Canray Fontenot, the man Arhoolie’s Chris Strachwitz dubbed “The last of the great Cajun and Creole fiddlers,” died on July 29, 1995 after a long bout with cancer. Though two of Fontenot’s disciples, D’Jalma Garnier and Ed Poullard, would remain active in the years to come, the future of Creole fiddling looked bleak. Two-hundred-and-fourteen miles west of Fontenot’s Welsh, Louisiana home past the sprawl of Houston, lived nine-year-old, 4-H student Cedric Watson in tiny San Felipe, Texas. It would be years before Watson would even hold the stringed instrument in his capable hands and master the repertoire of Creole fiddling’s greatest champion.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Watson didn’t grow up in the proverbial family band. “My parents don’t play French music,” says Watson. “So I damned sure didn’t have the throne handed down to me.” Still, somewhere along the line, Watson became enchanted by the fiddle and had to have one. Watson’s grandmother promised her teenaged grandson a fiddle only if he proved himself on guitar. So, armed with a $40 cheapie and a handful of zydeco and Cajun recordings, Watson learned his chords well enough to play by ear, ultimately earning his prized fiddle.
Watson describes his resourceful learning style as mostly being self-taught, requesting and taping songs from J.B. Adams’ radio show. He eventually met Adams, who introduced him to Ed Poullard. “He was pretty focused early on where a lot of those guys are still searching for what they want to do,” Poullard says.
A year after high school graduation, Watson moved to Louisiana, initially staying in Morris Ardoin’s old house before settling in with Wilson Savoy and the rest of the Pine Leaf Boys. “It was pretty good,” Watson says the experience. “A lot of jamming and learning from each other, partying, and living the good, young life.”
The Pine Leaf Boys were just what Cajun music needed—a hungry bunch of traditionalists who weren’t afraid to kick it hard. The fact that Watson could maneuver adeptly between fiddle and accordion and maintain a strong presence on vocals only added fuel to an already raging fire. During Watson’s tenure, the band released two acclaimed albums on Arhoolie; they included four songs written by Watson.
Still needing an outlet to express his artistic voice, Watson formed a side group to play the occasional gig. “People would say yeah, it would be nice if you had your own band,” he says. “I felt like it was time for me to do my own thing. With the Pine Leaf Boys, I was definitely playing only traditional Cajun music and it was usually somebody else’s song. I was writing my own songs but was playing everyone else’s for a living. It was fun and a great learning experience, but I wanted to express my own stuff.”
With Feufollet’s Chris Stafford on guitar and Jermaine Prejean on drums, the nucleus of Cedric Watson et Bijou Créole was formed. Rasta dude “Zydeco” Mike Chaisson helped add a Caribbean seasoning on percussion while another Pine Leaf Boys alumnus, Blake Miller, sealed the groove on bass.
After Cedric Watson’s eponymous debut album hit the streets in 2008, the scuttlebutt around the country concluded that he was leaving Pine Leaf Boys for good. Watson found this surprising because had kept his plans private. “I remember blogs saying Cedric is going to quit the Pine Leaf Boys. I’m like, ‘What the hell is this all about?’”
In late 2009, Watson and Bijou Créole released L’ésprit Créole featuring all Watson originals, a significant feat considering how Cajun-zydeco releases have traditionally been renditions of past songs. “We have not had a [Creole] songwriter creating new compositions like him since Canray Fontenot; I don’t think anyone realizes that,” says D’Jalma Garnier.
Singing and writing new songs in French is just one of the distinguishing factors separating him from his contemporaries.
“The language always comes along with the culture,” Watson says. “Creole just so happens to be the language of this culture, so in order to stay true to my Creole roots, I’m going to have to sing in Creole (French).”
Another distinguishing factor is Watson’s ongoing roots excavation, not only with old style la las, but following its bloodlines back to Haiti. He plays a two-row accordion, the Hohner Erica that emits the mellowish, “wet” sound often associated with merengue typico and other island genres. Prejean and Chaisson’s reggae/samba/jazz/funk-influenced poly-rhythms also contribute to the Caribbean ambiance.
“He’s really taken something old and done something completely brand new with it,” says Ed Poullard about Watson’s Creole-zydeco world music.
For Watson, it’s all of the above, plus some. “This is really spiritual music,” he says. “We aren’t advertising it as that, but this is something that is honestly coming from my soul and my heart. When people scream or sing with me the words to a song that I wrote, that really gives me a spiritual high. I almost come out of my body; I can feel it.”