There was barely room to breathe November 3 at Fred’s Lounge in Mamou, a hole-in-the-wall world-famous for beer drinking and Cajun dancing at 8 a.m. (yes, 8 a.m.), Saturdays. A few couples tried to two-step in the tight-as-sardines crowd, careful not to bump into others waving handkerchiefs in the air.
Native son and accordion icon Steve Riley, and his Mamou Playboys band, sang the “Mardi Gras Song.” On cue, patrons shouted the lyrics back in Cajun French.
When the song changed key and Riley yelled “somebody scream,” the faithful roared as if LSU had scored a winning touchdown against Alabama. (The Tigers failed to oblige in a 29-0 loss later that day.)
Mardi Gras had come early to Mamou. Riley was being inducted on to the Fred’s Lounge KVPI Wall of Fame, an honor usually reserved for legends in the cemetery or nursing home.
At the ripe young age of 49, Riley is already a legend, an accordion prodigy who turned countless young Cajuns on to their parents’ waltzes and two-steps. He’s thankful to witness his spot on the wall.
“Being honored by my hometown was very special,” said Riley, especially when the town is Mamou, a mecca for Cajun music and legendary Cajun musicians.
“Being the youngest musician inducted onto the Fred’s Lounge Wall of Fame was a great honor and definitely as fun as any Hall of Fame induction I’ve witnessed.”
The honor is the latest celebrating the 30th anniversary of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys. In early October, Festivals Acadiens et Créoles, the annual Cajun and Creole Woodstock in Lafayette, honored Riley and fellow Grammy winner Chubby Carrier for three decades on stage.
The Mamou Playboys celebrate with “30th Anniversary Live!”, a concert and recording with special guests, set for 8 p.m. December 7 at Vermilionville, a folk life park in Lafayette. The band hosts Cajun Christmas shows throughout the area later in the month.
The ruckus for Riley underscores his status as a game changer in Cajun music. In 1988, when few south Louisiana teens were playing accordion music, a 19-year-old Riley broke out with a moving and intricate style that set new standards.
He was already a veteran with four years of traveling to folk festivals across the country with fiddling great Dewey Balfa.
“I remember going up north with him and it was culture shock,” said Riley. “We were playing festivals with all these hippies drinking moonshine, smoking herb and staying up all night. I hadn’t gone very far.
“It was an experience. But it was great. Dewey was my hero. To be able to come up under his wing, I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
After graduating from Mamou High School, Riley attended LSU on an academic scholarship. In Baton Rouge, he met kindred spirit David Greely, a fiddler who shared his fascination with Cajun music and culture.
Riley soon grew tired of college and formed the Mamou Playboys with Greely. The young band became an instant hit with a sound that injected new life into familiar waltzes and two-steps.
Big crowds and bestselling CDs followed until the late 1990s, when rock ’n’ roll, zydeco, saxophone and piano began to creep into the Playboys’ repertoire. Some hardcore traditionalists jumped ship, but a younger audience quickly took their place.
“Dewey [Balfa] was a hardcore, traditional guy,” said Riley. “But one of the first things he told me is music is freedom. Do whatever you want with music. Don’t feel you have to fit a certain mold. You should always listen to other people’s music.
“We go to these festivals and he’d see I wasn’t interested in other kinds of music. But he told me, go listen. Don’t just hear, go listen. That helped me to appreciate other types of music, experiment in the studio, songwriting.”
Riley’s talent and experimentation has resulted in 15 CDs and a touring resume that has taken him from Rhode Island to Japan. The current Mamou Playboys lineup includes fiddler Kevin Wimmer, a classically trained violinist from New York; guitarist Sam Broussard, an alumnus of Manchild, a Capitol Records signee in 1971; bass player Brazos Huval, who’s taught more than 1,000 children in 10 years at his Cajun music school in Breaux Bridge; and rock-steady drummer Kevin Dugas.
With a hand in at least five bands, Riley won the Best Regional Roots Album Grammy in 2013 with Courtbouillon, an acoustic trio that includes Wayne Toups and Wilson Savoy. With the Mamou Playboys, Riley has received numerous Best of the Beat awards for Best Cajun Band and Best Cajun Album. Riley has evolved into a producer of successful local shows highlighting legendary artists.
Riley is enjoying his young elder status in Cajun music—and looking forward to more.
“I was talking to [former NFL quarterback] Jake Delhomme at a tennis tournament. He said, ‘I think for a musician, at the end of the game, it’s always a win. At the end of the night, everybody feels good. At the end of football games, when I’d lose or throw four interceptions, everybody in the world hated me.’” For Steve Riley, “Every night, we win.”