After a car crash left musician Steve Nails paralyzed in 1984, he searched for a way to stay in music. Dockside Studio on the banks of the Vermilion River near Lafayette became his beyond-expectations plan B. During nearly 30 years of operation, the studio and its park-like setting has yielded eleven Grammy-winning projects. This year, Lost Bayou Ramblers’ made-at-Dockside Kalenda is nominated for Best Regional Roots Music Album.
The studio’s client list includes Mavis Staples, Arcade Fire, actress and singer Scarlett Johansson, B.B. King, Shelby Lynne, Leon Russell, Ani DiFranco, Levon Helm, Taj Mahal, Keb’ Mo’, Mark Knopfler, James Cotton and Junior Wells.
Louisiana artists who have made music at Dockside include Dr. John, Irma Thomas, Allen Toussaint, Lost Bayou Ramblers, Susan Cowsill, Jon Cleary, BeauSoleil, Buckwheat Zydeco, Terrance Simien, Sonny Landreth, Ivan and Cyril Neville, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and Tab Benoit.
Beyond North America, musicians from Germany, Sweden, France, the United Kingdom, Spain, Ireland, Latvia, Australia, New Zealand, Haiti, Madagascar and the Democratic Republic of Congo have recorded at Dockside. Nigeria’s King Sunny Adé serenaded Nails with a seventeen-minute birthday song-chant.
In 1986, Nails opened his first studio in his home in Lafayette’s River Ranch community. It caught on, but having a studio and his home in the same building became unsustainable. “My house on Steiner Road was a beautiful estate, but when I’d go to bed at night, every room was full of musicians playing instruments,” Nails recalled. “I couldn’t sleep.”
Nails and his wife, Cézanne, viewed more than 50 houses during their search for a new location. “I couldn’t find the vibe I was looking for,” Steve Nails remembered.
Eventually, the couple found the studio’s present site in Maurice. Including a house and a barn that had been converted into a guest house with a trailer and pool—the property appeared to be abandoned. “Grass four feet high,” Steve Nails recalled. “But at the gates, I knew it. It had the vibe. I said, ‘This is it.’”
The Nailses converted the barn’s downstairs into a recording studio. They opened the studio in 1989, when it wasn’t quite complete, Cézanne Nails recalled. Dama and D’Gary, a duo from Madagascar performing at Lafayette’s Festival International, were the first to book. “Since then it’s been one band after another,” she said.
Dockside is more than a place to record. The Nailses’ renovations and expansion made ten bedrooms available in the studio building and the pool house. Musicians can live at Dockside for days or weeks.
“The live-in is bigger than the music,” Steve Nails said. “That was the goldmine I wasn’t looking for.”
Grammy-winning producer Scott Billington produced Irma Thomas’ Grammy-winning 2006 album, After the Rain, at Dockside. Six weeks after Hurricane Katrina, the Nailses’ studio became a place of refuge for the displaced Thomas and the project’s session musicians.
“Most of the players were seeing one another for the first time after the storm,” Billington said. “It was like coming home for all of us.”
Billington also produced the Holmes Brothers’ 1997 album, Promised Land, at the studio. “After you drive through the Dockside gate, you leave the rest of the world behind,” he said. “I had recorded several of the Holmes Brothers’ previous albums in New York. There were always distractions there. When we settled in at Dockside the creativity flowed like the Vermilion Bayou.”
“The clients are relaxed and so themselves here,” Cézanne Nails said. “Everybody tells me that.”
In addition to the homey atmosphere, Dockside imprints a sense of place on the music made there. “I’m the Louisiana sound,” Steve Nails said. “When a band wanted to record in Memphis, one producer—I won’t mention his name—he said, ‘Instead of the Memphis sound, I’d rather have the Louisiana sound. Go to Dockside.’ That made my decade.”
In the beginning, keeping the studio booked two days a week was necessary to cover the overhead. “Now we’re booked every week and it’s all my friends,” Steve Nails said. But his clients are more than friends. The Nailses think of them as family.
“By the time new clients get here,” Cézanne Nails said, “even if we don’t know them, they’re like family because we know everybody they know.”
“Susan Cowsill is my sister,” Steve Nails said. “You can’t separate us. I’m a Cowsill. And I’m stuck in the ’60s. Happily stuck with the Grass Roots and the Cowsills.” A barefoot Susan Cowsill and her husband, drummer and bandmate Russ Broussard, staged their wedding at Dockside on the banks of the Vermilion River.
