The Year before the Flood: A Story of New Orleans by Ned Sublette

Not a Katrina book or a post-Katrina book, but a pre-Katrina book: a hip, sardonic, and knowledgeable street-level view of New Orleans, its people, its problems, and its parades.

The Year before the Flood: A Story of New Orleans

Publisher: Lawrence Hill Books
Length: 452 pages
Author: Ned Sublette
Price: $27.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2009-08

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans, the old song asks. In fact, that’s a pretty good question.

What we do know is that when Hurricane Katrina neared landfall in 2005, it set forth a chain of events that forced thousands of New Orleanians to evacuate, and then many of them to stay gone, to return at some point in the future if at all. A nation sympathized with the loss of life, property, community and dignity, as a once-vibrant city was transformed most reluctantly into a diaspora. In those first post-Katrina days, in our charity and goodwill and prayers and entreaties, many of us imagined that we too were New Orleanians, just as many of us fancied ourselves New Yorkers after 9/11. But it takes more than a Category Five hurricane busting through jury-rigged levees to bring you into knowing a city.

We also know all about the good-timey images of drunken Mardi Gras revelers, but New Orleans is more than just a great big party. Most music collections of any size likely have some New Orleans music – a Marsalis or Neville brother or father for the older crowd, Lil’ Wayne or Juvenile for the younger generation -- but while New Orleans music is a world onto itself, New Orleans is more than just a sound. Lots of places claim to serve a fine gumbo or po’boy, as if you could reduce a place like New Orleans to one or two signature dishes.

No, to miss New Orleans is to understand that beyond and beneath all the trappings and the lore, it is a place rooted in traditions, its people connected to each other by history, geography and the vagaries of Gulf Coast weather. All places have character, but New Orleans has a soul, its own brand of a soul, a soul that’s as complicated, colorful and indomitable as it is nonpareil.

There’s plenty of historical and archival material to peruse for proof of that. Photographs, biographies, oral histories, CD reissues, it’s all out there, but most of it tells tales from times long ago. Ned Sublette imparts a more immediate sense of New Orleans’ soul, for our modern times, in his new book, The Year before the Flood: A Story of New Orleans. As it turns out, not only is New Orleans bigger than just party, music or food, there’s probably more to it than Sublette can evoke with his words. But give the man credit for trying.

After all, this is his second exploration of the place. The first, The World that Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square (Lawrence Hill Books, 2008), traced the region’s Spanish, French and American roots from the 1600s into the early 1900s, with a post-Katrina coda. The current volume picks up where the first one left off, not so much chronologically but in tone and perspective. It tells the story of the ten months Sublette and his wife spent in New Orleans while he was a Rockefeller Humanities Fellow at Tulane University, migrating through history, musicology and memoir to convey some of the everyday joys, perils and travails of life in the Big Easy before Katrina came along and changed everything.

Sublette was no dispassionate newcomer to the town. He grew up in Natchitoches, in the northwestern corner of the state. That might as well have been a world away from New Orleans, with the engrained racial hostility of its townsfolk and civic institutions. Sublette was among that lucky generation of American youth to experience the birth of rock 'n' roll first-hand, through radio and records, and to grow up with it through the soulful, psychedelic ‘60s.

That feeling, plus a restless curiosity, has carried him through all the hats he’s worn in his professional life: roots-rock recording artist ( Cowboy Rumba, 1999); proprietor of the record label Qbadisc, specializing in Cuban music; producer for the public radio show Afropop Worldwide; and music and cultural historian (Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo, 2004). That curiosity brought him to New Orleans in the late summer of 2004, for what turned out to be a most momentous and memorable stint.

It didn’t take long for Sublette to be baptized in the ways of his temporary home. Within a matter of weeks, he learned the house he and his wife rented (actually, one cordoned-off portion of it) was the sight of a gruesome, notorious murder a couple of years back, got a taste of a local emergency room after a guest was hit by a car, and experienced his first hurricane evacuation (the city dodged the bullet named Hurricane Ivan). Thus was the rhythm of Sublette’s time down there quickly established: days poring over his research, nights and weekends spent inside New Orleans’ rich, quirky and often dangerous culture.

