work with—so I go to the places where I can meet people that inspire my craft and teach me things about myself and my craft.
You couldn’t make these people up. They’re there in Scott and they’re real peculiar, but they’re my people, and I love ‘em.
Characters and incidents from your life populate the songs on your new album.
“Snake Bite Love” was actually…I was arrested in 1969 climbing the walls of St. Louis [Cemetery] No. 2. “Let’s go to St Louis, there’s an interesting tomb there.” “Yeah, cool, I’ve got to check this out, it’s a full moon.” We went, and as soon as we came back over, it was like, “Oops, party time.”
So they took you down?
I spent the night in parish prison. It was no fun.
Did you have long hair or anything that might call attention to you?
Not only did I have long hair, but I had flowers in my pocket. You have to empty your pockets when you go to Central Lockup, you know? I’m dumpin’ out these flowers. [In the voice of grumpy Yat cop] “Hey, come see this. He’s got flowers in his pocket.” All these drunk guys were (harassing me). I was like, “Yeah, I’m here to do a study.”
What were the flowers for—were you going to put them on a grave?
I don’t know what they were for—I was a hippie.
You always had flowers in your pocket?
That was all I had in my pocket. No ID, no nothing, just a bunch of flowers.
Thank goodness there weren’t other plants of illicit nature.
Oh, my father was real happy about that [incident]. I couldn’t call him to bail me out, so I spent the night in jail.
What did he do when he found out?
He didn’t do anything; he just said, “Rot!” But he sent the money, and bailed me out. We went before a judge. We all had long hair, we put on suits, and said, “It was just a college prank, your Honor.” So that was the end of it.
What was your father’s response when you went from hippie to folk singer?
Actually, my father financed the first record. He was pretty much at the end of his rope as far as finding me a job. I said, “Dad, if you give me $5,000, I can make a record.” He’s always been real supportive, even though he never understood what the hell I wanted to do. He spent all that good money sending me to Tulane to make me a lawyer or doctor or something, and I’m about to be some hippie musician. So he figured this was the last chance he had to straighten me out. Plus, I got that advance money from Elektra in ’72 (Richard was signed to Elektra briefly in the early ’70s, but didn’t release any albums with the company), so he realized that you could make money in the music business.
The album that my father financed, we were able to sell 20,000 pieces in Canada, 20,000 pieces in France. I think the French success was associated with the style, which was relatively folkish. Whereas in Montreal I became part of a scene and I was able to evolve musically. Everything that came subsequently was another style. The third album, the gold album, was very much like experimental British influenced—the songs were seven, eight minutes long. And then I discovered Professor Longhair in 1978 and then I had this New Orleans funk period and this jazzy Brazilian thing. The people in France were stuck on the Cajun-equals-folk-equals-Zachary Richard. When it was not that anymore, I just lost that audience. The Canadian thing got bigger and bigger and the French thing kind of stayed where it was.
Right from the start, you were experimenting with different styles of music.
I was like a jeune chien fou—a crazy young dog pissing on all the trees in the forest. You’ve seen how a dog goes over and sniffs this ass, and he goes over and sniffs that ass. [laughs] That’s kind of what I was doing musically. The first two records were kind of country-and-western-ish Cajun. The third French-Canadian album was actually the biggest hit for me in Canada (Migration, released in 1978). It shipped gold on the strength of a 45 which was kind of a reggae-style version of a traditional
Cajun ditty about haberdashery. There’s this really strange batch of Cajun tunes which are really fascinating to me because they’re so goofy. And this was one of ‘em…
Another hit from that time, “The Tree and Its Leaves,” gained substantial airplay in Canada.
It stayed number one for three months. It was a big hit—it became like some kind of an anthem. They used to play it before Canadian hockey games. It was like the only time I’ve ever had any kind of success in this business.
Your American fans, I don’t think, have any idea of your recording success in Canada and France.
That was this whole other career. I left here in ’74, in the summer. I remember very well, ’cause I was always superstitious, so “the seventh day of the seventh month, seven doctors they say, ‘Get the hell out of here.’” I was in New York in ’72, got the record [deal from Elektra], it never came out. Got the accordion from the advance money, discovered Cajun music, which I didn’t know anything about. Began to integrate that Cajun stuff into a rock and roll format, which is what I was doing.
Michael Doucet (currently of Beausoleil) was in the band at the time. We were called the Bayou Drifter Band. We played at Jay’s Lounge down the road and a couple of clubs in Lafayette, had no following except for—this is way before Cajun was booming—a massive group of French Canadians that were down here teaching French in the CODOFIL (Council for the Development of French in Louisiana) program, and they were the ones who supported us.
