KEVIN GORDON: SUNDAY, APRIL 24—LAGNIAPPE STAGE, 4:05 P.M.
KENNY BILL STINSON & THE ARK-LA-MYSTICS: FRIDAY, APRIL 29—LAGNIAPPE STAGE, 5:30 P.M.
Most lovers of Louisiana music are familiar with the I-10 corridor, which travels from the cultural gumbo that is New Orleans west to Lafayette, the center of Cajun music, and then to Lake Charles, ground zero for zydeco. But what if you turn north on I-49 from Lafayette and keep going past the exits for the Acadiana outposts of Eunice, Opelousas and Ville Platte? There’s still a whole lot of Louisiana ahead of you, a territory with its own geography and culture, but one that is seldom mentioned in discussions of Louisiana music.
Once you pass Alexandria, everything changes. The table-flat wetlands are replaced by rumpled hills covered in piney woods. South Louisiana’s omnipresent Catholic churches become scarcer, and suddenly Baptist churches are everywhere. The restaurants are more likely to serve beef and fried fish than crawfish etouffee and jambalaya. And the music is rooted more in Elvis Presley than Fats Domino.
“The top half of Louisiana from Alexandria on up is redneck and coon ass,” Kenny Bill Stinson declares, “and the bottom half is Cajun. It’s really like two states in one, two totally different cultures and totally different musics. They play accordions down there and we play guitars here. I never saw an accordion as a kid except Lawrence Welk on TV.”
David Egan, one of the giants of North Louisiana music, died in March, but two other major figures, Stinson and Kevin Gordon, will appear at Jazz Fest this year. Gordon, a brilliant lyricist whose songs have been sung by Levon Helm, Lucinda Williams and Irma Thomas, suggests what Bruce Springsteen might have sounded like if he had grown up in Monroe, Louisiana, listening to local rockabilly bands. Stinson, a virtuoso multi-instrumentalist who has toured with everyone from Charlie Rich to Rodney Crowell, suggests what North Louisiana’s Jerry Lee Lewis might have sounded like if had started playing music after the Beatles rather than before.
Other Side of the Tracks
Lewis casts a long shadow across the region, his astonishing recordings not only setting a high standard but also showing a path forward for local musicians. When Stinson sets aside his guitar and sits down at the piano, he is capable of channeling Lewis with remarkable fidelity, reflecting not just the fast and furious notes of Lewis’ singles but also the wild man’s spirit of juke-joint boogie-blues illicitly mixed with Baptist singing. And even Gordon’s most literary concoctions are often framed by the twitch and twang of Lewis’ rockabilly.
“North Louisiana seems to suffer from the Jerry Lee Lewis Syndrome,” Gordon says. “That Protestant thing of having a lot of fun, then feeling bad about it, then going out and doing it again. I think about those stories of Jerry Lee sneaking into that African-American club in Ferriday as a kid: that awkward wanting to live inside the blues as best you can as a white guy. And then going to the Pentecostal church on Sunday. It wasn’t the most progressive place in terms of race relations, but segregation made some people very interested in the other side of the tracks.”
“I was 16 when I saw Jerry Lee at the Monroe Civic Center,” Stinson recalls, “and it changed my life. He was so good and so rebellious that I just loved it. He took his shirt off and put his boots inside the piano. When they turned the lights up, he said, ‘I’m not through yet. Turn the lights down.’ They did and then he combed his hair. I loved that. That pumping, thumping rock ‘n’ roll and the attitude that went with it cut through a lot of bullshit and changed a lot of things.”
“I experienced things in North Louisiana that everyone thought of as normal,” Gordon adds, “but that really seem unusual to me now. For example, the levee formed a line between the lawful and the lawless zones. In high school, we’d have these huge bonfires and these ice chests full of godawful alcoholic concoctions, and the cops never bothered us if we were on the other side of the levee. The wide latitude people are given there makes folks like Jerry Lee and Kenny Bill possible. That latitude’s not always good when it comes to alcohol, but there’s a passion in that way of life, a joie de vivre, a not thinking about the long-term consequences.”
