Music

Various Artists: Louisiana Cajun and Creole Music

Rinzler chose his musicians for their tough strength, and for a quality you could label authenticity, or purity, or, as Dewey Balfa did: isolation.


Various Artists

Louisiana Cajun and Creole Music: The Newport Field Recordings

Label: Rounder
US Release Date: 2010-09-28
UK Release Date: 2010-10-01
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Skimming over a couple of articles about Creole and Cajun music for this review, I noticed that history was a theme that ran through all of them. They dealt with not only the history of the music qua music -- about a sound here becoming a sound there, France meeting America meeting Africa -- but the history of events that were going on around the music, like the period of time when Louisiana Creole children who had grown up speaking French arrived at their first day of school to find out that their teachers expected them to speak English, only English, and might punish them if they didn't. The idea that Cajun culture as a whole would rise or fall with its fiddles was brought up several times by different authors.

Names appeared in one article and disappeared in others. One of the articles highlighted the participation of Creole soldiers in World War II, another almost ignored it. The conclusion was usually the same, but the route was always different. One event was mentioned in all of them, though, and that was the Newport Folk Festival of 1964. That fact is pertinent to this album, because Ralph Rinzler, one of the men who invited three Cajun musicians to play at that festival, is the same man who made these recordings.

Cajun music was not unavailable to the wider world in 1964 -- it had been recorded and sold before the 1960s -- but Newport was the most significant exposure it had received outside its home community. "I had no idea what a festival was," one of the invitees said afterwards, a man named Dewey Balfa. "I had played in house dances, family gatherings, maybe a dance hall where you might have seen as many as 200 people at once." At Newport there was an audience of thousands. "And I was so moved performing for an audience of I think it was 17,000 people, and we almost got a standing ovation." This reported "almost" becomes an actual ovation, depending on the interview, and the person doing the talking.

Newport programmed more Cajun music after that, and other festivals picked up on it. Balfa was back a few years later with his brothers in a group called the Balfa Frères. Now he transformed himself from a musician in rural seclusion into a travelling ambassador for Cajun culture. "I wanted to do something about it. I didn’t know what to do, how to go about it. But I was fortunate enough and had good enough friends to open up the way for me." Louisiana Cajun and Creole Music opens with seven tracks from the Frères. They're followed by fiddlers, singers, accordion players, and timekeeping ting-ting triangles: Austin Pitre and the Evangeline Playboys, Edius Naquin, Alphone 'Bois-Sec' Ardoin and Canray Fontenot, Isom Fontenot, Aubrey Deville, Preston Manuel, and cousins Adam and Cyprien Landreneau.

Rinzler chose his musicians for their tough strength, and for a quality you could label authenticity, or purity, or, as Balfa did: isolation. Cajun-country was a popular crossover in the '60s, but you wouldn't know it from Louisiana. Everybody strikes down hard as pickaxes into the music's elaborations, the entanglements of notes that roll out, roll back, and spit themselves out again. The Ardoin-Fontenot duo has a pounding extroverted style, Naquin is yearning and private, and the Evangeline Playboys ride into Pitre's most famous invention, "Les Flammes d'Enfer" with the ruthless see-saw of an angry kid on a rocking horse.

I put on Louisiana after I'd been listening to a different kind of album, and it took a while for my ears to adjust. The sounds seemed so sharp that the nuances disappeared into a flooding shrillness. Good field recordings are never forgiving. In some cases, the rawness comes partnered with a looseness, a lack of structure, that contrasts so strangely with the tightness of professional mainstream productions that a listener can be disconcerted, but it isn't so here. The main difference between Louisiana and a modern, popular-appeal Cajun release might be just the absence of softness and give, and that point in the playlist where the band decides to let you rest for a moment with a peaceful track.

The PDF booklet bundled with this album is 84-pages long. Reading those 84 pages after the other articles, I came away concluding that the people who love this music feel driven to collect as much information about it as they can -- to detail, to name, to cross-reference, to footnote, to document, to record, record, record in case everything is forgotten. This urge to archive comes out of fear, perhaps, that the extinction that almost struck Cajun music in the 1950s, when English was overwhelming French, and zydeco and swamp-pop seemed to be shoving the older music out the window, might still prevail after the decades of revival and that if plenty of people don't keep their eyes on it, then it might vanish, and the name of Dewey Balfa will be as irretrievable as the authors of the Eddas.

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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.


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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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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

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