The Sounds of CenLA
Its unique position between Acadiana and Anglo-rooted parishes to the north gives Central Louisiana a blend of traditional musical styles.
Music review by Ben Sandmel
In harmony with this issue’s in-depth coverage of Alexandria and its environs, this Sound Advice column will likewise focus on the Louisiana city that’s colloquially called “Aleck” and the broader region known as CenLA. As its composite-abbreviation nickname obviously indicates, CenLA lies almost exactly in the center of the state, just north of the two conceptual boundaries—the “Acadiana Triangle” and the “Boudin Curtain”—that separate Louisiana’s French and English-rooted parishes. Accordingly, CenLA tends to have closer cultural links with neighboring Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas than with the Francophone world of South Louisiana. Indigenous music sung in English thrives within CenLA’s African-American and Anglo-American communities—including blues, country, rockabilly and gospel—along with such distinctive ethnic traditions as the Czech singers and dancers of Rapides Parish centered in the towns of Libuse, Kolin and Deville. And in the realm of music that is written and conducted—as opposed to folk rooted, and orally/aurally disseminated—the Rapides Symphony Orchestra presents a varied calendar of annual events.
The most renowned musician to emerge from CenLA is the late blues harmonica master Little Walter (Marion Walter Jacobs, 1930–1968). A native of Marksville, in Avoyelles Parish, Little Walter rose to national prominence in Chicago due to both his hit records and his deft accompaniment on hits by the blues guitarist Muddy Waters (1913–1983). Nearly 60 years after his death, the standards of proficiency for blues harmonica set by Little Walter remain unsurpassed. An annual festival is held in his honor each May in Alexandria (www.littlewalterfoundation.org).
In the field of country music, the Whitstein Brothers—from Pineville, in Rapides Parish—expertly performed close-harmony duet singing. This delicate, soulful sound, rarely heard in Louisiana, is more typically associated with Appalachia, and specifically linked to such familial duos as the Louvin Brothers and the Everly Brothers. The Whitsteins’ career spanned some four decades, from the early 1960s into the early 21st century. Pineville was also home to the suave country-pop crooner Jimmy Elledge, who scored a national hit in 1961 with a rendition of Willie Nelson’s “Ain’t It Funny How Time Slips Away.” The more earthy strains of classic honky-tonk country and western swing reverberated through the CenLA region, circa 1950, thanks to the joyful, raucous sounds of Jelly Elliott and the Three Knotheads. And country music’s latest incarnations are extremely popular in the region today.
In addition, Alexandria has long nurtured the Louisiana hybrid known as swamp pop—an amorphous blend of 1950s and ‘60s rock, pop, blues, R&B and country songs, many of which are nationally popular. What makes them qualify as swamp pop is an added dimension of fervently emotional singing. (This is but one subjective definition of the term, among many.) Swamp pop is often played by Cajun and Creole musicians whose repertoire may also include Cajun/zydeco standards sung in French. This can create the misimpression that swamp pop only exists in French Louisiana, but this is not the case. From 2001 until 2014, for example, the masterful singer and trumpeter G. G. Shinn, a native of Franklin in St. Mary Parish, ran a nightclub in Alexandria. He headlined there regularly, presenting a sophisticated blend of swamp pop, “blue-eyed soul” and standards, delivered with expert phrasing and soaring forays into upper-register vocals. Shinn also booked a wide array of top performers, from North and South Louisiana alike, such the as Cajun accordionist Wayne Toups. Such seamless variety underscores the futility of using nomenclature such as “swamp pop” to categorize music along geographic, cultural or stylistic lines.[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Nearly 60 years after his death, the standards of proficiency for blues harmonica set by Little Walter remain unsurpassed.[/pullquote]
Shinn unabashedly called his establishment G. G.’s Club, and his name certainly constituted a significant draw due to his longstanding, eclectic and still-vibrant career. Shinn rose to prominence in the mid-1960s when—alongside singer/saxophonist Jerry “Count Jackson” LaCroix—he co-fronted the Boogie Kings, a popular swamp pop/soul band from Eunice, in Saint Landry Parish. Shinn and LaCroix’s tenure is widely regarded as the artistic peak of the Boogie Kings’ 55-year run. The early ‘70s found Shinn based in Las Vegas and singing with a nationally acclaimed jazz-rock band known as Chase. (The discerning jazz magazine Down Beat once praised Chase’s brass section for its “complex cascading lines; a literal waterfall of trumpet timbre and technique.”) Since returning to Louisiana in the mid-‘70s, Shinn has led a variety of groups and continues to sing in great form today. Upon closing down his nightclub he has resumed performing around Louisiana and East Texas. Shinn also just released a strong new album entitled One Last Kiss (Sound of New Orleans). The album is not new per se, in that it was recorded in the mid-‘90s and then shelved for two decades—but Shinn’s voice and style have remained remarkably unchanged during this time span. Such pleasing consistency is especially apropos in the time-warp world of swamp-pop, where musical concepts created 60 years ago are revered as beyond improvement. Shinn can also be heard on a strong album entitled You Can Never Keep A Good Man Down (Sound of New Orleans) and on Sam Montel Presents The Boogie Kings, a reissue from 1966 on the Ville Platte-based Jin label.
