If you caught Cowboy Mouth at the 2015 Jazz Fest, you saw one of the best moments of Fred LeBlanc’s life. With the band preceding Jimmy Buffett at the Acura Stage—and thus playing to one of the largest crowds that Fest can hold—LeBlanc brought his five-year-old son Bash (Sebastian) onstage to hit some drums during the finale. You’ve seldom seen a dad grinning more proudly, and you’ve never seen a rock ’n’ roll wild man look more like an old softie.
“Having kids is obviously the best thing I ever did,” LeBlanc says. “That [Jazz Fest appearance] was totally unplanned, and he’d never seen me play before. I’d sing little songs around the house—‘Bash is taking a bath, la-la’—and he’d yell at me to stop. And I’d say hey, people pay good money to see me do this! So we were there before Buffett, there’s a hundred thousand people in front of us, and I bring my son out. We get the audience to shout his name, and we put some protective headphones on him. Ever since then his favorite game to play around the house is Jazz Fest, he’ll pick up a pair of sticks. And he can hang around with me now, because he knows what I do is cool.”
LeBlanc the dad has just released his first children’s book, Fred: The New Orleans Drummer Boy (with illustrator Marita Gentry). It’s his first venture outside the rock world—though not too far outside, since it’s the story of a pint-size drummer who dreams of getting onstage. Meanwhile Cowboy Mouth—the band he formed in 1990 with Paul Sanchez and original bassist Paul Clement, and with ex-Red Rockers guitarist John Thomas Griffith joining soon afterward—has rounded its twenty-fifth anniversary with no signs of slowing down or packing in.
Living as a single dad has an impact on LeBlanc’s life nowadays—for one thing, it means he has to commute a lot (and maintain two residences), since the ex-wife and kids have moved out of New Orleans. It’s also made him think some more about what his band means to him. “One of the main reasons that I keep doing Cowboy Mouth is so that my kids can understand that life can be a get-to as opposed to a have-to. They can see that what Daddy does gives him a lot of joy. It really makes me proud when people tell my little boy, ‘Your dad is really good’—it’s a compliment, and the band isn’t something that I shove on them.”
Not surprisingly, the book is a sweet kids’ tale with a funky local spin. Little Fred leads a band with his friends J.T. and E.V. (patterned respectively on Griffith, and LeBlanc’s two-and-one-half-year-old daughter Evangeline). Problems arise when their new bass player Little B (a nod of course to Bash) gets scared to go onstage; he conquers his fear and has some fun. “It’s kind of a miniature version of a Cowboy Mouth show. In the book, he’s nervous about playing his first show and the other kids say, ‘Don’t get scared, get excited.’ So the energy is turned to a beneficial purpose instead of being used against you. That’s why I always say the opposite of love isn’t hate, because they’re both intense amounts of energy; the opposite of love is apathy. In the book, Little B is able to turn his fear energy around and that makes a huge difference for him. Of course that’s easier said than done, but maybe kids can get that lesson from it.”
The faces in Cowboy Mouth have changed, but the essence remains the same: If you’re losing faith and need a lift, they’re the band for the job. You can see them in the worst of moods, and by the end wind up rolling on the floor during “Jenny Says” with everybody else. LeBlanc will remind you at every turn that you need to celebrate being alive—like, immediately—and he’ll cue Griffith for a solo while the band revs it up. Part of the appeal is always watching the first-time attendees who’ve heard the one song on the radio and don’t know what’s coming.
For LeBlanc, it all goes back to young days watching gospel services on TV. “I’d get up on Saturday morning and watch the reruns of this one guy—they’d rerun his service before the Bugs Bunnies. He’d be preaching and he’d say, ‘You’re watching Chan-tel 26!’—That’s the way he’d say it, he wouldn’t say ‘channel’. Growing up Catholic, you were always taught, ‘You’re an original sinner, you never deserve the kingdom of God, but give us your money.’ And here I saw this spiritual thing where a lot of people were cutting loose, feeling a connection to something greater that was a release. That was the idea of how I wanted to approach the band—I wanted something that would be punk rock ’n’ roll gospel.”
Over the years he’s collected his share of wild rock stories, one of the best coming (pun intended) from a New Years Eve show at the Hyatt Superdome a couple years back. “I never see what’s happening in the audience. We’ve played festivals where women are flirting with you, removing clothing. And people say, ‘Did you see that?’ Nope, never do. So on this occasion we’re playing, the stage is pretty high and the audience is pressed against the stage. I’m playing the bass drum and I’m thinking ‘Hmmm—I didn’t hit that beat just now.’ We keep playing, I’m hearing these beats I didn’t play, and I don’t know what’s going on. But apparently there was a couple celebrating bringing in the new year in their own special way, right there on my drums.” This behavior is not necessarily encouraged when Cowboy Mouth return to play that gig again this year.