One of the key songs on Gordon’s latest album, last fall’s Long Time Gone, is “Walking on the Levee.” It’s the story of the adult Gordon returning from his current home in Nashville to revisit his old stomping grounds of Monroe. The morning after playing a show there, he takes a morning walk on the earthen embankment, alone with the “wasp on the grass, a floating red thorn” and “the sound of dogs barking.” Such a command of language hints at Gordon’s background as a poet who attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, one of America’s top creative-writing programs.
But the song’s emotional heart lies in the memory of a houseboat owned by his girlfriend’s father, tied up on the lawless side of the levee, the site of an education far more transforming than any graduate school. There’s a wistfulness to the song, as if the North Louisiana of the 1980s, like adolescence itself, is a state of mind that once lost can never be recovered, even if it accompanies one, as the song puts it, like a “pretty ghost at my side.”
If that acoustic guitar song hints at the singer-songwriter side of his music—influenced as much by North Louisiana’s Leadbelly as by Bob Dylan—another song on the album, “GTO,” reveals the Lewis boogie in Gordon’s sound. This is the story of the singer’s father going “Middle Age Crazy,” as one Lewis song put it, and buying a muscle car, only to have it stolen and driven into a lake.
The music is revved-up rockabilly, evoking the sensation of driving that car with the “pedal to the metal.” When the cops make a big deal about arresting some “black boys” for the crime, though, the young son narrating the song says, “I never knew why it mattered that they were black. The GTO was gone; it wasn’t ever coming back.”
“It’s that thing of loving the people who raised you and grew up with you” Gordon explains over the phone, “but sometimes finding their attitudes unpalatable.”
Gordon’s role model for such high-octane rockabilly was Kenny Bill Stinson, a decade older. Gordon was attending Northeast Louisiana University (now known as the University of Louisiana at Monroe) in 1985 when Stinson got homesick, gave up his gig with Rodney Crowell and returned home to Monroe. Stinson figured he didn’t have to live in Nashville to make records; the technology had advanced enough that he could make them at home. And he didn’t need other musicians, because he could play all the parts as capably as those one-man bands, Prince and Stevie Wonder. And he could play whenever he wanted at Monroe’s hippest venue, Enoch’s Café, out by campus.
“I’d see Kevin in the crowd there,” Stinson says, “listening and drinking with his friends. They were punk-rock kids, but they seemed interested in what I was doing. One time Kevin came over to my house, and the first thing he did was point to my Eddie Cochran album and say, ‘That’s a great record.’ Then I knew we were on the same wavelength. We started making music together, and our guitars meshed really well. It’s very natural to have two guys from North Louisiana playing with one another.”
“It was not just the wide variety of music he played,” Gordon recalls, “but also how well he could present it. He could play the guitar like Albert Collins or Lightnin’ Hopkins or the piano like Fats Domino or Ray Charles. Kenny Bill was just such a great player and such a character. He used to get me up and let me sit in. We’d do one song that I could play along with pretty well, then he’d hit me with something more complicated like the Beatles’ ‘Glass Onion,’ and I’d be left just standing there.”
In 1997, when the Smithsonian Folklife Festival was showcasing the culture of Louisiana on the Washington Mall, the organizers invited Stinson to represent the northern half of the state. Stinson knew this was an important gig, so he called Gordon in Nashville and asked him to round up a rhythm section. Those shows were eye-openers for all us Easterners who were lucky enough to see them.
Stinson was not what most people imagine a backwoods folk artist to be; he was a crazed wild man in an orange tie-dye T-shirt, long brown ponytail and Dixie Beer baseball cap. But when he played a medley of Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” and Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me To Do,” he didn’t so much impersonate the originals as reincarnate them. And when he played originals such as “Buzzin’” and “Taters and Gravy and Chicken-Fried Steak,” the songs sounded no less compelling. And the self-effacing Gordon stood by his side, playing guitar like he was shoveling coal into the locomotive.
