Errol LabordeBackstage at the Grand Ole Opry: Jimmy C. Newman, a veteran of the Opry, waits in his dressing room for the music to begin. Band members are seated on a sofa, miscellaneous opry-ites step in to greet Newman. The performer is standing at the far end of the room next to the makeup mirrors. He needs no primping. Spending his time instead talking to me he spots a leftover cup of coffee on the counter. The liquid within is an anemic light brown. “Ce n’est pas café de la Louisiana,” he says teasingly comparing the contents to the hearty Java of his native state. “Mais Non,” I reply, muttering my best Louisiana colloquial French. Though he has lived in Nashville most of his career, Newman still speaks the language of the bayou country.
You know someone is really from a small town when his birthplace can be described as a suburb of Mamou. That’s true of Newman, who was born on August 27, 1927 in High Point – an Evangeline Parish spot along the road.
His last name is neither Cajun nor French, but, as he explains it, his ancestry is part of the land. “It’s German,” the performer says. “Many Germans were planters and they came to Louisiana from Texas to work the rice fields.” He was raised, however, in the Cajun culture and he speaks and sings the language fluently.
Show time. As is the usual practice, Newman will perform two sets this Saturday night – the early show and the late. Newman and his band members, known collectively as Cajun Country, work their way to the big stage. We tag along and are able to stand in the background staring out at the packed house and the camera flashes that the performers face in the cavernous Opryland theater.
Don’t get the wrong idea when I tell you that Newman is wearing a Nudie Suit. In the world of the Opry, the term refers to the rhinestone studded, theme designed, cowboy costumes first created by Ukrainian-born Nudie Cohen – a legendary North Hollywood designer. One of his early customers was Porter Waggoner for whom Cohen reportedly created a suit for free, as a way of billboarding his designs to other performers. Newman’s Nudie this night sparkles with images of alligators trailing serpentine tails.
At center stage Newman clutches his gator decorated guitar while his band starts a pounding, upbeat rhythm. Featuring Bessyl Duhon on accordion, the band is good, very good. Newman’s voice is strong as he launches into “Alligator Mab” adding throughout his trademark yells of “ah-eee!!”
Jimmy C. Newman’s evolution as a performer began as a young boy in rural Louisiana listening to radio. He was enamored by the western music of Gene Autry, but also gives credit to the evolutionary sounds of Jimmie Rodgers. All music is ultimately fusion and Newman’s brew combined country, western and Cajun.
As his career emerged, stops along the way included his own radio show in Lake Charles, performances on Shreveport’s “Louisiana Hayride,” then a television show in Shreveport and a contract with Dot records.
In 1954, he had his first big hit: a country tune called “Cry, Cry Darling.” Two other successive hits won him membership into the esteemed Grand Ole Opry for which he celebrated his 50th anniversary this year. A year later he experienced his biggest country hit, “A Fallen Star,” which crossed over into the pop charts.
Eventually, he found his niche with his high energy brand of Cajun music. In 1976, his rendition of the whimsical “Lache Pas La Patate” (roughly: don’t lose the potato) went gold in Canada and made him the only Cajun performer to earn a gold record of any type on a Cajun French song.
“Jole Blon ici” I say pointing, in reference to the Cajun anthem of Louisiana, at a blonde standing in the hall. “Mais Qui,” Newman grins and agrees.
He’s back in the dressing room between sets now. At a good-looking 79, his main gig these days is the Opry. He and the band have also played in Europe several times. One place he has not played lately is Louisiana. Newman explains that his absence is no slight to his home state, where he still has family, but that in his line of work Nashville is the place to be. He boasts, however, that he is a member of the Lafayete-based Cajun Music Hall of Fame and is equally proud that his star still shines in Mamou, where he is an inductee of the “Fred’s Lounge Hall of Fame.” Saturday morning radio broadcasts from the bar are part of Cajun lore.
He and his wife Mae, a native of Cajun country, live on their 670-acre Singing Hills Ranch in Rutherford County, Tennessee near Nashville. Gumbo, on occasions, can still be found on the stove.
Meanwhile, back at the backstage, there is sparkle from the dark of one corner as a performer prepares to approach the audience. It is Porter Waggoner, resplendent in his Nudie Suit. The camera flashes snap at machine gun efficiency as Waggoner approaches the microphone, tells a few jokes and then launches into songs. He is the show stopper, the night’s big star.
Waiting in the wings though is a performer who accomplished something that Waggoner never could: he took a distinct regional music sung in a different language and popularized it before a national audience. Far from the echoes of Fred’s Lounge, Jimmy C. Newman put Cajun music on a national stage. “Tell the people in Louisiana I wish them the very best,” he says. Same to you, Jimmy.