The serious side of Cowboy Mouth is that they really do aim to be life-affirming, and LeBlanc says there have been times—including a lowdown time quite recently—when he’s needed it himself. “I went through a really bad divorce last year and it beat the hell out of me. I was looking at what I thought was the dissolution of my family and I’ll tell you honestly, I came close to checking out. So we do this great show in Deadwood, South Dakota, we had five thousand people going berserk. We’re flying home the next day and this guy was on the plane, he told me I’d inspired his son to play drums. I said great, thanks very much—but in my line of work you can tell there are other things people aren’t saying. Then before the plane took off he grabs me and says, ‘Hey man, I’ve been in recovery for so many days and your song ‘I Believe’ was the one thing that got me through.’ And he gives me a hug. And I’m feeling like… There’s no way I can tell you how much that means to me now. The whole idea of putting something like that out into the world. It’s all part of life’s rich pageant.”
Cowboy Mouth’s story has been rocky at times; it’s no secret that not everyone who’s left the band has done so on the friendliest terms. LeBlanc doesn’t speak ill of any ex-bandmates, but he does make it clear that he runs a tight ship.
“Music is a business. And whether you’re Mick Jagger or you’re some band playing Jimmy Buffett covers in a bar, there are two things you need to keep in mind: The first is that music is a service industry. And the second is that there are millions of people who would give their left nut to be me on my worst day. I can’t knock anybody who played in this band. I never ask people to play a certain way, I just say, ‘Here are the chords, give it your best.’ And that’s all I ask, that they give their all. When they stop doing that, I think it’s maybe time to keep my eyes and ears open for someone else. I’ve given my life and my professional career to this band and I don’t want to see it suffer because of other people’s problems or lack of motivation.”
Many longtime fans came aboard around 1996–97, when “Jenny Says” (originally a song LeBlanc wrote and recorded with Dash Rip Rock) was on the radio and their best-selling album, Are You With Me? was in the stores. I can vouch that the very best shows were sometimes played for the smallest crowds; the first one I saw—at the now-defunct, Aerosmith-owned club Mama Kin in Boston—was close to a life-changer. Every song was different—here’s a roots-rocker, now a Replacements-type blast, now some power pop and now a taste of country—and everything fit together. Everybody sang and everybody threw in songs, but it all sounded like a band; they managed to deliver an overall message of faith and redemption without being smarmy about it. And if you weren’t truly feeling the spirit, that drummer would step into the crowd to make sure you were.
That “Jenny Says” lineup—LeBlanc, Griffith, Sanchez and bassist Rob Savoy—looked like an unshakeable band of brothers. They even had a band anthem (“The Ballad of Cowboy Mouth,” on the live album All You Need is Live) that saluted their chemistry and namechecked every member. Yet that lineup splintered soon after, with Savoy and then Sanchez leaving (the former now in Creole String Beans, the latter with a notable solo career). “We had that public image of unity, to a certain extent. But there are bands higher up the echelon who had the same kind of image, and the same problems as us. Sanchez wanted to do his own thing, that had been evident for a long while. It became very apparent that there was either going to be a parting of the ways, or a destruction of the entity. The changes at that time were necessary for the band to survive. And once they came about, it forced me to be better as a leader and a business owner, instead of just the requisite lead singer and troublemaking drummer.”
Part of that involved taking the reins during the years of personnel changes. The MCA contract went south around that time, (the third album for the label, Hurricane Party, remains in the can), followed by an Atlantic deal that lasted only one album (Easy). This ushered in a confusing period for the band, including a long string of bass players—Mary Lasseigne, Sonia Tetlow, Regina Zernay, and Casandra Faulconer all came and went in quick succession. The rhythm guitar slot likewise saw turnover, with Vance DeGeneres (Ellen’s brother and ex-Cold/Backbeats founder) and Jonathan Pretus (now the Breton Sound’s frontman) both doing stints. And sometimes the band wasn’t even on the album: 2003’s Uh-Oh was mostly LeBlanc playing everything, though a couple of Griffith/Sanchez tracks were added (a financial decision, LeBlanc says—being stuck between label deals, they bypassed the studio and just released the demos).
Though they never called much attention to it, the women in the lineup gave a whole different energy to what had been a testosterone-heavy band. “It was never a conscious thing, like ‘Ooh, let’s get a female bass player.’ Rob Savoy came from the Cajun tradition, which gave him a certain style and charisma. When he left, Mary came in and she was a very high-endy bass player and I thought, ‘This is different, but it works.’ [She left due to family issues.] And I’ll say that Casandra was just a musical genius, and that she made me a better drummer [she took a gig with Cirque du Soleil in 2014].
