With its heavy backbeat and distorted guitar riffs, Buckwheat Zydeco's recent cover of "When the Levee Breaks" is definitely more Led Zeppelin than Memphis Minnie. It's been four decades since the British rock icons released their version, twice that long since the pioneering country-blues artist recorded hers. And yet the song retains the same impact today as when it was written, back in the wake of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.
"You do a song like that, you feel it," says Stanley "Buckwheat" Dural Jr., a lifelong resident of Lafayette, a Louisiana town 130 miles west of New Orleans. The accordion-wielding frontman uses "Levee" to open his Lay Your Burden Down album as an homage to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, which eclipsed the 1927 flood to become the worst natural disaster in American history. "One of the more drastic things is that so many people left Louisiana behind, and you never know if they're ever gonna return, man. It's getting there, but it's a pity it's taken so many years."
The album — which also includes covers of relatively obscure songs by Jimmy Cliff, Bruce Springsteen and, of all people, Captain Beefheart — went on to win Buckwheat his first Grammy award last year. And while that stands as no small accomplishment, it too has its bittersweet side. Earlier this year, the Grammy organization announced that it's eliminating 31 awards in fields ranging from country to jazz to R&B. Among the casualties is the Cajun/Zydeco award.
The decision took Buckwheat by surprise. "At one point you didn't have a category for Zydeco music. And you finally have one, and you're gonna take it away now?"
Burden of dreams
Actually, there was a point in time when Buckwheat himself had spurned the music which ultimately would become his livelihood.
If the Steve Berlin-produced Lay Your Burden Down makes it clear that this is not your father's Zydeco, it's also pretty far from the Zydeco of Buckwheat's own father. Stanley Dural Sr. was a non-professional musician who, often accompanied by one of his brothers on washboard, would play his accordion so much around the house that his son refused to pick up the instrument for the first 30 years of his life. It was only after legendary Zydeco bandleader Clifton Chenier invited him to join his band as organist that Buckwheat began to change his mind about his father's instrument.
"While I was performing with his group, I decided that, man, ain't nothing wrong with the accordion," says Buckwheat, who recorded and toured with Chenier for two years in the mid-1970s. "Because Clifton had a band, you know? He had bass, guitar, drums and horns, and everything like that. But when my dad played at home, it was just him and the washboard. And that was 24-7. It gave me the blues. I had enough of accordion, you know? 'Cos he would play before he went to work in the morning, and until 12 o'clock at night."
Eventually, tensions grew so great between father and son that, according to Buckwheat, his dad actually took away the organ that the young musician had been playing onstage since the age of 9. The quarantine lasted a full year, during which time the 13-year-old was also prohibited from playing piano. "We had three uprights, but the house was so small that you only kept one in the house, and one on the porch, and one in the garage," says Buckwheat, who was one of five brothers and seven sisters. ("Yeah, yeah," he confirms, "we were Catholic.")
Of course, Buckwheat would sometimes yield to temptation, and he can only guess what the consequences would have been if he'd gotten caught. "I don't know, but I always kept a lookout. I was like a watchdog, you know? It was OK with my mother, but not my dad."
Heavy, heavy music
Once the keyboard prohibition came to an end, Buckwheat resumed playing his instrument of choice and, by the early '70s, was out on the road with his own funk band, playing gigs in Texas, Mississippi and Arkansas. "I had a 15-piece band — heavy, heavy music, you know? — and I did that for about five years. Buckwheat & the Hitchhikers, that's what it was called then. [Laughs.] But there were too many personalities, man, and I decided to take a break. And then I got the invitation from Clifton Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana Band, and I didn't want to do that! But I said, 'Well, I'm gonna try it.' Because my good friend Paul Sinegal — Lil' Buck — he was playing guitar for Clifton Chenier. So I said, 'If Lil' Buck can play with Clifton Chenier, I can play with Clifton Chenier.'"
Before long, the musician was cured of his aversion to accordion and went on to make it his primary instrument. That conversion led to a reconciliation with his father — "he became my best friend after that" — and he's since released nearly two dozen Zydeco albums, two of which — ironically enough — are geared toward children.
And while the accordion may always be what he's best known for, Buckwheat still plays his custom Hammond B-3 out on the road, if only to stay in touch with his pre-Zydeco love for funk and R&B.
"Of course, I take things from my dad, from Clifton Chenier and, you know, from all the old players before me," he says. "But I also can't deny myself where I come from."