As Michael Doucet plays Cajun fiddle new fans flock to the sound Music of Louisiana spills into country

August 13, 1992|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Sometimes it seems as if the Cajun tradition is America's favorite cultural spice. Naturally, some of that has to do with the way Louisiana French cooking has bubbled over from local crab boils and homemade etouffee into a million-dollar market for blackened redfish, prepackaged Paul Prudhomme seasonings, and such oddities as "Cajun-Spice Potato Chips." But these days, Cajun flavors also crop up in books (like James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux mysteries), in movies (remember Dennis Quaid's suave Cajun cop in "The Big Easy"?), and, perhaps most of all, in music.

Just look at the way Mary-Chapin Carpenter's Grammy-winning "Down at the Twist and Shout" turned the country music world on its ear. Basically just a musical fan letter to her favorite Cajun band, Beausoleil, the single -- which featured Beausoleil's fiddle, accordion and percussion -- was, on the face of it, just a jazzed-up Cajun two-step. Yet it went over gangbusters with the country music crowd, giving Carpenter the biggest hit of her career.

And -- much to the group's astonishment -- that enthusiasm has also spilled over to Beausoleil itself. (The group plays the Fair Hill Country Music Festival in Cecil County on Sunday). "It is kind of strange," says fiddle player and founder Michael Doucet, over the phone from a vacation in Colorado. "We play a lot of places who aren't that exposed to it, and crowds seem to love it. "I think that people's willingness to hear something that's not already prepackaged for them says something about our culture now," he adds. "The fact is, it's plain, it's no act. It's just us. So I'm encouraged by it."

Doucet probably feels somewhat vindicated as well, because he was Cajun back when Cajun was anything but cool. Doucet remembers that when he was a child in Scott, La., in the '50s, it seemed as if his life were split into two parts, one English and one Acadian French.

"You went to school in English, you came back home and you spoke French to your folks," he recalls. "It was the kind of thing that wasn't cool. We were put down. We were a minority, and really looked down on by the higher social strata, just because we were happy being who we are."

As a result, Doucet has seen the Cajun culture his parents grew up in disappear before his very eyes. "As far as the French revitalization in Louisiana, it's almost nil," he says. "You're finding a lot of these young kids coming up and playing Cajun music, and they don't know how to speak French.

"Basically, ours is the last generation. I was born in '51, and my brother was born six years later -- and he doesn't speak any French."

Doucet credits a trip to France with having opened his eyes to the importance of maintaining his Cajun roots. "They cared about us even more than we did ourselves, as far as nurturing the culture," he says. "That's what really prompted me to get back into [the music]."

Even so, Doucet isn't definitely a non-doctrinaire traditionalist. Take, for example, his approach to fiddle playing. Some of his style derives from his sense of ethnic pride. "You were ridiculed if you played Cajun fiddle growing up," he says. "It was like, 'Oh, you have to play country fiddle.'

"But I preferred like the old, simpler style, which wasn't as flashy. I mean, it doesn't get me on the Grand Old Opry, but it's the way I play, because I learned from people who played fiddle before there was an accordion in our music."

At the same time, though, Doucet has a keen interest in keeping the music he plays current. "I cannot play like I was born in 1920, because I wasn't," he says. "And the guys that I learned from -- Dennis McGee or Octa Clark, Hector Duhon -- they were them. They were not trying to be anybody else. They were playing the music as they felt it, and as they saw it. If they changed it, then they changed it.

"I play with strong traditionalists, like Marc Savoy and Ann," he adds. "We play together as the Savoy-Doucet Band, and people ask him all the time, 'Well, what do you think of Michael?' But Marc is always pushing me to do all these crazy things, to extend [the tradition]. Because he sees the energy, and he sees where the energy comes from."

And that, really, is what maintaining a tradition is truly about, Doucet insists. "You've got to stand by what you believe," he says. "That's the main thing Marc says: You can't go forward unless you know where you've been. Not only did we get music from this older generation, but we got certain idealism and things to guide us. I think that's the attitude that people should have. We're not commercial; we'll never be commercial. I'm more of the theory to go through the back door than try to knock on all the front doors."

: Country music fair

The Fair Hill Country Music Festival in Cecil County will be held Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $17 in advance, $22 at the gate; a two-day pass, $30. Call: (800) 374-6874.

SATURDAY

1 p.m.: Trisha Yearwood

2:45 p.m.: Patty Loveless

4:30 p.m.: Sawyer Brown

6:15 p.m.: Tanya Tucker

8 p.m.: Dwight Yokum

Children's tent 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m.: Baltimore Vaudeville Theater Company

noon, 2 p.m.: One Step Magic Company

Dance tent 11 a.m., 2 p.m.: Screaming L-7's

12:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m., 5 p.m.: Zydeco Norton

SUNDAY 2 p.m.: Bob Paisley

3:30 p.m.: Beausoleil

5 p.m.: Billy Dean

6:30 p.m. Mary-Chapin Carpenter

8 p.m.: Clint Black

Children's tent 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m.: Baltimore Vaudeville Theater Company

noon, 2 p.m., 4 p.m.: One Step Magic Company

Dance tent 11 a.m., 2 p.m.: Zydecats

12:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m.: Heartbeats

5:30 p.m.: Beausoleil

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