The current lineup, he swears, is in it for the long haul. Guitarist Matt Jones is only the second non–New Orleanian to join the band (Faulconer was a Canadian transplant), and a friend from the Baltimore band Jimmie’s Chicken Shack. “The difference is that he can also play lead. Sanchez and Pretus were great, but they were basically rhythm-based players. Now I have two kick-ass guitar players who can blaze.” Bassist Brian Broussard is, like LeBlanc, a former member of Dash Rip Rock, though their tenure was years apart: LeBlanc played on the first two Dash albums in 1986–89, while Broussard came along in the 2000s (they also played in the New Orleans Raunch and Soul All-Stars, a punk Mardi Gras band put together by Jello Biafra and Dash’s Bill Davis). “Playing in Dash was like being hit by a two-ton rock ’n’ roll hammer,” LeBlanc says. “I’ll give Bill Davis his due, we had troubles when we worked together but he’s a great musician. And he had vision that a lot of people had—that you had to be proud of being a Louisiana band, that it was still an exotic thing to everyone else.”
As for the current Mouth lineup, “The four of us, we travel together, we hang out, we enjoy each other’s company. It’s really good. And of course, it helps that Brian owns a brewery.” (That would be the Covington Brewhouse, which he co-owns after stints brewing for Abita and NOLA.)
That leaves John Thomas Griffith, the band’s co-pilot for all these years, and the one whose punk-rock background gives the added shot of urgency. “We may be on two completely different planets, but he’s still my brother,” LeBlanc says. “I’m sure our relationship has matured a lot over the years. He can require a lot of patience, and I’m sure not easy to deal with at times. But I hope he knows that when push comes to shove, I’ve got his back.” And push really did come to shove two years ago, when Griffith faced some serious trials. Though it wasn’t made public at the time, he got a severe blood infection that reached a valve and required open-heart surgery. “It was very much a close-to-death kind of thing,” Griffith says now. “Fred came and sat by my bed for three or four days and talked me through it, and not a lot of people would do that. Then when I’m back for my first show, we’re onstage and he says, ‘Back from the dead, it’s John Thomas Griffith!’ I thought about that for a second, but that’s the way he works. He finds the humor in things and he makes you laugh.”
“What I’d tell people about Fred is that he’s a good songwriter first and foremost,” Griffith says. “All those shenanigans are a secondary thing. Aside from being that evangelistic preacher that everybody sees onstage, he’s written some beautiful songs, and we don’t even get to play half of them. Punk rock brought us together but he’s a real encyclopedia of music—we’ve got what, 15 albums and most of those songs are his. I’m not one to put my relationships into songs, but he does it all the time. And I think his being such a prolific songwriter gets lost in those shenanigans of Cowboy Mouth.”
Indeed, LeBlanc doesn’t mention his song catalogue, or his no-slouch ability as a drummer, when he considers his musical contribution. “As a drummer I’m a hell of an entertainer,” he says. “You gotta understand, my job is getting up there and beating stuff and screaming for two hours. That’s really therapeutic, I would recommend it highly. My drumming is actually very simple: I’m a huge Ringo fan, he and Ziggy [Modeliste] are it for me. And I’ve never been one who’s afraid of speeding up the tempo. I always tell people that my talent isn’t playing music. I just know how to move a huge amount of energy effortlessly, and I use music to do it.”
Like many veteran bands, Cowboy Mouth are looking for alternative ways to market their music. The current CD, The Name of This Band Is Cowboy Mouth—with re-recorded greatest hits and a few new songs—was one such attempt. (“It’s more like, ‘greatest hit and eleven other songs,’” LeBlanc points out.) A more intriguing possibility is a reality TV show starring the band, probably with the same title. They shot a pilot earlier this year with producer Andrew Arnold, who “sunk a good chunk of change into it”; the show is now being shopped around.
But the essence of Cowboy Mouth will always be tied to the live show. Says LeBlanc, “When I was going through the divorce I was telling my friends, ‘What do I do? I’m lost emotionally, I’m just done.’ And they said, ‘When I’m upset I just listen to you guys. You oughta try it.’ And that’s a great effect to have on the world around you. When we started this project I didn’t want it to be the biggest band in the world; I wanted it to be the best. And of course that’s not attainable because it’s a creative endeavor. But there have been moments when the band and the audience are one wild joy-gasm of energy. And I think, this is really good. I’d be hard-pressed to find something like this in the world.”
That’s Cowboy Mouth in a nutshell, spirituality crossed with wild abandon. You can’t get much more New Orleans than that, and the band and its frontman are something worth celebrating. Are you with me?