For Wilson Savoy and Cedric Watson, forming the Pine Leaf Boys has helped them reconnect to their roots.
On the second Friday of this year’s Jazz Fest, the Pine Leaf Boys made their Fair Grounds debut. There was a lot riding on the show because Cajun music desperately needed a young band to come forward and get young audiences excited about the genre. If any act was going to break through the domination of zydeco and make South Louisiana dancehalls safe again for fiddle music, this was the group that was going to do it. Chris Strachwitz, the owner of the California roots-music label Arhoolie Records, paced nervously on the sidelines.
Onto the Fais Do Do Stage came the five musicians, all in their early 20s, wearing baseball caps, jeans and sneakers. They began with Clifton Chenier’s “Zydeco Sont Pas Sale,” and Wilson Savoy and Cedric Watson pumped the bellows of their button accordions as if they were trying to get a fire started. They soon succeeded, and the zydeco standard crackled and sparked, even with the old-school Creole spin the band put on it.
That was fine, but there’s no shortage of South Louisiana bands that can play stomping zydeco two-steps. What’s missing are young bands that can play fiddles and waltzes with the same intensity that they bring to zydeco. So Strachwitz kept pacing. The real test would be the second song, a traditional waltz called “Musician with a Broken Heart.” Savoy picked up a fiddle and Watson stayed on the squeezebox—the reverse of their primary instruments—and Watson sang the lilting lament in French.
Something remarkable happened. Even though the tune was taken at a patient tempo, it exerted an exhilarating, intoxicating effect. Maybe it was the way the rhythm section—drummer Drew Simon, bassist Blake Miller and guitarist Jon Bertrand—leaned on the one-beat of each three-four measure; maybe it was the way Savoy’s fiddle and Watson’s accordion stretched the harmonies like a rubber band before allowing them to snap back into place; maybe it was the way Watson sang as if drunk on his own romantic disappointment.
Whatever the cause, this waltz was every bit as exciting as the faster, harder zydeco number, and when Savoy took off on his fiddle solo, Watson began waltzing with his accordion around and around the stage, as deliriously dizzy as many of us in the crowd. Strachwitz stopped pacing and beamed. The waltz was followed by a riotous version of John Delafose’s “Uncle Bud,” the twin-fiddle waltz “Jolie Joues Rose,” and Hank Thompson’s honky-tonk classic “The Wild Side of Life,” belted out in twangy French by Simon. The set was a triumphant arrival.
It takes nothing away from the older, established Cajun bands—BeauSoleil, Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys, Charivari and Wilson’s parents Marc & Ann Savoy—to confess excitement over the Pine Leaf Boys. Here’s a young band that can match the zydeco acts at their own game and then shift, with no loss in power, to the sweet fiddle melodies, romantic waltzes and story ballads that are just as important to South Louisiana music but that were in danger of being lost to the dust of memory.
“We were standing outside a club before a show once,” Wilson Savoy recalls, “and these people walked by and asked, ‘What kind of music do you play?’ We said Cajun, and they said, ‘Oh, we don’t want to hear that old man’s chanky-chank music.’ I said, ‘No, come in, you’ll like it. I’ll put you on the guest list.’ They came in and started dancing. They said, ‘Oh, this is zydeco music.’ I said, ‘No, it’s Cajun. This is what it should sound like. When did you ever hear a zydeco band play waltzes on the fiddle?’ People have forgotten how exciting Cajun music can be.
“A lot of recent Cajun bands, especially those formed outside Louisiana, are so boring that I would hate Cajun music too if that was all I heard. They stand up there with alligator hats, the ‘Kiss Me, I’m Cajun’ aprons and phrases from a Justin Wilson album. It’s insulting. We could say we were a zydeco band, and our life would be easier, but we call ourselves Cajun and Creole. Our families are Cajun and Creole; that’s how we grew up. If we called ourselves a zydeco band, it would be an injustice to all the Cajun and Creole musicians who came before us.”
“A lot of times Cajun and Creole music can be a broken-down, old man’s music,” Cedric Watson complains. “I like a little of that, but I can’t handle that all day long. We’ve learned how to get this big, rocking sound and still keep it traditional. We want to create an image of young people in Louisiana who still like to dance to Cajun music and who still like to speak in French.”