There’s something familiar about Sublette’s point of view: it’s that of the quintessential outsider, setting down in a locale long enough to take temporary root in it, but without shedding all connection to the broader world. That in-it-but-not-of-it stance -- expressed in a voice slightly hip, slightly sardonic, and always knowledgeable -- helps us understand some of what makes New Orleans such a distinctive place, without succumbing to tourist-friendly mythologizing. Sublette brings us the good (its people, its local traditions), the bad (crime, crime, crime) and the inexcusable (a history of racial hostility and disdain not all that removed from what he experienced as a youth upstate) of a city like none other in the country, and maybe the whole world, too.

But this is not merely a travelogue or the recounting of an eventful year. Sublette grounds the retelling of his personal experience with deep historical background on New Orleans and how its culture evolved over generations. At times, such as his chapters on how black and white Mardi Gras traditions evolved separately (and largely remain so), the book reads like a sequel to World (which makes sense, considering he worked on both books simultaneously). Such passages disrupt the narrative flow of his residency’s timeline, but for understanding how the New Orleans whose lore we cherish came to be, Sublette’s discursion from straightforward memoir into 19th century history lesson is valuable and, for non-New Orleans scholars (that is, just about all of us), quite revelatory.

Sublette the music guy has his say, as well. Much of his life there is framed by the music all around him, in the clubs, on the streets, and even on the radio. He celebrates the swinging party music and jazz most often associated with the Big Easy, but he also works to understand and appreciate the hip-hop soundtrack of young black life, a soundtrack tourists almost never hear unless they veer from the programmed path.

Sublette’s chapters on Master P’s No Limit Records and the Williams’ brothers Cash Money imprint will not be news to most rap listeners, but are notable for linking New Orleans hip-hop to the city’s broader musical traditions, a connection seldom made by most music writers. (Given Sublette’s skill for writing about music and the centrality of music to New Orleans life, a companion mixtape of some of the sounds that marked his time down there would have been useful, and probably quite funky, as well.)

For all the characters Sublette introduces us to along the way, there’s one we don’t meet until after the fact. That, of course, would be Hurricane Katrina.Her presence is made palpable in the book’s title, and the reader certainly knows what lies ahead, but Sublette doesn’t try to exploit the potential for foreshadowing. That would have been a little disingenuous: Sublette’s time there ended a month before the storm hit; and no one we meet in the book had any idea something like Katrina would happen within a year’s time.

He makes some allusions here and there that things would soon be radically different, but they fall short of creating a sense of dread above the proceedings. He’s generally content to leave whatever dramatic tension might exist to the reader’s imagination. On the story’s surface, this is – almost literally - a picture of calm before the storm. But the title and our knowledge of the storyline beg some sort of connection between the year and the flood, and that connection never quite congeals.

Few books have reported what it’s like to live in a major American city lately, so Sublette’s work is valuable in that respect. But as fascinating a picture as The Year before the Flood draws, it’s incomplete on several levels, and something of a missed opportunity. Someone with a stronger background in urban politics or social science would have written a vastly different book; Mayor Ray Nagin is mentioned only a few times, mostly in reference to pre-hurricane evacuations. Someone with school-aged children would necessarily have more than touched upon the city’s notoriously horrendous educational system. Someone with a keener impulse for outrage might have laid the righteous indignation on harder (not that Sublette ever lets the Bush administration off the hook for any of its decisions that lessened New Orleans’ ability to cope with a Katrina-sized disaster). And someone wondering if the city could have withstood Katrina better had different choices been made would have looked for vastly different things in the historical records. (No matter who wrote the book, it sorely needed a map of the city and key landmarks.)

Sublette’s take on the subject matter is much more personal, and because of that its images have a much more personal resonance. The Year before the Flood is not a Katrina book, or a post-Katrina book (although Sublette concludes with an account of his visit to New Orleans in February 2006), but a pre-Katrina book, a view of life inside a place that, in many respects, no longer exists as described herein.

The good, the bad and the inexcusable have all returned to New Orleans four years after the flood, but in different proportions than existed before, and with different implications for the city’s future. There will be much tracking of the state of post-Katrina New Orleans as the years move on, if on no other occasions than Mardi Gras seasons and Katrina anniversaries (The Year before the Flood was officially released on the fourth anniversary). When those times roll around, astute observers will have the benefit of Sublette’s vivid chronicle as a baseline to gauge the extent and nature of the recovery to date, and also how many people might still miss New Orleans, and how much.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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