Breaux Bridge fiddler David Greely goes acoustic, sort of
Your mother will tell you to turn down that loud rap music before you rupture an eardrum. The newspapers will tell you that Brian Johnson of heavy metal band AC/DC was recently forced to quit touring so he wouldn’t go completely deaf. But rarely will anyone warn you to turn down that Cajun music!
“All Cajun fiddle players have bad hearing in their left ear,” admits Breaux Bridge fiddler David Greely, who played in dance hall favorite Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys until 2011, when hearing issues forced him to “retire” from the band he cofounded.
“The reason that music is so loud is because people in the audience are talking. They’re visiting. It’s their social time. I get that of course,” says Greely wistfully. “But I knew I had to stop before my hearing really became a problem. I have tinnitus now, constant ringing, but it’s at a level I can ignore. I knew if I stuck with the band I’d have hearing loss at a level I couldn’t live with. I quit in time.”
Don’t feel sorry for Greely, who still makes his living playing music. He is quick to point out the many diverse benefits of playing quiet music.
“I love playing for a listening audience,” he says. “There are plenty of people who don’t come out to dance, they just want to listen — that’s my audience now. In the dance hall, people expect to almost ignore the band while they dance. But with my solo shows, I have people paying really close attention to what I’m doing, which is great; I used to have to leave the states to get that!”
Having retired from the Grammy-nominated Mamou Playboys (well, semi-retired), Greely now rarely plays with a band at high-volume levels. He performs fiddle duets with musician and producer Joel Savoy as GreelySavoyDuo, backs up GumboJet with Christopher Stafford and Jo Vidrine, and sits in with blues-Cajun crossover group Golden Triangle.
These days, Greely mainly plays solo shows — just him and his fiddle — peppered with verbalized musicology and other storytelling.
“I like minor keys, strange melodies and time signatures, a lot of variety and range of emotion,” Greely says. “While the dance hall is designed for a good time, what I get to do now by myself is I get to play a wider cross section of what Cajun music actually is. At the dance hall, that’s a much smaller slice of what Cajun music can be.”
A native of Livingston Parish, Greely initially began playing fiddle after an inspiring experience at a Black Sabbath concert. He went on to apprentice with Cajun music legend Dewey Balfa before building a resume that includes styles from bluegrass to country to Cajun, sung in both English and French.
Greely not only likes to show people the music of Louisiana, but also to tell them about it, explain it to them.
“Whenever you’re a performer you’re gonna want to talk to your audience, especially if there’s any kind of story behind the song I’m singing,” says Greely. “A lot of my songs are in French — which, in Thibodaux, a third of the audience understands the lyrics, but elsewhere I have to explain. Not to mention, these songs I’m choosing to present are all written by the great Cajun masters, amazing individuals, so there’s always some story that I can tell about the musician before I play their song. I am sort of doing a broad overview of Cajun music, including how it may have sounded in France, and how the Louisiana Creole people influenced it.”
During our interview, Greely can’t helping spinning off into explaining the differences in musical culture between the English Protestants and the Irish Catholics, and how that influenced Southern music, as well as how African music was injected into America via Louisiana. Listening to him hold forth, one can hear how he might weave these stories in between songs in a quiet, acoustic set.
Greely also says that playing solo has changed his personal style.
“I always wanted to end up playing the fiddle behind another fiddler player: two fiddles, with one playing rhythm and the other playing melody. But I have kind of figured out how to do both of those myself,” Greely says. “I have perfected this kind of finger-style fiddle playing. It involves a lot of bow work, but it actually works.”
For right now, David Greely doesn’t have a regular gig.
“I really wish I did,” he says.
His last album was 2016’s “Shadows on the Teche,” a recording sponsored by NEA and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It was made during residency at a plantation house of that same name in New Iberia, where Greely was commissioned to write songs based on letters in the plantation’s archives.
Greely confesses it’s, “time for me to make a new Cajun record.”
Truth be told though, Greely is still sneaking in regular gigs with the band he “quit,” Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys.
“Yeah, I am playing a show with them this Thursday night,” Greely says. “I play with them once every couple months. A couple weeks ago they brought me up for an hour to play my old songs, and man we had a blast together. And my ears were ringing when I went home.”