“I hadn’t tuned a guitar in years.”
For years, someone handed Paul Sanchez a tuned guitar when he walked onstage with Cowboy Mouth. If it went out of tune, there was someone there with another ready to go, and went he left the stage he handed it to that someone. That sort of treatment spoils a man. “The first time I played d.b.a. on my own I wasn’t even sure where to plug my amp in.”
Paul Sanchez traveled in some variation of that style for most of his 16 years in Cowboy Mouth. It was rarely easy; his relationship with singer/frontman Fred LeBlanc was complicated, and once they hit some variation of the big time, things got harder. “We got signed to MCA,” he says. “Hootie and the Blowfish were hot, and they wanted us to make a record that sounded like Hootie. For Mercyland, Sister Hazel was hot and they wanted us to make a record with a slide guitar that sounded like Sister Hazel.” Still, it was tour buses, roadies and a lot of things done for them.
The band was in the studio in Atlanta finishing Voodoo Shoppe when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. That prompted them to write and record two more songs—Sanchez’ “Home” and LeBlanc’s “The Avenue”—then they set out touring again, this time to remind the world that New Orleans was still there and it needed their help. Never mind that Sanchez’ house was catastrophically flooded when the London Avenue Canal breached; it was time for the road. Still, the sense of purpose brought the band together, Sanchez says. “I got to be friends with them again and feel like a family again. We hadn’t for a long time.”
In November 2006, the band’s lawyer asked him to lunch. Sanchez joked, “This is kind of funny. Last time I got taken to a private lunch like this, I was told I was being let go from the band. Is [former manager Jon] Birge coming back?” He was, it turns out, and the lawyer was there to tell him that. Sanchez’ displeasure with Birge’s return combined with seizures he started having since he was hit by a taxi in Boston led him to quit the band he had been with more-or-less since its inception in 1990. He was a free agent and could stop trying to cheerlead America and deal with his own loss. “Like everybody in New Orleans, it seemed like my life had piled up on me and I had to make a break.” He did so first by avoiding it, moving to Belize. Then the son of a working class family from the Irish Channel started the process of immersing himself in New Orleans. “You’ve got to back to your roots to reinvent yourself,” Sanchez says.
Like so many New Orleanians after the storm, Sanchez was in denial about his own status, something he now realizes. “I didn’t know how in shock I was,” he says. “In my mind, I was too busy helping other people. ‘I don’t need help; other people need help.’” He wouldn’t deal with his flooded house. He knew it was done, but it took Craig Klein of Bonerama and the Arabi Wrecking Krewe pestering him before he agreed. When it happened, Sanchez wasn’t involved. He couldn’t face it and didn’t want anything from the house, though he was touched when Klein saved an undamaged ceramic milagro with the word “Rejoice”.
Things started to change for Sanchez when he came home to play with Cowboy Mouth at Jazz Fest 2006. “I was rudderless, more than I was aware of at the time,” he admits. While home, he and friend John Boutte played a party for Threadheads—Jazz Fest fans who met through the Jazz Fest message board—and people enjoyed their set so much they suggested the two should record together. Sanchez said he’d love to if they only had the money. Before he knew it, Threadhead Chris Joseph had spearheaded an effort to raise the money he needed; he and Threadhead Records were in business. The result wasn’t a Boutte/Sanchez album, though. Instead, they made Good Neighbor, the Boutte album that Sanchez shepherded from conception to completion. “I had to pay some dues; I had to find my own feet,” he says. “I knew that making the record together probably wasn’t the right time for either of us.” Despite their friendship, it wasn’t easy. Boutte was in a dark place himself, and the album became Sanchez’ obsession.
Though the process of making the Good Neighbor and his own Exit to Mystery Street was exhausting and challenging, the effort started moving him the direction he wanted to go. “It was [producer] Dave Pirner’s idea to hire Raymond Weber and Matt Perrine, and that made a huge difference in the fact that I was able to pull off a very New Orleans-sounding record with a rhythm guitar player—me—finding places to play rock rhythms in a New Orleans feel.” It also connected Sanchez to a battalion of New Orleans musicians including James Andrews, Big Sam, Fredy Omar and David Torkanowsky.
Sanchez started to rebuild a community of musicians around himself, and when he started to play d.b.a. regularly, he invited people to perform with him—not just professional musicians but amateurs and poets. Consciously or not, he seemed to want to surround himself with people, and he sat in with others including Susan Cowsill. Slowly but surely, he accumulated a new musical circle, one that involved old friends including former Cowboy Mouth bassists Mary LaSang and Sonia Tetlow, along with Alex McMurray, Shamarr Allen, Craig Klein, Russ Broussard and Glen David Andrews. They became part of a loose collection that played with him, and from the start, he made sure that the band members got time in the spotlight to showcase their songs. “I just wanted to heal me, and their songs charge me,” he says. “Then people started coming back, ‘That’s what I always expected New Orleans would be like—a real community.’ People shouldn’t walk away from the Rolling Road Show saying, ‘Man, that Paul Sanchez is great.’ They should walk away saying, ‘Man, New Orleans is great.’”