The Pine Leaf Boys’ arrival would be momentous if they were merely injecting some much-needed excitement into Cajun music. But you can’t watch Wilson Savoy, a tall, lanky European-American with long, dark sideburns, playing fiddle next to accordionist Cedric Watson, a short wiry African-American with a round, baby face, on “Musician with a Broken Heart,” and not think of the founding myth of South Louisiana music. In the late ’20s, a white fiddler named Dennis McGee and a black accordionist named Amede Ardoin recorded a series of duets so dazzling and so moving that they influenced nearly every strand of French-Louisiana music that followed.
The music, in other words, was born out of cross-racial collaboration, but that partnership soon splintered when Ardoin was savagely beaten in the late-’30s for allowing a white woman to flirt with him. Since then, black and white musicians have often traded licks backstage but only rarely onstage. In the process, black and white music in South Louisiana has diverged to the point where the fiddle and the waltz have nearly disappeared from the black side of the tracks. The Pine Leaf Boys represent a second chance to knit things back together.
“You see black and white musicians get together for special projects,” Savoy says, “but as far as I know there hasn’t been a stable interracial band since Amede and Dennis. But Cedric is essential to the Pine Leaf Boys sound; he brings that Creole slant that makes us different from other Cajun bands—and from zydeco bands, too. Usually, white musicians attract white audiences and black musicians attract black audiences, but having this mixed thing opens a lot of doors. Black audiences who might not give a flip about a Cajun group come to see us because they can relate to Cedric.
“It’s very easy for us to play together, because he was influenced by the same people I was influenced by. He’s inspired to learn more—he doesn’t think he’s learned everything there is to learn—and I’m inspired by people like that. We run into a few problems. Things have changed, but there is still a lot of racism in the South, and we don’t put up with it. If we hear something offensive at a club, we won’t play there again.”
“People are surprised to see a young black guy playing fiddle,” Watson admits, “which is too bad, because blacks have been playing fiddle for years. We fed our families with the fiddle. You can’t beat the fiddle; it’s portable, it’s loud, it plays the melody and it drones. The notes slide, and they can scream. Why give up on that? But a lot of blacks don’t like to be reminded of the old days when they were held down and oppressed, and the music reminds them of that. If the music reminds you of Amede Ardoin getting beat up, why would you want to listen to it?”
It took Savoy and Watson a while to embrace Cajun and Creole music. For Savoy, it was because he was too close to it, growing up in one of the most renowned Cajun music families. For Watson, it was because he was too far from it, growing up in San Felipe, Texas, where no one spoke French and no one played French music. But both young men were inexorably drawn to the music and eventually to each other.
Savoy grew up in a house where the music was like the family sofa; it was always there. His father Marc still operates a music store outside of Eunice where he sells Cajun recordings and instruments including the prized button accordions that he hand builds himself. Wilson’s mother Ann is a music researcher who wrote the influential book Cajun Music: A Reflection of a People and produced the albums Evangeline Made and Creole Bred.
The couple—with Marc on button accordion and Ann on lead vocals and guitar—formed a trio with BeauSoleil fiddler Michael Doucet and recorded four albums for Arhoolie. Without Doucet, they regularly play dances near their home and have recorded as the Savoy-Smith Band and the Savoy Family Band. Moreover, Ann has recorded as the prime mover of the Magnolia Sisters and the Zozo Sisters, her duo with Linda Ronstadt.
Every Saturday morning when Wilson was growing up, there was a Cajun jam session at the store. Many an evening, friends from out of state or from down the road would sit around the screen porch picking tunes. They could be some of the biggest names in Louisiana music history—Dennis McGee, D.L. Menard or Dewey Balfa—but to Wilson, his brother Joel and their sisters Sarah and Gabriel, it was background noise like the television or radio.
Joel and Sarah went through a grunge phase, when they were fixated on Nirvana, but Wilson’s tastes were more eccentric. When he heard a cassette of the soundtrack to Great Balls of Fire (the biopic with Dennis Quaid starring as Jerry Lee Lewis), the grade schooler became obsessed with boogie-woogie piano and honky-tonk. Far from discouraging this non-Cajun tangent, Wilson’s parents encouraged him by getting him albums by Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons. The young boy soon commandeered the family piano and started to figure out the syncopated patterns.