The late B.B. King recorded his Grammy-winning 1998 release, Blues on the Bayou, at Dockside. “He was like my father,” Steve Nails said. “We were very close. He gave me his guitar. I have Lucille.”
King’s sessions in Maurice showed the advantage Dockside has in being a long way from New York and Los Angeles. “The presidents of record companies,” Nails said, “they have clients they want to isolate because of a problem or something. I’m the place to go. It was hard for B.B. to record in Los Angeles or New York because so many people would come ask him for money. They isolated him out here and he loved it.”
King nicknamed Nails “the five o’clock man.” “Because I showed up in the studio every day at five o’clock,” the studio owner said. “No matter who played the instruments for B.B., when he sang and played his guitar over it, it sounded like platinum.”
Dr. John, a.k.a. Mac Rebennack, recorded his Grammy-winning City That Care Forgot as well as 2010’s Grammy-nominated Tribal at Dockside. “Mac’s my brother,” Nails said. “I speak Mac language. He calls doctors ‘crockers.’ Mac says you get ‘turkerized’ at Thanksgiving.”
When Rebennack’s longtime drummer, Herman “Roscoe” Ernest III, died in 2011, Nails said, “that just destroyed me and Mac for months. Herman Ernest was Dr. John—his producer, his drummer, his everything.”
“Herman was always taking care of Mac,” Cézanne Nails agreed. “In the studio and everything else.”
Rebennack begins his Dockside sessions with a ceremony beside the Vermilion River. “Everybody goes,” Cézanne Nails said. “Mac burns sage and blesses the record. Then he goes inside and burns candles. He really lives his life as Dr. John. He’s all in.”
One of Rebennack’s candles set the studio’s grand piano on fire, Steve Nails recalled. “Mac asked on the talkback, ‘What do you do for a fire in the piano?’ We still have that spot on the piano where the fire was.”
Steve Nails considered one of Dr. John’s dear friends, the late Bobby Charles, to be his best friend. The reclusive singer-songwriter from Abbeville composed “See You Later, Alligator,” “Walking to New Orleans” and “(I Don’t Know Why) But I Do.”
“Bobby and I watched the O.J. Simpson trial every day [in 1995],” Nails said. “When Judge Ito had a sidebar, we had a sidebar. The UPS man told Bobby that O.J. was innocent, so Bobby believed O.J was innocent.” Despite Nails’ contrary belief that Simpson killed his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman, the friends’ divergence of opinion stirred no bad blood between them.
Singer and actress Scarlett Johansson recorded her 2008 album of Tom Waits songs, Anywhere I Lay My Head, at Dockside. After the death of Nails’ beloved black Labrador retriever, Buddy, Johansson and her then-husband, Ryan Reynolds, searched animal shelters in three states for a replacement. They found a brown mixed-breed puppy in Martinville and presented it to Nails. “We were going to name him Obama,” Nails said. “But that wouldn’t work in Louisiana. So, we named him Lincoln.”
The Nailses’ home and their two studios on the sprawling Dockside site are Steve Nails’ customized domain. “What you don’t see is that the whole property is totally handicapped-accessible,” he explained. “I can go through every door. This was a gold mine I wasn’t looking for. I wanted a place where I could go to work and not have to travel in a van. That’s all I was looking for. But this property takes ‘handicapped’ out of the equation. I’m not handicapped here.”
In August 2016, local musicians manifested their affection for Dockside after the Vermilion River overflowed. More than two feet of water filled Dockside’s main studio. “Every day, 30 to 40 musicians working for free,” Steve Nails recalled. “It was inspiring.”
While the floodwaters were still rising, Grammy-winning producer Trina Shoemaker, another Dockside fan, phoned the Nailses with urgent advice. She told them to pull the 150 modules from the facility’s pièce de résistance, an unmovable Neve 8058 recording console.
Because the individual modules were too heavy for Cézanne Nails to lift, the Nailses’ then 16-year-old son, Dylan, unscrewed and lifted the modules from the console. His mother proclaimed him the hero of the Neve. “My wife, Dylan and Trina saved the day,” Steve Nails said.
Despite extensive flood damage, the studio reopened in January 2017. Steve and Cézanne Nails most of all wanted to honor their bookings. “People I know,” Cézanne Nails recalled of that challenging time, “people on the street in Lafayette, they said, ‘Thank you for reopening Dockside. We need you. You’re something that we can’t do without.’”
When Steve Nails speaks of the studio he envisioned in the 1980s, he gratefully says Dockside exceeds what he wished for.
“I’m the guy behind the curtain who pulls the strings, like the wizard of Oz,” he said. “But I’m smart enough to know that this is bigger than me.”