At the writing of this article the announcement of the Grammy Awards was still a future event, meaning the fate of Beausoleil’s winning a Grammy in this year’s “Contemporary Folk” category was still up in the air. But band members of South Louisiana’s most popular and progressive Cajun band interviewed for this article were quite content if the group gets no more than nominated. Considering Beausoleil is in the same category as Tracy Chapman, it’s both an unfathomable long shot to think they could pull off a Grammy over Chapman, and also an inestimable honor to have been placed in the same category with such a popular artist.
In fact, Beausoleil prevailed over some 50 artists in the preliminaries for that category, which included names like James Taylor. The final sealed ballot opened the night of the Grammys included Beausoleil, Tracy Chapman, Guy Clark, the Indigo Girls and the Gypsy Kings. Pretty impressive feat, especially considering Beausoleil is the only one of these artists not on a major label—Bayou Cadillac is on Rounder Records, an independent.
This marks the third time Beausoleil has been nominated for a Grammy. They were first nominated in 1985 for their re-release album, Zydeco Gris-Gris, on Swallow. That album was originally released in Canada and titled Les Amis Cadjins. Beausoleil was nominated again in 1987 for the soundtrack for Belizaire the Cajun.
Tommy Comeaux, guitarist for Beausoleil, is a voting member of the National Academy for Arts & Sciences (NARAS), the organization that hosts the Grammy Awards and organizes and coordinates all the Grammy nominations. From a hotel room phone in Phoenix where the group was performing on tour when contacted for an interview, Comeaux gave a thumbnail sketch of how the Grammy voting process works, and whether he thinks the process in general works.
According to Comeaux, towards the end of the recording year around the end of October, NARAS sends an open callout to its members—some 3,000-4,000, he guesses—to ask for nominations. All NARAS members who are interested in responding send in their recommendations. Comeaux was asked to be a member after Beausoleil was first nominated for a Grammy. NARAS members also include important others in the music industry.
Once the NARAS board has received the recommendations, it organizes them into categories and sends members preliminary ballots. “As best as I understand it, anyone mentioned in the open call recommendation is on this preliminary ballot, as long as they meet basic requirements,” says Comeaux. On this ballot there may be, for example, 300 artists nominated for the category of “Song of the Year.” Members are asked to vote for no more than five artists in each category.
Those votes are processed, then a second and final ballot is sent to NARAS members with the culled down number of artists—five per category. On this sealed final ballot, members may only choose one artist in each category. The ballots are then tabulated by an accounting firm and finally given to NARAS, who keeps the ballots closed until the night of the Grammys.
Does the system work? Probably as reliably as any national voting system can. “I’m sure there’s a lot of political pull and a lot of it is just recognizable names,” says Comeaux. “We’re up against Tracy Chapman, for example. Say she has sold 100,000 of her records and Beausoleil has sold 30,000 of Bayou Cadillac. Her name will be much more recognized (by NARAS members) because she sold much more records. So the chance of her accumulating much more votes just on name recognition is a big factor. It’s not sour grapes, it’s just a fact.”
A few years ago it would have been appropriate to call Beausoleil a traditional Cajun band. In Lafayette, where the group originates, band leader Michael Doucet, 39, is hailed as being a leader in the deep roots research of Louisiana, Acadiana and Creole music and songs. After a 1974 trip to France that inspired him to return home to Acadiana and search for traditional sources of French Cajun music, Doucet spent several years researching and learning from the “old masters” of the Cajun fiddle—Dennis McGee, Dewey Balfa, Canray Fontenot, to name a few—to help him understand his culture, and not only musically but historically and linguistically as well.
With the exception of Coteau, a very regionally popular Cajun rock ‘n’ roll group which Doucet co-formed in the mid-’70s but which broke up in 1977, Doucet has remained true to Cajun tradition. “But, when Beausoleil started [also in the mid-’70s], the idea was to show all of the possibilities of Cajun music,” said Doucet in 1988. “Our first album ran the gamut. It’s always been [my intention] to show all the possibilities and not to peg Cajun music into a slot.”
That certainly has been the case. The group has added electric guitar, occasional organ and synthesizers, and, most recently, electric bass to their formerly all-acoustic sound. What started as an acoustic folk group has progressed in the last few years into an eclectic, quasi-electric Cajun rock band that can smoothly segue from the traditional Cajun to funkier syncopations with exotic percussions. The biggest difference between a Beausoleil tune and tunes most other Cajun bands play is the essential twist Beausoleil puts on songs, even traditional waltzes.
Beausoleil stands out partly because of its more complex riffs, lacking in most Cajun music, and partly due to the group’s uninhibited, slightly irreverent, risk-taking arrangements. On Bayou Cadillac, Beausoleil has honed its diverse musical repertoire—incorporating traditional Cajun waltzes, the blues, rock ‘n’ roll, folk, funk, calypso, and rhythm and blues—into a consummate Cajun/funk groove it was developing in earlier works.
Though the group’s increasingly rhythmic repertoire may be partially aimed at attracting a wider audience, Doucet still regards Beausoleil as a purist band whose members are “stem traditionalists.” And while this latest album may sound more Coteau-like than anything Doucet’s done since the electric rock days of that band, Doucet can back-to-back Cajun funk with a traditional acoustic album like Cajun Fiddle, which he also released in 1989.
An example of part of the widening audience Beausoleil is drawing was the group’s invitation in January to perform exclusively at Rolling Stone Editor and Publisher Jann Wenner’s 44th birthday party in New York. Wenner personally called Doucet about a week before and by chance the band was free for the gig. Record industry executives and fashionable celebrities like Christy Brinkley, Peter Wolf and Dennis Hopper were among those who attended the party and danced to the Beausoleil beat.
More recently, on Mardi Gras Day Beausoleil opened for a Mardi Gras Grateful Dead gig in Oakland, California. This is the second year the Dead have asked the band to open for them. Last year, Doucet’s baby son, Ezra, was due at the time, so the band passed on the offer. And if a touring schedule is any indication of Beausoleil’s popularity, they are on the road an average of half of every month. “Mais, it’s a lot of touring!” clowns Tommy Comeaux over the phone. Yeah, mais, Beausoleil is Cajun hot.