Michael LukeInside a ramshackle barroom that leaned like it could collapse tonight or stubbornly wait another 20 years, the roof leaked, plaster walls slowly crumbled, and the paint elegantly peeled amid the flicker of candlelight. The run-down décor didn’t stop a large crowd from gathering on a Saturday night. A slow, mournful acoustic blues number playing on the jukebox was silenced by the bartender as a young woman with platinum-blond hair stepped to the microphone. With a radiant smile, she announced: “Good evening. We’d like to take you to 1947.” The five-piece band readied, and the crowd of mostly 20-somethings stopped sipping on Pabst Blue Ribbons, got quiet and turned their attention to the singer. With a slick whine from Steve Spitz on the pedal steel guitar and Dave Brouillette thumping strings on the upright bass, the band –– Gal Holiday and the Honky Tonk Revue –– began playing an up-tempo Texas swing number, “Across the Alley From the Alamo,” a classic recorded by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and the Mills Brothers.
This wasn’t some honky-tonk way back in the woods; this was the Circle Bar, a three-story dive sitting in the shadow of the Robert E. Lee statue on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans. The crowd nodded their heads and blew cigarette smoke in the air with approval, and smiles spread around the bar as Holiday, with arms akimbo, sang into the microphone, “Across the alley from the Alamo / Lived a pinto pony and a Navajo.” During the course of the evening, which included more covers, such as a raucous version of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” and the band’s own material, the Honky Tonk Revue took the crowd on a three-hour history lesson of classic country western swing and, at the same time, kept Louisiana’s rich tradition of country music alive and well.
In the narrative of Louisiana music, one chapter –– its significance in country music –– is often forgotten or overlooked, at least to outsiders. When the iconic places of country music are named, Austin, Texas, comes to mind. Nashville, Tenn., the Grand Ole Opry, most definitely. But Louisiana?
Without Louisiana, the face of country music in America wouldn’t be the same nor would rock ‘n’ roll, swamp pop, rhythm and blues, Cajun or zydeco. Country music’s past is littered with Louisiana influences, and in today’s climate of country megastars, Louisiana’s impact is just as pronounced, with Tim McGraw, Trace Adkins, Kix Brooks, Jimmy C. Newman and Sammy Kershaw all hailing from the Bayou State. McGraw is known for his signature songs “Don’t Take the Girl” and “Indian Outlaw,” while Adkins, from Sarepta, in Webster Parish, is known for “(This Ain’t) No Thinkin’ Thing” and is appearing this season on The Celebrity Apprentice. Brooks, one half of the country super-duo Brooks and Dunn, is from Shreveport.
French-speaking Newman, a Grand Ole Opry regular, added a Cajun accent to country music, and Kaplan native Kershaw is known for “She Don’t Know She’s Beautiful.” Kershaw’s popularity is high enough that he attempted a run for lieutenant governor of Louisiana in 2007, though he did fall short.
Kershaw wasn’t the first to try to move from country music to politics. The “singing governor,” Jimmie Davis, had a successful singing career before he became governor of Louisiana, serving two four-year terms, one in 1944 and another in 1960. Davis claimed, and went to his grave insisting, he had written the state song, “You Are My Sunshine,” though evidence says otherwise. Nonetheless, Davis is generally thought of when mentioning the song, and it ranks 73rd on Country Music Television’s 100 Greatest Songs of Country Music.
Of all of the state’s commodities — sugar cane, oil, rice — music is, perhaps, its greatest cultural export. From the dusty confines of Congo Square, jazz was born, giving America and the rest of the world the great Louis Armstrong. From the swamps and the bayous, amongst the crickets and the cypress trees, Cajun and zydeco music came alive with fiddles and accordions. Though often repeated, Louisiana who’s who of musicians is astonishing: Buddy Guy, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, and Clifton Chenier. These names barely scratch the surface and also ignore the multitude of country musicians.
“Louisiana is so prolific musically that it’s probably easy for any one genre –– gospel, rhythm and blues, rock ‘n’ roll, and on and on –– to be overshadowed by the totality of the culture,” says Louis Edwards, associate producer of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. “Of course, jazz, zydeco and Cajun music stand out because they are singularly indigenous to the state in a way that other musical genres are not.” But country is so essential to Louisiana’s musical fabric that the Jazz Fest embraces country regularly. “The festival has included country and bluegrass music for many years: Willie Nelson, Ralph Stanley and a few others in earlier years and more recently Brad Paisley, Keith Urban and the upcoming appearance of Tim McGraw,” Edward says.
SON OF A PITCHER
The largest of Louisiana’s megastars is without a doubt Tim McGraw. Samuel Timothy McGraw was born in Delhi and raised in Start, two small towns east of Monroe along U.S. Highway 20. Unbeknownst to him until he was 11, McGraw is the son of the legendary baseball player Tug McGraw. After dropping out of the University of Louisiana at Monroe in 1989, he rose from these small-town roots to become one of the biggest stars in American music. As of 2006, through nine records, McGraw has sold more than 33 million copies; had 25 No. 1 singles; won three Grammys; and, when touring, is one of the biggest-grossing acts in the world. He is also married to Faith Hill, a huge star in her own right.
As for why McGraw will grace the stage at Jazz Fest, Edwards says: “He’s a Louisiana success story. Not that it’s our goal, but presenting a major native Louisiana country artist like Tim McGraw at the festival likely increases an awareness that country music does not only mean Nashville. It can mean Louisiana or California or New York, even. Country music is, after all, a uniquely American music.”
