While plenty of Louisiana residents were stacking up sandbags last week, folks in Duson, a town 15 miles outside Lafayette, were on higher ground and in generally better spirits. Flood or no flood, it's not every day that a community of fewer than 2,000 people gets to celebrate one of their own winning a Grammy Award.
The honoree in question is the exceptional Zydeco accordionist, singer, songwriter and bandleader Chubby Carrier, who spoke to me the day before celebrating his accomplishment at a hometown red-carpet party last week. Living an hour west of the Mississippi, Carrier expects his town will pull through fine.
"It don't look like anything will start flooding until next week, so [Louisiana is] safe for the weekend. But then, it'll start coming right up, you know? So I'll be helping my friends out."
When Carrier and his Bayou Swamp Band picked up Grammy statuettes for their Zydeco Junkie album in February, they had no idea the award would be the last of its kind. Already, Louisiana's two predominant styles of music — Cajun and Zydeco — had been combined into a single Grammy category. But last month, the organization announced that it will be downsizing its award categories from 109 to 78 — all of which means the Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album award is a thing of the past. Instead, the two styles will compete with a curious array of additional genres in a Regional Roots Music category.
"It will be even tougher, because it'll be Native American Indians, Hawaiian, Polka, Cajun and Zydeco," notes Carrier, who says the original consolidation with Cajun music was the result of too few albums being nominated in the individual categories.
So are all these bands just too busy playing out to get themselves into the studio?
"Yeah, you'd think that with all the Zydeco and Cajun artists we have, we'd have more," says the bandleader. "But apparently only about 35 albums were submitted last year."
Still, Carrier's got his. "It's a great feeling," he says, with much the same larger-than-life exuberance that infuses his music. "I look at that thing every night. I shine it every night. And I just stare at it, like I'm a kid in a candy store."
Rip it up
Even though genre categories are more fluid than we sometimes make them out to be, it's unlikely anyone will mistake a Zydeco musician for his or her Native American, Hawaiian or Polka equivalent. But the difference between Cajun and Zydeco, which both hail from the Louisiana bayou and tend to go heavy on the accordion, isn't quite so pronounced.
"When you hear Cajun music, you're gonna hear a lot of two-step waltzes, you're gonna hear a lot of country and bluegrass, and you're gonna hear a lot of fiddle playing," explains Carrier, who basically plays none of the above. "With Zydeco, you're gonna hear bluesy R&B, soul, Caribbean and funk."
And while Cajun music has a fair number of downright mournful moments, its Creole counterpart is a nonstop party, something Carrier and his band are more than happy to facilitate. Beginning with 1989's Go Zydeco Go on the Shreveport-based Jewel label, Carrier has turned out a steady stream of high-energy albums. He's also made guest appearances on records by artists like Doug Kershaw and Tab Benoit.
"They say, 'Get Chubby, man, he can rip this up,'" brags the otherwise modest musician, who has a fondness for incorporating blues guitar licks into his playing. Add to that the Meters-style funk of David LeJeune's actual guitar playing on feel-good tracks like "Zydeco Junkie" and the instrumental "Swampadelic," and it's pretty easy to understand why dance floors are packed wherever the Bayou Swamp Band shows up.
Not surprisingly, Carrier comes from a long line of professional musicians and bandleaders that includes his grandfather, father and a number of cousins. "We got a bunch of us, you know, and we used to have big family gatherings," he recalls. "We'd set up a bonfire on Fridays and have cookouts and house parties. We didn't have to go nowhere. We made our own music."
In addition to learning how to play drums and button accordion, Carrier learned a lot about the history of his musical tradition. "Oh yeah, I have to know where it comes from," he says. "I mean, my grandfather told me stories, my daddy told me stories."
One of the more sobering history lessons Carrier got was about Louisiana Creole musician Amédé Ardoin. Even if you don't know the story of his tragic demise, recordings of the late singer and accordionist sound as haunting today as they must have back in the 1930s.
"Amédé Ardoin was playing at a white man's party," says Carrier, "and he was sweating so much to where the white lady brought him a handkerchief and wiped his face. And the white fella didn't like that as much, and they ran him out of the club and chased him down and killed him.
"You hear a lot of stories like that, so it wasn't that surprising to me. But it's sad the way the man lost his life, killed because a white woman wiped his face, you know?"
So, at least in that regard, things are better now, right?
"Well, yeah," says Carrier, "'Cos I'm married to a white woman."