When swamp pop singer Joe Barry finally lost his battle to numerous health problems and passed away in August 2004 he’d lived so many different lives it was hard to tell where one started and the other left off.
His 1961 smash “I’m A Fool to Care” rocketed him to a decade of stardom studded with heights he’d never imagined and lows that he’d never forget. A whirlwind of silk suits, American Bandstand appearances, rip-off record deals and trashed hotel rooms—and the drugs and booze that fuelled it all—prefaced stints as an offshore oil worker, used car salesman, preacher, pimp and freedom fighter.
But there was nothing that meant more to him than his music. Which is why, even after his health was so bad that he swore he’d never sing again, producer Aaron Fuchs was able to convince him to record the swan song album Been Down That Muddy Road.Hailed as “a miracle and a masterpiece” in the local press, even Rolling Stone was moved, praising Barry’s “tender, fighting soul.” The amalgamation of rough-and-tumble country blues and honky-tonk crossed with Barry’s rich, gospel-flavored swamp pop style framed a stunningly honest musical portrait of a man reckoning with his past, present and future.
As Carol Carimi Acutt’s brand new documentary of the same name reveals, Barry’s past was always present, whether it was in the amazing photograph collection that Acutt uses to weave the film together or in his own mind, which preserved his incredible wealth of experiences.
When Acutt first interviewed Barry in conjunction with the aforementioned album, she was floored. “After I interviewed Joe for two hours and heard his stories I called Aaron and said, ‘I think we’ve got a documentary on our hands.’”
Fuchs—who’d also compiled Barry’s original recordings on the 59-track anthology I’m A Fool To Care—agreed. Acutt began filming interviews with everyone from Louisiana record producer Floyd Soileau to Texas disc jockey “Steve-O” the Night Rider to Mississippi soul man Skip Easterling. But Dr. John says it best in the film’s opening sequence: “If you lined 40 or 50 of us up in a room, you might get close to what actually really happened.”
“Each person had their own view of Joe and they were all different,” says Acutt. “But the one thing that everyone said was that he was very unique. He could do crazy things but people still loved him despite his outrageousness. And I think that shows that he was a very genuine person.”
The feature-length film is beautifully executed; from Acutt’s own black and white super 8 raw footage to Barry’s candid recollections reaching all the way back to his childhood. “Joe was a quintessential old-time storyteller,” she says. “His stories have a rhythm to them, and I think that’s also why he was such a great songwriter. And that’s why I chose to tell his story through his songs.”
But Been Down That Muddy Road isn’t just the story of Joe Barry, as her use of music by his hero Ray Charles and contemporaries Gene Rodrigue and Roy Perkins illustrate. In a larger sense it’s the story of South Louisiana rock ’n’ roll told through one of its most exceptional practitioners.
The film will premiere at the Prytania Theater on Tuesday, May 1 at 7 p.m. with a reception to follow. Admission is free but seats are limited.