OffBeat contributor Alex V. Cook recently finished Louisiana Saturday Night (LSU Press), an exploration of the clubs, bars, roadhouses, dancehalls and holes in the wall that are the homes to Louisiana’s live music. In this edited excerpt, he finds blues man Henry Gray at Richard Sale Barn in Abbeville.—ED.
On Henry Street, I pulled into the parking lot of a seafood place named Richard’s and asked my travel companions, “Is this it?” Andrea, an Abbeville native, shook her head “no” and called her dad, who explained that the Richard Sale Barn was “down Power Pump Road before you get to Richard’s.” This is the kind of directions to which I’ve become accustomed on trips like this: Richard’s is before Richard’s, and Power Pump Road is what the locals call Henry Street. The obscurity involved in getting to a place has generally proven to be a harbinger of its beauty. We turned around and spied a tiny yellow sign at a break in the trees and joined the cars shimmied into the makeshift parking lot.
This little spot on the Vermilion River has been a gathering place since the 1940s, when Jean Richard Avery started showing off and selling cattle arriving by barge under shade trees on the lot. Richard’s reputation as a square dealer brought more people in, and in 1946 he erected the auction barn under the name Abbeville Commission Company. The building was set up with a semicircular chute, allowing the cattle to be paraded before a terraced amphitheater of farmers and businessmen shouting bids to the auctioneer on a small stage. Once a final price was reached, the animal was led into a weighing room under the platform. It was an efficient setup and likely quite a show, with the auctioneer vacillating between English and French, money changing hands.
The Tuesday afternoon auctions were a fixture on the Abbeville social calendar up through the ‘70s when the business closed. Over the years the building has seen use as a saddle shop—the owner Jean Avery Richard III still trains horses in back—but on the evening I went, the crowd was assembled for a very different kind of spectacle. The building has been converted to one of the most curious live-music venues around.
The band on this occasion, Henry Gray and the Cats, sets up on the auctioneers’ stage, now gussied up with a tangle of white Christmas lights and a curtain stenciled with horses and palmetto leaves. In fact, the whole place is festooned to the rafters. Old, rusted local signage and farm tools are tacked up everywhere. A display case of spurs occupies the lobby, where a makeshift bar has been set up. As I climbed the terraced wooden seating to get to the top, I spied a dried cow skull sitting next to a Fellini poster, which is the best talisman I’ve ever seen.
The room was near capacity. Blues legend Henry Gray is a treasure, culturally speaking, but you got the feeling that, come show night, the whole of Abbeville headed out to the Barn. In fact, as the emcee explained the upcoming schedule, she apologized for having this show on the second Saturday in March; there was an event scheduled somewhere else in town on the third one. Evidently there is not enough Abbeville to go around for two events at once.
The seating is flat and hard going for a whole show, so regulars bring stadium chairs or, more popular, sofa cushions, which only adds to the place’s homey charm. Before the house lights dim, I ask my crew if they want another beer, and a woman next to us chimes in that she wants one. I bring one for her in the name of small- town neighborliness.
The sight lines might be a little limited on the bottom rows facing the metal gate around the old weighing room now crammed full with saddles, but otherwise this place is a remarkably good live-music venue. The announcer said they take June through August off because it’s simply too hot in the building, but it is perfect on this cool March evening. The lights dim, except for those Christmas lights circling the stage, and Gray kicks it into gear.
Gray was born in Kenner but grew up on a farm in Alsen, north of Baton Rouge, where he honed his piano skills and eventually became the piano player for Howlin’ Wolf. Gray pounds out his “two-fisted boogie-woogie” sitting at his keyboard solid as a fallen meteor center stage, counterbalanced by the impish charm of his drummer, the impeccably natty Earl “The Bishop” Christopher. The Cats move as a pack, inspiring dancing on the vertiginous top rows and down in the cattle chute. By the close of the show, the bar is a massive stomping whole.
It’s a wonder that cow skulls and Fellini posters and the whole history of Abbeville nightlife didn’t come raining down on us, but I guess classics like Henry Gray and Jean Avery’s barn are built to last.
For more on Richard Sale Barn, go to LeBayou.org.