In the summer of ’73, I had gone to France with my partner, who was Michael Doucet, who did not play fiddle yet. That was the trip that inspired him to play fiddle and inspired me to really take this whole French thing seriously. 1 had some advance money from the record company, so I went out and bought a Stratocaster and a Gibson 335, and I had some money left over, so “Well, let’s buy an accordion.” I wasn’t militant about the culture or even all that interested, but I was intrigued by this musical style which had been around me but I didn’t know anything about.
I got the accordion—boom. I discovered this whole thing, which began to take on proportions for my own identity that I hadn’t anticipated. Go to France, receive a lot of recognition from this French folk movement, play festivals in France in the summer of ’73. We stayed in France for about a month. That’s when it dawned on me that there was a potential for doing this.
We came back and formed this Bayou Drifter band, which basically lasted until the spring of ’74. Then the French Canadians brought us to Montreal as a band. I was playing the accordion very haltingly. We went up there and we were real big hits—that’s the only way I can describe it. There was this feeding frenzy about getting us on TV.
I had recorded this 45, “Ma Louisianne.” It had taken off in Quebec, they booked us on all these TV shows, and we made more money in two days than I had in six months in Louisiana. Came back here, basically realized that there was no future for me here, no chance to make records; we were playing Jay’s Lounge for 20 people. So in July of ’74, the bass player and I hitched to Montreal. I stayed at the Last Chance Motel [on the border] for four days, ’cause I made the mistake of telling the customs agent that I was coming to work.
He says, “What are you coming to do?”
“I’m a musician, I’m coming to play.”
“You have a contract?”
“I don’t need a contract, they love me here.”
Then I said, “Well, I’m actually one of the Acadians that’s coming to rejoin his people from the deportation of 1755.” And I was serious about it, and he didn’t think that was interesting.
Then a friend [in Canada] was able to get us a gig. That began a two year period of me running, looking over my shoulder for the immigration man.
Is that why you moved back to Louisiana in ’81?
I was nostalgic for one thing, and we had basically overdone it in the French Canadian market. It’s a small country, and it is an independent country in every sense except the political one. We played without stopping from 1976 to 1980. I was putting out an album a year. I was putting out an album or touring Quebec, and once in a while we’d go to France. And that was it. After a while, I had played every hockey rink, every auditorium, every outdoor arena—I played every place you could play lots of times, and it was apparent that we needed to get out, or stop, or something, cause otherwise we were gonna self-destruct.
So I was like, “Great. We’ll go to Louisiana and build a house.” I had a little money in the bank. My father is a jack-of-all-trades—I stood by and watched as he built this house for me, was what it amounted to. The whole point was, “Let’s go to Louisiana and hang out, we can go back later and take up where we left off.”
When you moved back to Louisiana, did you return with a new political consciousness reflecting your years in Quebec?
I was inspired by the political sentiment. Being an old Vietnam War protester, I had no place for my latent militant tendencies to go until I found this French thing. This is when they were killing ambassadors and stuffing them in trunks of cars—there was a very militant segment of the population of Quebec.
I went up there, I was discovering my own French roots, and there was a bunch of people walking around going, “Power to the French people.” And I said, “Right on, brothers.” ‘Cause it coincided with a period of time when I was discovering my own personality as a French-speaking North American, rediscovering my whole Cajun-ness.
I was very much influenced by that French Canadian nationalistic political sentiment, which I attempted to import into Louisiana, and was immediately frustrated, because the social situations are extremely different. I didn’t realize this at the time. I figured all my Cajun brothers would rise up and throw off the yoke of the Anglophone oppressor. Everybody looked at me like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” Nobody down here understood it. There is a case to be made for French Canadians being treated like “niggers” in Canada. They were like the janitors and drivers, English Canadians were like the industrial magnates. That’s just the history of Canada
But in Louisiana, it was more of a melting pot. There was no distinct French community that was being oppressed by another community. Cajun people have always perceived English as an opportunity, not as an enemy.
But you felt that there were parallels at the time with what was going on in Louisiana. You felt that there was something that needed to be changed.
Yeah. I wanted to vindicate the preservation of the language. I did not want French to disappear as a language.
It was disappearing at the time?
Well, it has disappeared. CODOFIL, I thought, was good, but it wasn’t radical enough. I didn’t want just French to be taught in the schools—I wanted a political party to impose the French language on official Louisiana society, so that if you went to the hospital you could speak French and somebody would speak to you. It was a very engaged political point of view, which unfortunately nobody down here understood.
You wanted a situation like southern California or Texas, where it’s almost a bilingual culture?
I still feel that unless there’s some kind of political consciousness that’s taken on the part of the Cajun people themselves, there is never going to be any hope for preserving French as an actual living language. French will be spoken here but it will be spoken by a pro-Francophone, essentially university-based elite. There will always be your intellectuals in Lafayette who will speak French amongst themselves, and that’s just the way it is and it’s better than nothing.