“I started playing boogie-woogie,” Wilson explains, “because it was exotic to me. Cajun music was something I heard every day in the house, so I took it for granted. I didn’t realize that not everyone had it in their house growing up. Even today, I’m realizing more and more how important my folks are to this culture. My dad built me an accordion from an old tree that his father planted and he wrote the story about the tree—how it had died the same year my grandfather did—inside the accordion. It was more of sentimental value than musical value, though, because I didn’t play accordion at that time.
“When I moved to Baton Rouge to go to school at LSU, I brought the accordion with me. One morning, I woke up and the sunlight was shining on the accordion where it sat on a shelf. I lay there looking at it shining in sun, and I said, ‘You know, I think I can play that. After all, it only has 10 buttons, and I already know all the songs.’ LSU is on a nature preserve, and I would go out in the woods every day and play for hours and hours. I grew up on a farm, and I wasn’t used to a big city, but when I was out in the woods with the accordion, it was like I was back home. It’s the same way now. Wherever I am, if I play the accordion, it’s like a piece of home is with me.”
Before long, Wilson was driving the hour and a half to Lafayette every Wednesday night to play the Cajun jam session till the wee hours of morning and then driving back for Thursday classes. When he realized that he spent the rest of the week looking forward to that trip, he decided to get the hell out of Baton Rouge and transferred to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
For Cedric Watson, French-Louisiana music wasn’t something he grew up with, but it was something that kept tugging at the edge of his consciousness. He was raised by his grandmother in a small town outside Houston. Neither she nor any of the nearby relatives spoke French or played French music, but every once in a while there’d be a big family gathering and the relatives from Louisiana would visit. And if they got drunk enough, they’d start talking and singing in French.
Watson was fascinated that in the 1990s there were still black folks in the middle of the United States who spoke French and played fiddles and accordions. Whenever he visited his cousins in Kinder, Louisiana, he’d tune into the French radio stations, just because he got a kick out of the weird talk and the weirder music. He started buying the records and learning the fiddle. As a kid who didn’t live with his parents, Watson was looking for some roots, but he didn’t want to accept the roots that everyone told him he should have.
“The stereotype of black youth is all they care about is rap,” he argues, “but I felt that Cajun and Creole were bringing me closer to Africa than hip-hop ever could. Think about it: Creole music comes from a time when Africans first came to North America, so it brings you closer to the source. If you listen to Creole music, especially the old la-la music with the wooden rubboard, it has that same African beat like calypso or ska. If turn on the radio now, you won’t hear anything that has the same syncopated, groovy, African, rootsy feel.”
In the summer of 2004, Watson moved to Duralde, Louisiana to join the band led by Dexter Ardoin—Amede’s distant cousin, Bois Sec Ardoin’s grandson and Morris Ardoin’s son. Watson lived in an outbuilding on the Ardoin land and helped with the crawfishing. But there wasn’t much to do in Duralde at night, so Watson started driving into Lafayette whenever he could.
There he fell in with a bunch of Cajun musicians sharing a house that was a former Burger Chef restaurant. Watson knew the guitarist Jon Bertrand because the latter had also played for Dexter Ardoin. Watson had met the drummer Drew Simon at the Festival Acadienne, and he had met the accordionist Wilson Savoy at a folk-music camp in West Virginia. When he was too tired or too drunk to drive back to Duralde after a long night of music-making, Watson would crash on their couch. After a while, one of the roommates moved out, and Watson moved in for good.
“Cedric would wake up and start playing,” Savoy remembers, “and everyone would join in. We’d cook together, go out together. It was a shotgun house without hallways, so if you had the front bedroom, as I did, people had to walk through your room. Yeah, you want your privacy, but you dealt with it. Everyone was pretty accommodating. It was like a yearlong campout. None of us had jobs, so we could play all the time. We all began to think somewhat alike. So now when we play together, we know what each other is going to do. We work together to make the sound, instead of working against each other.”
By August of 2004, a loose-knit group of five-to-ten musicians was setting up camp on the U of L campus whenever the weather was nice and playing Cajun music for tips. The group included members of Feufollet as well, and the bunch found playing there was a great way to rehearse songs, earn pizza money and meet girls. Then on March 23, 2005, the dean of students decided to enforce a regulation against performing on campus without a permit. The campus police booted the pickers out, and an outraged Savoy wrote a letter to every media outlet in town, saying, “I’m upset that a campus that calls itself the Ragin’ Cajuns would kick out a group of students playing Cajun music.” The local newspapers couldn’t resist a story like that.
