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Luderin Darbone: A Life as a Rambler

Luderin Darbone, the acclaimed Cajun-swing fiddler who co-founded The Hackberry Ramblers in 1933, died on Nov. 21 at Calcasieu-Cameron Hospital in Sulphur. He was 95.

Darbone was born in Evangeline on Jan. 14, 1913, and raised in Orangefield, Texas. He taught himself to play at age 12 by taking a correspondence course. With the technique that Darbone acquired, he was soon able to play by ear and learn songs he heard on the radio. As a teenager, Darbone moved to the then-remote salt-marsh town of Hackberry. There he met his lifelong musical collaborator, Edwin Duhon, a multi-instrumentalist who, at that time, focused on the accordion. The two began playing dances together. They quickly gathered a following, added a third member and dubbed themselves “The Hackberry Ramblers.”

Duhon soon switched to playing guitar, reflecting a prevalent trend in which the accordion faded from Cajun music in the 1920s and ’30s. This “string band era,” as it came to be known, coincided with the introduction of electricity to rural Southwest Louisiana, and The Hackberry Ramblers brought two important innovations to the local scene. They blended the Cajun repertoire with Anglo-American Western swing and country songs, which at that time were totally separate traditions, and they introduced electronic amplification to area dance halls. This allowed acoustic instruments such as the fiddle to be clearly heard over the sound of a crowd, thus encouraging musicians to increase their technique as soloists and raising skill levels all around. At some far-flung places that did not yet have electricity, Darbone powered the band’s primitive Sears-Roebuck PA system with his Model-T Ford, which idled outside the dance halls all night.

In 1935 The Hackberry Ramblers signed with RCA-Bluebird, a prominent national record label. Their hits, released on 78-rpm records, included the first rendition of “Jolie Blonde” under that title and “Wondering,” which later scored a huge hit for country crooner Webb Pierce. Their eclectic repertoire included Cajun music, country and Western swing, jazz, low-down blues and even the occasional Hawaiian novelty number. When singing in English, the band adopted the moniker “The Riverside Ramblers,” thanks to a sponsorship deal from the Montgomery-Ward department store chain, which was then marketing a new line of Riverside Tires. These recordings revealed Darbone, with his lilting, lyrical fiddle style, as a leading creative figure of his day whose contributions have come to be considered historic.

By the 1940s The Hackberry Ramblers had evolved from a “hillbilly string band” –– to use the record-business parlance of the day –– into a 10-piece Western swing orchestra with horns, piano and electric guitar. They recorded in this configuration for Deluxe Records in 1950. At the time the Ramblers were in the midst of a 10-year house-band gig at a local roadhouse known as the Silver Star.

The popularity of Cajun music ebbed during the 1960s, and The Hackberry Ramblers contemplated retirement. But cultural crusader Chris Strachwitz, the guiding force behind Arhoolie Records, encouraged the band to stay active, recording them anew in 1963 and reissuing some of their Bluebird classics. The pace eventually reaccelerated with the advent of the Cajun music and zydeco renaissance in the late ’70s. Heritage-conscious young fiddlers such as Michael Doucet sought out Darbone and other old masters and brought their songs to new audiences.

In 1988 The Hackberry Ramblers began a series of annual performances at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival that lasted through 2005. They also started touring nationally, appearing over the years at diverse events including Super Bowl ’96, the Grand Ole Opry, The Newport Folk Festival and dozens of other festivals and nightclubs. By this point the group’s sound had evolved once again, as electric guitarist Glen Croker added a swaggering honky-tonk tinge that included rhythm and blues, rockabilly and country such as Ray Price and Merle Haggard.

By the early 1990s The Hackberry Ramblers’ rich history and undiminished vitality began to pique media interest. This groundswell inspired the Ramblers to record their first album in 30 years, Cajun Boogie (released in 1993 by Flying Fish Records and reissued in 2003 by Hot Biscuits). The album was well-received by national publications, including The New York Times, Rolling Stone and USA Today, leading to television and radio appearances on Entertainment Tonight; NBC’s The Today Show; CNN’s Showbiz Today;  MTV Live; and NPR’s Weekend Edition, Fresh Air and World Café. The Ramblers’ follow-up album, Deep Water (released by Hot Biscuits), featured guest appearances by Marcia Ball, Rodney Crowell, Michael Doucet and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Deep Water was nominated for a Grammy award as the best traditional folk album of 1997. Frequent touring followed, and in 2002 The Hackberry Ramblers debuted in Europe with festival performances in France and Holland. That same year, Darbone and Duhon received a prestigious National Heritage Fellowship from the Folk Arts Program of the National Endowment for the Arts.

In January 2004 Darbone was featured, along with the rest of the band, in the documentary Make ‘Em Dance: The Hackberry Ramblers’ Story. Directed by filmmaker John Whitehead, Make ‘Em Dance was nationally broadcast on the PBS series Independent Lens.

The Hackberry Ramblers’ final tour included a performance at the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2004, where one of Darbone’s fiddles is on permanent display following a donation ceremony in 1999. The Ramblers’ final performance took place at the Shaw Center’s Manship Theater in Baton Rouge in 2005. But Darbone, who loved his music, continued to play every day at home, and he rallied for two performances in 2008, performing in public for the last time at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

Darbone was preceded by his wife, Mary Lue, who steadfastly encouraged his musical career and travels until her death in 1999. A devout Catholic who attended Mass every day, Darbone was also an active member of the Knights of Columbus.
Darbone was a kind, gentle, conscientious man. He was a deeply talented musician, a loving parent and grandfather and a wise bandleader. Although he will be sorely missed, he leaves a rich and beautiful legacy from a long, happy life.

Ben Sandmel is the drummer and record producer for The Hackberry Ramblers and also serves as the group’s manager and publicist.

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