At the time, though—and this was 15 years ago—I thought that we could make a change, shock people’s consciousness so that we’d be able to form this grass-roots political movement which basically would cast its vote in a specific pro-French language direction.
Was your grand gesture for that the appearance at Festivals Acadiens in 1975?
Yeah, that was one of ‘em. There was also just going around in bars and making an ass of myself, yelling at my friends if they didn’t speak to me in French. Most of the people down here speak a very halting French. It’s more natural for people my own age to speak English. It was kind of a provocateur—I was attempting to provoke consciousness by making basically an ass of myself.
There’s a picture from that time period that shows you with some sort of revolutionary French Louisiana flag.
That was a cool flag—I don’t know what happened to it. It was a white field with a green oak tree and a blue band for the bayou and a gold star. And then there were the words “solidarite fierte,” which means “solidarity and pride.” And you had to have this perfect Catholic touch—there was a little drop of blood.
Your father was mayor of Scott at one time. Have any of his political ambitions rubbed off?
I think my politics changed when I became a property owner, when I actually started to pay property taxes.
I voted in 1972 for George McGovern. Guess what? We lost. I was so disillusioned I did not vote again until 1990, when I got involved in local elections. People that had property obliged me to get involved on a ward level. I had to know my police juryman, because he was gonna have an influence on the quality of my life.
And I was a Bill Clinton supporter. I’m glad we changed the guard, although the jury’s still out.
Would you ever envision running locally yourself?
No. I got enough problems in my life. I would be happy to be king, if they would want somebody to be king. I could be king.
We’re not talking king of zydeco?
No, just “King.” Just call me “King.” The guy that owns everything and tells everybody what to do. I would be like an enlightened despot.
A benevolent dictator.
Platonic. That guy. I could do a pretty good job. Oil companies probably wouldn’t like me too much.
In the meantime you’ll continue to express your politics in songs like “No French No More”…
I don’t choose those. Picasso said that you don’t choose inspiration, it chooses you. I didn’t sit down one day and say, “Hmmm, what could I write about that would be politically motivating?” Actually, the most important song on Women in the Room was “No French No More.” The most important song on Snake Bite Love is “Sunset on Louisianne,” in terms of social importance. And both of those songs were proposed to me by collaborators [Tommy Shreve and Brian Stoltz respectively). Those are obviously things that I feel very strongly about, so I was very happy to write those songs. But I don’t sit up at night thinking, “What can I do to write a song that will influence people’s minds?” I don’t look at it that way.
You’ve gained a reputation for surprising audiences with unannounced gigs, especially at Festivals Acadiens in Lafayette.
That festival is a very important event to me. I sort of decided that it was important to me to allow some younger blood to go in there. There’s also an opportunity for me to distance myself from that, and return to it: “I do something else, but wait a minute, I can do this too, and I’ll come back in a year or so and prove it to you.”
This last one was interesting. My neighbor is Barry Ancelet (a co-founder of Festival Acadiens, he teaches a course on Cajun music at the University of Southwestern Louisiana). It’s a ten-minute walk across the fields to his house. We visit frequently, and we grew up together. We were in that French class at Cathedral High School which, if you would have dropped a bomb on the first row you’d have destroyed the Renaissance of French in Louisiana. Barry Ancelet, me and Michael Doucet was sitting right behind me.
Barry’s always going, “So you want to play this year?” And I go, “So, yeah, maybe, I don’t know, you know, let me think about it.” So he says, “Just show up if you want to play, and I’ll give you some time,” and this year I showed up on Saturday, and there was so much mud, it depressed me, you know? So I said “I’ll come back tomorrow.” And if it had been that messy on Sunday, I wouldn’t have played. And I have nothing against mud, but there was something that was really kind of depressing about the scene of people covered with mud and just drunk in the mud.
So I got to thinking [on Sunday, after the mud dried a bit], “OK, look’s cool, let’s do it”—because that festival is very important to me. But also I have to be very careful about my presentation in the context of that festival, because obviously it has to be all in French, because there is a part of my personality which is very—I don’t think “political” is the right word, because there’s not enough—political is probably a dream—but there’s a part of my personality which is very well-disposed to the whole Cajun issue thing.
By “Cajun issue” you’re talking about the music…
Well, you know, the survival of the language and the culture, and particularly the language, because I really believe that you cannot have a culture unless you can conceive of it, and if you can no longer speak Cajun French, then there’s no more Cajun culture. There would be Cajun music, but Cajun music, even amongst Cajun people, will be like Eric Clapton playing the blues, you know? I mean, you can do it, and you can do it well, and it can have meaning, but it’s not the same meaning.
