KBON-FM owner and DJ Paul Marx lives his dream every weekday morning while preserving a once-faded cultural nugget of Acadiana.
Travis Gauthier Photographs
Forgive the biblical overtones, but it’s undeniable that the man with the cans behind the microphone on Second Street makes the sad laugh; breathes life into late musicians; and, most miraculously, didn’t get slapped or worse when he wrote this love song for his wife.
“Hold on,” Paul Marx says. “I’ll sing a little bit of it.”
What’s it called?
“‘I Love You Like a Pig Loves Slop,’” he says without a thimble of trepidation.
(Clears throat): “Oh, I love you like a pig loves slop.
You know, a pig likes slop a lot.
My love for you will never, ever stop.
Because I love you like a pig loves slop.”
OK, so he doesn’t have the voice of an angel. It’s more like a private eye’s chin after-hours or the hands of a retired construction worker, a tad rough and uneven to be sure. But for the motorist crawling on the tiny two-lane asphalt arteries connecting the Prairie Cajun Country, the folksy wit of Paul Marx and the regional music he plays on KBON-FM are audible reminders of home, reassurance that as much as this place has changed, some things remain the same.
Since 1997, when he rolled the dice and inexplicably sold multiple land holdings to purchase KBON in Eunice so he could play once-dusty Cajun and zydeco records, Marx – everyone’s pawpaw – has been the invisible guest at Labor Day barbecues, springtime crawfish boils and any other excuse to mingle amongst friends and family you can name.
Partially thanks to Marx and the 25,000-watt-FM-signal-that-could, regional music currently basks in its second Golden Age as its popularity continues to climb and expand. A healthy pool of talented acts fills stages from Sulphur to Gramercy and beyond. For a brief period in the late 2000s, Cajun and zydeco separated itself from the folk music pack when the Grammy Awards designated the music as an individual genre. And through KBON’s streaming online audio, accordions can be heard via laptop from across the Atlantic.
Although he much prefers to deflect attention to those on stage, Marx’s tireless promotion and preservation of this region’s unique sound has earned accolades from the Erath Acadian Heritage and Cultural Museum, the Cajun French Music Association and then-Gov. Mike Foster and a Golden Mike Award from the Louisiana Association of Broadcasters.
“My goal has always been for our music to just be music,” Marx says. “I don’t want our music to be a niche. I don’t want it to be something a radio producer sticks on Saturdays when his ratings are low anyway. Maybe KBON has played a part in getting us closer to that. I hope it has. I’d be proud if it has, just like I’m proud when I see our bumper stickers on the cars of grandparents and teenagers on the same day – because that’s when you know our music is being heard by and shared with everybody, young and old and hopefully near and far.
“I’ve had musicians tell me, ‘The reason we got back in the studio is because you’ll play the music,’” Marx continues. “Now, don’t get me wrong: KBON won’t play anything because you recorded it just up the road. But if you got talent, we’ll put you on.”
Music and Marx have been inseparable for some time now, though the relationship didn’t begin in harmony. At 9 years old, he wrote his first song. The lyrics are long-lost. Marx wishes he could recall them; he’d get a kick out of it, he’s sure. The song – whatever it was titled – was a love song written for the cute neighbor girl Marx was crushing on. He poured his heart into the darn thing, too – scribbling down mushy phrases and then erasing them because they weren’t good enough, only to scribble something even mushier until the words fit just right.
“She wasn’t impressed,” he deadpans. “But it was a start.”
A couple of years later, Marx landed his first gig, faux-emceeing in his friend’s living room.
“Don’t ask me why we thought to do that,” he says with a laugh borrowed from an old-timey prospector. “I was giving away gift certificates I didn’t have and talking to listeners that didn’t exist. Look at that – 12 years old and pretending to be a DJ and here I am 65 years old still pretending to be a DJ. Guess things don’t change.”
After serving in the military both domestically and abroad for six years, Marx returned home after being honorably discharged in 1968 and found a comfy job selling advertising for the now-defunct Crowley Post-Herald.
During the short daily commute to and from the job, though, Marx couldn’t find a decent radio station. It bugged him: “I didn’t hear Johnnie Allan on the radio anymore. Where was Warren Storm, Clint West and those guys? Man, it had changed. I went into the honky-tonks and bars, and those guys were still hot on the jukebox, but radio had basically done away with ‘em. Those guys were heroes and legends. And I thought: ‘Well, this ain’t right. There must be something I can do.’”
Armed with a blank radio résumé, Marx walked into KSIG and pitched an idea – a local radio show exclusively featuring the songs of local artists. When Marx was asked who’d host such a show, he pointed to himself. The station manager thought about it for a minute and then amazingly agreed – an impulsive decision, for sure, but one with little downside considering that the on-air window offered to Marx (Saturdays from noon to 5 p.m.) traditionally only drew a spattering of listeners.
“I was so nervous,” Marx says, “and I was terrible on the radio. It was before I got my radio personality. I listened and recorded and was like: ‘Goddamn, I’m boring. I wouldn’t listen to me.’ But I had good music to play.”
Marx stayed there for more than two decades and built a healthy, loyal following. The truth is, he probably would have never left had it not been for new ownership choosing to slowly phase out the sounds of Marx and his music.
“Before I was canceled, I quit,” Marx says. “And I told him: ‘Maybe you spend too much time on the golf course or the country club, but don’t ignore the girl stocking the groceries or mopping the floor. They listen to this.’ But it didn’t matter. And I was off the air for four months or so, and it was killing me.”
So Marx decided to cut out the middle man. Instead of being on the radio, he’d own a radio station. He retained the services of two brokers – one in Florida, one in Houston – but they didn’t do any good. All they found were signals for sale outside Louisiana. “Cajun music in Kissimmee?” Marx thought. It wouldn’t work. Then, right when he was about to give up and put a bid down on a weak AM station he really didn’t want, an old friend from Marx’s early radio days called. He had a radio license for sale.
“I just said, ‘I want it,’” Marx recalls. “Didn’t even ask for a price. Probably should have. Probably should have negotiated. But right then, all I could think about was, ‘I want it.’
“I sold everything – house, land, businesses – for that station and equipment,” he continues. “We were eating bologna sandwiches for quite a while. But I knew the audience existed for this type of station. I’d lived it for 26 years and witnessed the response. I’ve seen what this music can do.”
He tails off that thought to share a story that happened a couple of years ago while broadcasting remotely from the Swine Festival in Basile. During commercials, townspeople and tourists engaged Marx in conversation. A few requested songs. Some just wanted to shake his hand. Normal stuff. Then a man approached him and said, “Mr. Marx, I want to give you a hug.” Caught off guard but flattered, Marx opened his arms. The man explained how his mother had been clinically depressed for months following the unexpected death of her husband. Most days, she’d sit alone at home, a prisoner to her loss. She didn’t call much. Worried, the man suggested to his emotionally ailing mother to perhaps listen to the radio, to break up the silence if anything.
“He said: ‘Mr. Marx, she’s been a loyal listener of KBON, and her mood has changed. It’s like I have my mama back.’ What do you say to that, you know? It’s so special and makes you feel so good inside,” Marx says. ”That’s the way it should be, which is why we have an open-door policy. If you want to come around and look at the station, come down.
“If the music is for the people, then KBON is for the people. We often have musicians come in to do a live set in the studio: ‘Hey, you got your guitar in the car with you? Oh, you do? Well, bring it on in!’”