Stinson started calling his home studio the Stinsonian Institution. He worked on his records at a leisurely pace, but the results on 2006’s F-Earl and 2009’s Kickin’ in My Stall were impressive. He promises a new album later this year. He became a regular for a while at a Shreveport nightclub owned by hometown legend James Burton, the guitarist famed for his work with Elvis Presley, Emmylou Harris, Elvis Costello and North Louisiana’s Lewis and Dale Hawkins. Burton liked Stinson’s music so much that the older man would often sit in with the younger.
“I was playing some tracks from my album for him in my car,” Stinson remembers, “and James said, ‘You know, I’d like to put some guitar on those tracks.’ I didn’t think he’d do it, but he drove an hour to West Monroe to play in my studio. The Jazz Fest folks heard the record and they wanted us to perform together, and I called up Kevin and said, ‘Come on, you’ve got to come to Jazz Fest with me and play with James Burton.’”
“As a sideman, I’ve never felt as comfortable as I did playing Jerry-Lee-type songs with Kenny Bill at those festivals,” Gordon adds. “That felt like a bedrock for me. When I write a song like ‘GTO,’ the words have the cadence of that music, for that was the music of the place I grew up. My dad buying that car when he got out of college may have been a questionable decision, but that kind of recklessness was of a piece with that place and that music.”
One day David Egan called, asking if Stinson could sub on piano for him in Lil’ Band o’ Gold, Egan’s latest band. “What kind of music do you play?” Stinson asked. Egan replied by scatting a melody in 6/8 time and adding that swamp-pop legend Warren Storm was in the group. “Warren Storm?” Stinson marveled. “I’m there.” Stinson did that West Coast tour on piano and then played a Texas tour on bass.
But Stinson is never happy for long when he’s touring. He always finds a reason to come back home to Monroe, where he can live cheaply, eat his favorite foods, make music at his own pace and answer to no one.
“He likes being at home,” Gordon observes. “That’s why he’s never gotten the recognition that he deserves. But living in Monroe is a big part of his identity. And he loves it there. It’s unusual that such an amazing musician plays around town every week. Me, I was different. I needed to go somewhere else. I had to go to grad school in Iowa to find out if I could write, and I had to go to Nashville to find out if I could make in a music town.”
Colfax/Step in Time
Though he has lived most of his adult life outside Louisiana, Gordon continues to write obsessively about his childhood home. His latest album includes not only “Walking on the Levee” and “GTO,” but also other North Louisiana songs such as “Letter to Shreveport,” “Cajun with a K,” “Crowville,” “Shotgun Behind the Door” and “Goodnight, Brownie Ford,” the latter about a memorable encounter with the mixed- race cowboy singer at Enoch’s Café in Monroe. The previous album, 2012’s Gloryland, included “Bus to Shreveport,” about a ZZ Top concert that turned into a combustible mix of race, alcohol and violence.
That same record contained Gordon’s widely acknowledged masterpiece, “Colfax/Step in Time.” This 10-minute talking blues begins deceptively, with Gordon describing his own experience playing trumpet in his middle-school band. It’s a comic tale of frustrated hormones and juvenile stupidity, as Mr. Minifield, the African-American band director, tries to teach the unruly seventh-graders how to play songs by Stevie Wonder and Kool & the Gang.
That humorous prelude is the perfect set-up for the climax, a Saturday afternoon parade in Colfax, Louisiana, when these students and their leader are unexpectedly confronted by the Ku Klux Klan. Gordon refuses the Hollywood melodrama the occasion seems to call for, but allows the blues-drenched music to build majestically as it lifts the story to catharsis. “Minifield didn’t turn his head,” Gordon sings, “just kept marching, looking straight ahead, like there was somewhere better he was going, and this was the only goddamned way to get there.”
“Colfax/Step in Time” ranks with Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927” as one of the greatest story songs ever written about the state. Gordon’s creation wouldn’t have been possible without the blues schooling he got from Stinson, Brownie Ford and like-minded North Louisiana musicians. Nor would it be possible without the double-edged stubbornness that makes possible not only the problem of the region’s reactionary politics but also the independent spirit that might be the solution. If you’re from North Louisiana, you can’t ignore its contradictions; you have to march right through them, “looking straight ahead,” like there’s a better day ahead, and this is “the only goddamned way to get there.”