Another swamp-pop icon with connections to Alexandria and the CenLA area is the singer and songwriter Tommy McLain, who lives in Pineville. Like Shinn, McLain sang for a time with the Boogie Kings. He is best known, though, as a solo artist whose 1966 hit “Sweet Dreams” has become a perennial favorite on the “oldies” and swamp pop circuits. McLain remains in great form today, at age 75, playing clubs in Louisiana and East Texas and making special guest appearances with the Lafayette-based swamp-pop super group Lil’ Band O’ Gold. Louisianans are fortunate that so many swamp pop veterans—including Shinn, McLain, Warren Storm, Willie Tee, T. K. Hulin and Johnnie Allan—remain so gloriously active at this writing, and readers of this column are strongly encouraged to go see them perform. Meanwhile, younger artists—including Parker James in Cottonport (Avoyelles Parish), the Creole String Beans in New Orleans and C. C. Adcock in Lafayette—are keeping the swamp pop tradition alive with equal levels of respect and dance-floor exuberance. Adcock is also doing impressive work as a producer, most recently for the trenchant, country-tinged Texas singer and songwriter James McMurtry on Complicated Game (Complicated Game Records).
One of swamp pop’s biggest national hits was “I’m Leaving It Up To You” by Dale and Grace. Recorded in Baton Rouge, it reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks in 1963. A great new rendition of this South Louisiana favorite, sung by Yvette Landry and Roddie Romero, appears on Landry’s recent album Me & T-Coe’s Country (www.YvetteLandry.com). Romero is a fiery multi-instrumentalist and singer whose popular band, the Hub City All Stars, plays the entire breadth of South Louisiana roots music. Landry is likewise a passionate singer and multi-instrumentalist whose varied resumé includes a ten-year stint in the Grammy-nominated Cajun band Bonsoir Catin. Appropriately, she and Romero harmonize on “I’m Leaving It Up To You” with full-band backing. But the rest of this album finds Landry in a duo setting with the virtuosic pedal steel guitarist Richard Comeaux, a.k.a. T-Coe, focusing primarily on classic country music from the 1950s –‘70s. Landry’s supple, sultry voice convincingly evokes the feel of the Patsy Cline/Loretta Lynn school without any trace of self-conscious revivalism. To the contrary, Landry sounds like these women’s peer, and, like them, she can croon sweetly or sing rough-edged, as the moment demands. Comeaux remains similarly faithful to this vintage idiom while also creating a distinctly personal and adventurous style. He draws on jazz, rock, blues, swing and more, with a penchant for offbeat accents and dramatic dynamics. Some of Comeaux’s solos go far afield, but effectively and deliberately so, and he always lands with seamless grace to segue back into Landry’s next vocal. Throughout this album the interplay between Landry and Comeaux is exquisitely unadorned and unhurried with eloquent intervals of stark, dramatic silence that epitomize the concept of less is more.
While Landry is a skilled and prolific songwriter, only two of her originals appear here. Many of the songs on Me and T-Coe’s Country—including Patsy Cline’s “I Fall To Pieces,” and Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart”—have been recorded so often that one might initially question the point of reprising them again. But Landry and Comeaux’s renditions are so fresh, deeply soulful, and in-the-moment that the album is continually captivating. To use clichéd music-journalist jargon, Yvette Landry and Richard Comeaux absolutely inhabit this familiar material. In doing so, they show precisely why these songs are timeless favorites.
Ben Sandmel is a New Orleans-based freelance writer, folklorist, and producer and is the former drummer for the Hackberry Ramblers. Learn more about his latest book, Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans, by visiting erniekdoebook.com. The K-Doe biography was selected for the Kirkus Reviews list of best nonfiction books for 2012.