There will always be more and more young Cajun musicians, but there’s also a bunch of Cajun bands in Ireland, in England and in Holland, and there’s not that much to separate those bands from the new generation of Louisiana bands, because they’re all learning the old songs. This is controversial, because all the people from around here will say, “Bullshit,” but the new generation of Louisiana bands are not living the Cajun lifestyle, and they’re not speaking French. And I think that’s a main rupture. There is all these other influences, so yeah, there’s a big difference between somebody that grows up in Jeanerette, and somebody that grows up in Dublin, OK? That’s obvious.
I’m a real purist when it comes to the language. I think that’s the line that you have to draw. You have to say, “We have to continue to speak French.”
So why do you have to be careful at the Festival?
Because my presentation has to be always in that context. I have to think about what I’m going to do, because that festival’s not like playing Grant Street (a club in Lafayette) for me. This is the Cajun Festival. This is the homage—that’s the first festival that’s called “Homage du Musique Acadien.” And I take it very seriously in a social sense, so that my presentation has to be very carefully conceived to eventually inspire and if nothing else at least set some sort of example—I can speak English, I can write in English, I can sing in English, I can even have a career in American mainstream popular music, but I’m nonetheless dedicated to the preservation of the language—particularly the language, because I think that is the linchpin of the culture. So when I play at the Festivals Acadiens, it has to be very deliberate in what I choose to do there. That part of my personality has to be the most important, you know? Like “the French guy”—the guy that’s dedicated to the language and the culture.
How about that surprise accordion duel you had one year at the Festivals with Wayne Toups? There seemed to be some danger of the stage collapsing.
It’s fun, because no two accordion players play alike. And Cajun music is full of idiosyncrasies, which is the most interesting aspect of it. People drop beats, add beats, there’s all kinds of weird stuff. Get two accordion players together, and if you play the same song, you don’t play the same song. And it’s not jazz music, but it’s jazz music in the sense that it’s improvisation, and I think that’s the nature of jazz, really—it’s musicians feeding off of one another’s energy to create. ‘Cause I’m not a particularly gifted accordion player, I’m not even in the top 50. But I think my contribution to the style is that I’m a quirky accordion player—I’m different. I play a lot of shit different from everybody else.
I heard you had a fever that day.
I remember when I moved back here from Montreal in ’81, I gorged myself on shellfish. I went out and I ate shrimps, oysters and crabs like everyday, all day. And I developed this condition that was originally misdiagnosed as syphilis. I had this real fundamentalist allergist in Lafayette who just looked at me and said, “You live with a woman and you’re not married to her? It must be syphilis.” You know, this mother-fucking guy was out of his mind.
It was an allergic reaction—basically, I was overdosing on iodine. I was just gorging on shellfish, because I had been in Montreal for five years and I’d had none of this food, so I finally found a doctor that says, “Yeah, you’ve eaten too much shellfish, just stop eating all of this stuff and you’ll be OK.”
And I had this—I still do, sort of—concept of the Cajun music festival, because I saw Dennis McGee, Felix Richard and all of those old guys come to the Cajun music festival with ties on, it was like a formal thing for them. So early on when I would play the Cajun music festival, I would wear these clothes that I’d wear when I go to Mass once a year. Clothes that I’d never wear otherwise, that my mama thought looked good. And I’d go play the Cajun music festival. And this year I dressed up, but my feet were swollen so bad that I couldn’t put shoes on. So I remember playing the Cajun Music Festival barefoot that year. I was totally dressed-up, barefooted. And people saying, “Look at this guy, what a jerk…”
Maybe they decided it was another political statement.
Is there a sense of competition between you and Toups, that you’re both doing the Cajun rocker thing?
No. I think that it’s really a “rising tide lifts all boats.” I think the interest in Cajun music is good for everybody. And I think what Wayne does is very different from what I do. I don’t think that there’s any real room for competition, because I don’t think it serves any purpose. My success or my failure has got to do with me. It doesn’t have anything to do with Wayne Toups. And I really do believe that if attention is brought onto the culture, then everybody will benefit. I think that Wayne is interesting because he is breaking the bonds of tradition, stretching it a little bit.
One of the greatest things that’s happened around here in the music scene is the Bluerunners. Because finally there’s somebody out there that’s even playing accordion music weirder than me. They’re catching all of the flak from the purists, so all of a sudden, I’ve become acceptable. And I think all of that is ultimately nonsense, but I think what’s great about the Bluerunners is that here’s a young band creating new music that is somehow still inspired by this South Louisiana thing, even though it probably has more in common with the Seattle sound, ultimately.
But I have more in common with Creedence, when you get down to it, than with Aldus Roger. And I think that’s what makes the music scene interesting now, is that you have this broad spectrum that goes all the way from what people consider to be traditional, which I think probably owes as much to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young as it does to Aldus Roger in terms of their instrumentation, all the way to Wayne Toups, me, whoever—and then on through Mamou, hard-rock Cajun and the Bluerunners. If everybody played the same shit the same way, you would just need one band, you know?