Although not in the same stratosphere as a megastar like McGraw, Gal Holiday’s band will also grace the stage at Jazz Fest, playing the Acura Stage, which is the main stage and the same one McGraw will use. It took her and her band mates only four years since they began playing together to make it to the largest stage that Louisiana has to offer. Instead of the contemporary country sounds that McGraw produces, the time period that Holiday and the band recall –– the 1940s and ‘50s –– hearkens back to the golden era of country music in Louisiana, especially in North Louisiana in and around Shreveport and Bossier City.
Also at this year’s Jazz Fest, The Hackberry Ramblers, a Lake Charles-based band that straddles the line between country and Cajun, will take part in a living tribute to the band that will feature band members Ben Sandmel on drums and Luderin Darbone on fiddle and vocals performing with The Lost Bayou Ramblers, a Cajun band from Lafayette. The Hackberry Ramblers began in Hackberry, a small oil town south of Lake Charles. Guitarist, accordionist and vocalist Edwin Duhon, who died in 2006 at the age of 95, began the band in 1933 with Darbone and guitarist Alvin Ellender. The lineup has changed over the years, but the band’s sound has stayed the same –– and so has its style. Always dressed in white shirts, cowboy hats and red suspenders, the Ramblers are one of the founders of the classic Cajun sound associated with the form. In 1935, they recorded “Jolie Blonde,” the quintessential Cajun classic, for RCA-Bluebird. More than 40 years later, in 1997, the Ramblers album Deep Water was nominated for a Best Traditional Folk Album Grammy, and in 1999, the band performed at the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, highlighting the close relationship between country and Cajun.
“Louisiana has been an important disseminator of the honky-tonk style of amplified dance music,” Michael Luster, a music scholar and former director of the Louisiana Folklife Center, wrote in an essay. “Shreveport, with the rise of the oil industry and the establishment of the Louisiana Hayride, a weekly stage show and broadcast, attracted many regional performers who explored this post-World War II style including Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, Faron Young, and many others. Likewise, that city also launched the careers of many of the rockabilly performers including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Sleepy LaBeef, and Dale Hawkins who seasoned country music with amplified blues in the 1950s.”
RIDING THE HAYRIDE
The story of Louisiana country music is incomplete without including the Louisiana Hayride, a 50,000-watt radio show broadcast live on KWKH that showcased country music. In its prime, the show was relayed nationally by CBS and overseas on the Armed Forces Network. Louisiana Hayride was the equivalent of the Grand Ole Opry and took place inside Municipal Auditorium in downtown Shreveport. The show began on April 3, 1948, and ran regularly until Aug. 27, 1960. Since then, the show has run intermittently. Known as the “cradle of stars,” the program was a place for musicians to begin their careers, and it also featured performances from established stars. Through the years, Hank Williams Sr., Slim Whitman, Johnny Cash, George Jones, Lefty Frizell, Johnny Horton and Jimmie Davis all performed on the show. And on Oct. 16, 1954, after Sam Phillips sent in a scratchy 45 of “That’s Alright, Mama” by a handsome young man from Tupelo, Miss., Elvis Presley performed the single that Philips had sent as well as “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on the Hayride.
A pioneer of country, Hank Williams Sr., began performing on the Hayride in 1948, where he debuted “Move It on Over,” before moving on to Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry. Addicted to morphine and struggling with alcoholism, he returned to the Hayride after being fired from the Opry in 1952 for drunkenness. In October 1952, Williams married a second time to a 19-year-old girl, Billie Jean Jones Eshlimar, the daughter of a Bossier City policeman, who was carrying his child. After being married in Minden, the pair exchanged their vows a second time at Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans in front of 10,000-plus onlookers. The troubled star would die a few months later.
The Hayride was a place where artists could reach thousands of potential fans in order to sell records and get their names out there before they toured the honky-tonks and juke joints in Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas.
One person who heard the broadcasts was an impressionable teenager who played rockabilly from West Texas, Maggie Lewis. “When I was a girl,” Lewis says, “we’d listen to the Hayride on Saturday nights.” Discovered by Johnny Horton, the man who wrote “The Battle of New Orleans,” Lewis led a band called the Thunderbolts. A few years later, in 1957, Lewis appeared on the Hayride. The pay, she says, for all musicians was $18. Lewis went on to a successful music career in Nashville for the next 17 years. In 1981, she returned to Shreveport and married Alton Warwick. By then the 3,000-seat auditorium that housed the defunct Hayride was in poor shape, and the city was considering razing it. That idea shocked the pair, and they led an effort to save the auditorium. Today, the auditorium is a historical landmark. Lewis and her husband also own the name rights to the Louisiana Hayride and are in the process of opening a theater in Bossier City across the Red River from Shreveport. Lewis also is set to perform in New Orleans in late April as part of the Ponderosa Stomp, a two-night festival held in honor of the forgotten members of rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly and swamp pop.
Pinpointing the inception of country music in the state is a difficult task because the music, much like jazz, predates the beginning of audio recording. “As far as we know,” Luster wrote, “the state’s first recorded country musician was a fiddler, John W. Daniel, from Shreveport, who recorded four sides for Victor in 1925.” Another problem with finding the beginning of country music, Luster added, is that musical genres evolve. Without the recordings, there are only educated guesses because there isn’t a clear demarcation of when a specific genre began; rather, there are time periods when the music arrives.
As swooning crowd members at the Jazz Fest react to Tim McGraw’s every lyric and body movement, country music will have clearly arrived.