“I’ve been very fortunate,” Ray Abshire says modestly. “I’ve been able to swim the same river twice.” The river that the Cajun accordionist refers to is his five-decade music career, which is logically divided into two distinct phases separated by an 18-year hiatus. The first chapter was with such standard bearers as his coozan Nathan Abshire and the Balfa Brothers. His reemergence includes like-minded practitioners in fiddlers Courtney Granger and Kevin Wimmer and the Michot family.
But years ago, when Ray first acquired his first accordion in the ’60s, Cajun music was a much different game. “Before, you had to be in a loop, have been born into a musical family,” Abshire says. There were no Cajun restaurants that featured nightly music and dance, nor instructional camps where yearlings could learn their craft. Only a few radio stations in the area even broadcast Cajun music.
Luckily, Abshire’s family had musical roots, most notably with Nathan who lived close by in Gueydan, Louisiana.
Though Ray never studied formally with the legend, he did learn by watching and listening. “He said a couple of things that took me many years to realize how wise it was. ‘You know, Tee Ray, you just have to remember where the sound comes from.’ What he was telling me was like you get to the point where you know where your fingers are in this position and if you are pulling, it’s going to be this sound. It’s going to be a ‘D’ or an ‘A’ or an ‘E’,” Abshire says, explaining about the process of learning by ear.
One summer in the mid-’60s, Ray lived with Nathan (who, by then, lived in Basille), occasionally sitting in at gigs. At the end of the summer, Nathan gave his teenage prodigy his Monarch ‘C’ accordion, the very squeezebox he recorded “Pine Grove Blues” on. “He said ‘Well, it looks like you’re going to make it,” Abshire says. “Boy, that was a sentimental moment there.”
Through Nathan, Ray got to know the Balfa Brothers – Dewey, Rodney and Will – and through Dewey, Ray met fiddler Lionel Leleux, who offered him a one-night gig that lasted three-and-a-half years.
In ’69, Ray got a call from Dewey. “‘Man, your cousin is having a hard time here,’” Ray recalls the Cajun music ambassador commenting on Nathan’s deteriorating health. “‘Would you like to join the band?’ I said ‘Well, I’m playing, but I’m not at your level of playing.’ Then, in his typical Dewey fashion, he replied ‘Don’t worry about it. We’ll teach you.’”
Thus, a fortuitous seven-year partnership began. “I learned, and he did exactly that. Most of my learning was on the bandstand. I would learn by ear and some nights he would introduce me to two or three tunes.” Ray also noticed how the repertoire was so regional at that time, the Balfas focusing on fiddle-centric tunes from the prairies that were rarely heard in his native, accordion-centric marshland.
During his Balfa Brothers tenure, Abshire played with the Brothers at the first Festivals Acadiens held at Blackham Coliseum in 1974. Abshire notes that out of that class, only a few remain, such as accordionist Marc Savoy and fiddler Merlin Fontenot.
Ray played with the Brothers for another year before making the painful decision to leave the group to better balance family life and a grueling job in the oil patch.
Eighteen years later, Abshire was in a good place with work and family but never considered playing publicly until another cousin, fiddler Leo Abshire of the Old Tymers Cajun Band, called. “Ray, can you come help me?” Abshire recalls him asking. “I ended up playing three-and-a-half years every Thursday night with him, and it was supposed to be that one night.” When the news got out, other groups called, one of which was Les Frères Michot, a family band that included future Lost Bayou Ramblers Andre and Louie.
Looking back, Louie is still astounded at the thought of first hearing Ray. “It’s like he knew a whole other repertoire that had been lost,” says Louie. ““He wasn’t out there chasing his style and being influenced by others. It was like a style that had been well preserved in an old house somewhere and someone went and dusted off this old book.”
Despite his accomplishments and rapid re-entry into Cajun music, Ray never pushed music on his sons Brett and Travis. Then one night at a Folk Roots’ presentation of the Abshire Family’s musical legacy, Brett was so moved that afterwards he expressed interest in keeping the torch going. “Man, you don’t know how long I’ve waited for one of you to say this,” Ray exclaimed. After a few accordion lessons, Brett inquired about joining his dad’s band. Instead of prematurely surrendering the accordion chair, Ray gave him a live tape of Rodney Balfa playing his signature guitar rhythms. “When you can play like this man or come close, you got a job.” Six months later, Brett proved he was ready, which ultimately led to Travis learning the acoustic bass.
In 2013, Ray achieved another proud moment when his sons joined him on his third Swallow Records album All Night Long.
The terrain has changed drastically since the time Ray acquired his first accordion, a cheapie Tee Gris, in the ’60s. Gone are the historic dancehalls, but these days more and more outsiders are attracted to the culture than ever before. Some love it so much that they eventually relocate to Acadiana. Ray feels that it’s an honor that so many want to drink from the same well, a testament to how rich and powerful the culture is, something he refers to as “absorb and conquer.” “I’ve travelled a lot. When it comes to the music, the culture and the food, I just haven’t found anything yet that I would want to give this up for.”