As he found a new musical circle, another challenge arose—how to fit in. He had lived much of his musical life in Powerchordville, where a minor chord is as exotic as fugu. He didn’t have the chops to accompany Boutte, Allen or Leroy Jones in the manner to which they were accustomed, an awareness Torkanowsky reinforced when he told him in a friendly way, “You know, you hear a lot more complicated than you’re able to play. You should think about that.” The musical language the players spoke—jazz—was one he realized he needed to acquire for his musical and social ambitions. When John Rankin approached him intrigued by Sanchez’ thoughts on songwriting during a Tennessee Williams festival session, Sanchez said, “’I’ve wanted to take lessons from you for 20 years but thought I innately sucked.’ We started trading lessons. I learned how to make the chords follow the melody like you do in traditional jazz.” Boutte admires him for taking that step. “I’m proud of him,” Boutte says. “How many musicians will get guitar lessons so they can change their styles?”
One byproduct of the lessons is “Two-Five-One,” a song from A Stew Called New Orleans, his new album with John Boutte. The song draws its name from the bedrock chord progression that is to jazz musicians what 1-4-5 is to rock ’n’ roll musicians. He makes it a song about a phone number that starts 2-5-1, a number that seems to be the key to a mystery. “She kept slipping me her digits / but I left them on the bar. / Now the band wants me to remember / but I can only get this far. / I got 2-5-1 “. Sanchez deftly merges the song’s narrative and its creation’s context, writing the amusement jazz musicians had with him into the song without signaling the significance with a big, theatrical wink. “I could hear the fellas laughing. / I said that’s fine by me / And if you get to the last part, remember / that the first part is safe with me.”
The Threadhead experience was resonant for Sanchez, one he celebrates in the new song, “Be a Threadhead.”
“There are people who are unemployed and donated $5, some donated five thousand,” he says. “These are people who can’t swing a hammer, and suddenly, they made this record just for the sake of helping. That’s real community.” He in turn tried to help Threadhead put out albums with other musicians in need. “Through Paul, we got to Susan Cowsill, and Craig Klein and the New Orleans Nightcrawlers,” Threadhead Records’ Chris Joseph says. “Through Paul, we got to Alex McMurray. Paul’s very generous with other performers. He wants other people to shine and he wants other people to succeed.” From Sanchez’ perspective, it was just a matter of passing on a little wisdom. “Having been on three major labels and had seven different managers, I had a lot of different kinds of insights into the music business. I could tell them how to treat folks, how to spend money that makes sense and where you’re just spinning your wheels.”
Sanchez is earnest when he talks, though he doesn’t sound like he has to hang on as tightly to keep things together as he did when he first returned. For him, the process of dealing with Katrina was slowed by the insulation of the road with Cowboy Mouth, and there were days in 2007 when he came in the OffBeat office feeling a little behind the curve. “He didn’t have the security of the whole infrastructure,” John Boutte says. “I said, ‘Be strong, lad.’ I’m proud of Paul making the transition from a rocker to a solo artist; it’s not an easy step. It’s very hard, and I saw him go through some changes with his health and his confidence.”
He now has a house in the Treme and has received the sort of reassurance that has steadied him. The Eli Young Band had a Top 40 hit on the country charts with his 1992 song, “Jet Black and Jealous,” and Good Neighbor and Exit to Mystery Street found audiences and critical acclaim. Still, it’s hard not to think of his music as a combination of art and therapy. “I felt desperately a need to reinvent myself,” Sanchez says. “I felt desperately a need to make a big band-sounding record that was a New Orleans record to authenticate myself.”
A Stew Called New Orleans continues that effort though in a smaller, breezier way. Instead of making the album a big production, he recorded it live in one day with Boutte, Leroy Jones, Todd Duke and Peter Harris. The results are intimate and swinging, and though they alternate songs, the album feels like a conversation between friends. Slyly, Sanchez assigned most of the pop songs to Boutte and tackled the jazz tunes himself. The two most political statements, “Hey God” and Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” are sung by Boutte. “I’m glad Paul introduced that tune to me because even yet, it still has a lot of significance,” Boutte says.
Sanchez points to the numerous shout-outs on the album—references to Threadheads, to Glen David Andrews, even to Peyton and Cooper Manning. The title track is self-consciously in the tradition of celebrating New Orleans in song along the lines of “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?” and Shamarr Allen’s “Meet Me on Frenchmen Street,” a song Sanchez played live after hearing it. That blend of the artistic and the social makes the album feel slightly therapeutic and personal, but not in an oversharing way. The album stands alone as a smart, engaged songwriter’s album, but it’s also easy to hear it as another step in his journey and wonder if he’d make the same album a year from now.
“I was sitting with somebody and laughing about old road times, and after I walked away, I said, ‘Wow, it felt good to laugh about Cowboy Mouth again,’” Sanchez remembers. That was a milestone of sorts because he says he hasn’t received a writing or publishing royalty check in 16 years. When he approached a lawyer about working on this problem, his advice was, “Let’s work on getting you over your anger so you can deal with this”—advice Sanchez later thanked him for. That doesn’t mean he’s over it, though. “It would be nice if I could just remember the fun parts and have it be so dirty by business, but sadly, I don’t have that control.”
Still, separation from Cowboy Mouth has allowed him to rediscover his identity as a songwriter and explore opportunities he likely would never have had with the band. He worked with Boutte on a song for the next Galactic album. He has mentored and written with Shamarr Allen and Glen David Andrews, and he talks like someone excited by the possibilities the next day may offer. “I’m so grateful that I didn’t end up doing the same thing for the rest of my life. I get a chance to evolve and create different kinds of music with other kinds of people. It’s exhilarating. I haven’t been this exhilarated about being a songwriter since I was 19.”