It was a publicity bonanza and soon the group was being called by clubs with job offers. They were so excited that all 10 of the associated members crowded into La Louisianne Records’ studio to cut a record. Savoy sent the results off to Chris Strachwitz in hopes that he would release it as an album, just as he’d released his parents’ music. Strachwitz, as is his wont, was blunt: The recording was a mess. There were too many people whooping and hollering, strumming and banging, with no focal point. They had to decide who was in the band and what the band’s signature sound would be.
Savoy narrowed the band down to its five stalwarts: himself, Watson, Simon, Bertrand and Miller. He decided the focus would be traditional Cajun and Creole music on traditional instruments delivered with a rock ’n’ roll punch. The quintet played jammed hour after hour in their communal home and in clubs all over South Louisiana. In the meantime, Joel Savoy, having left the Red Stick Ramblers, had opened his own Savoy-Faire Studio, and readily agreed when Wilson asked if he’d produce and engineer the Pine Leaf Boys’ second stab at an album. But when they started working together on the sessions, the brothers discovered they had very different approaches.
“Joel has a very refined style on the fiddle,” Wilson explains. “He’s a perfectionist who wants everything to be very clean. On the other hand, I’m the opposite. I’d rather it be crazy and wild and intense. If we make a recording and the tempo or pitch goes off, that’s okay to me if the energy and passion are there. It wouldn’t be okay with Joel.”
“Wilson and I are almost exact opposites musically,” Joel agrees. “He’s into a rougher sound than I am. That’s obvious from the Pine Leaf Boys album. They’re not going for perfect; perfect for them is whatever comes out in the moment. I’m more into arranging things. Nonetheless, we get along great. I love to go see them live and I love sitting in with them on steel. I love how they’re so in your face. There’s nothing like seeing those guys when they’re on.”
The give-and-take between the two brothers led to the album La Musique. Wilson sang the traditional Cajun numbers by Iry LeJeune and Leo Soileau; Watson sang the old Creole tunes associated with Canray Fontenot and Eddie Poullard, and Drew Simon sang the country-Cajun classics by Aldus Roger and Belton Richard. Chris Strachwitz readily embraced the results this time and released the album on Arhoolie. He showed up at Jazz Fest to see if the young band could translate the music to the stage.
They could. In fact, the live show has already outstripped the 2005 recording sessions in energy and skill and the band is at work on a second album, The Musician’s Life, due next year. And whether they meant to or not, the Pine Leaf Boys have kicked off a renaissance in Cajun and Creole music.
Joel Savoy has launched his own label, Valcour Records. The first release is Goin’ Down to Louisiana by the duo of Cedric Watson and Corey Ledet. The two young men modeled their give-and-take on the fiddle-and-piano-accordion collaborations between Cleveland and Clifton Chenier. The next Valcour release will be a collection of new recordings of old Cajun drinking songs with contributions from the Pine Leaf Boys, Steve Riley, the Red Stick Ramblers, Feufollet and the Lost Bayou Ramblers.
Mello Joy Boys: Une Tasse Café, the latest album from the Lost Bayou Ramblers, features Wilson on piano and energy similar to that of the Pine Leaf Boys. The same spirit is evident in Feufollet, a band of musicians even younger than the Pine Leaf Boys. Meanwhile, Watson is teaching fiddle to Jeffrey Broussard of Zydeco Force, and Broussard is giving Watson tips on accordion. Everywhere you look, a sleepy Cajun and Creole scene is stirring to life again, and the Pine Leaf Boys are leading the way.
“When I was a kid,” Wilson recalls, “everyone was talking about zydeco and no one was talking about Cajun. The best Cajun bands, like BeauSoleil and Steve Riley, were traveling so much that they rarely played locally, and all the kids were going to see Beau Jocque and Keith Frank. Zydeco was hip; it was mostly in English and it had that big bass-and-drum beat. To most people, Cajun music was an old man sitting in a bar at three o’clock on a Sunday afternoon playing the fiddle. But we’ve changed that; we’ve got kids talking about Cajun again.”
“When we first started,” Watson adds, “I used to worry about people’s reactions to an interracial band. I’d look at those old folks and think that maybe they don’t like me singing up there. But I don’t even think about it anymore. We still get some comments, but the older people who are more prejudiced are going to die out and the younger people who are less prejudiced are going to take over. So I don’t really care. It’s interesting to be around different people and see what you can do together. We’re all from different areas and different families, but we get together and make good music.”