New Blood Nourishes the Roots of a Forgotten Culture
In the past few years the Crescent City has witnessed a tremendous growth of local interest in country and, especially, acoustic string-band music. From the Royal Street buskers' burlesque of Depression-era rural poverty to the rollicking sounds of goodtiming friends and strangers at the Hi-Ho Lounge's weekly picking circle, the colorful sounds of various styles of country music have begun to shine a little brighter from within the city's aural tapestry. Undeniably, the surge of new country and bluegrass bands facilitated the influx of post-Katrina settlers, many of whom have brought the artistic traditions of their homelands in tow. The rosters of the oldtime By and By String Band and the Rambling Letters bluegrass band are made up almost entirely of post-Katrina migrants. Likewise, Dylan Williams, mandolin player for the lesstraditional Tanglers bluegrass band, identified his evacuation to Nashville during Katrina as a pivotal moment in the pursuit of his art. However, while the recent proliferation of string musicians may strike some as a novel phenomenon, the post-Katrina players are just a newer manifestation of a longstanding pattern of migration and cultural fusion that has existed alongside artforms nourished from within established local communities. Migration and transience has been at the heart of New Orleans country music since its earliest origins, and this particular element of the music explains a great deal of its historical obscurity. Migration and transience are central to New Orleans Country Music Scene, explaining its obscurity.
In the late-1920s and early-1930s New Orleans was positioned prominently within the mythologies of early country music. The "Singing Brakeman" Jimmie Rodgers, working on a line of track that ran between New Orleans and Meridian, Mississippi, spent considerable time in our city before making his first recordings Victor in 1927. Several years later, in an inter-racial recording session that reflects the malleability of commercial genres in early record markets, the "Father of Country Music" recorded "Blue Yodel #9" in Los Angeles, backed up by Louis and Lillian Armstrong on coronet and piano respectively. Moreover, both Rodgers and the Sebastopol, Mississippi-based Leake County Revelers produced several recordings in New Orleans in the late-1920s. Throughout the next decade, as the Great Depression deepened and foreclosures drove streams of men and women from the countryside, boogie-woogie and country piano players came to dominate many of the clubs on Rampart Street and the sounds of urban and rural life, for a time, became increasingly blurred.
The Depression ignited a rural depopulation unprecedented in US history, but the outbreak of World War II intensified the process. As in many other American cities, thousands of men began to migrate into New Orleans from the countryside to work in shipbuilding or other war industries. Those that decided to remain after the war became the heart of a transplanted country culture tinged with a distinct New Orleans flavor. Parts of Bourbon and lower Magazine Street came to be lined with honky-tonks catering to the musical tastes of the new immigrant community. Brothers Three, now housed in a bright yellow hovel on upper Magazine, is the last living relic of this post-war country scene.
Out of this environment, one musician in particular, the Folsom-native Werly Fairburn, went on to achieve a degree of commercial success. Fairburn, who joined the Navy after coming to the city to work at Higgins Shipyard, developed a musical style that would blend elements of country and R&B. Moreover, Werly was a vessel through which R&B rhythms would come to influence country music and, thus, played an underappreciated role in the development of rockabilly in the mid-1950s. In addition to his day job as the Singing Barber on WJBW—and later, the Singing Deejay on WWEZ—Fairburn recorded a number of popular records, including one in 1955 called "i Guess i'm Crazy (For Loving You)" that featured another new Orleanian, Harold Cavallero, on steel guitar.
Cavallero, an isleño born in St. Bernard Parish and raised in new Orleans, was one of the most enduring figures in the local country music scene and was described by country music historian kevin Fontenot as "the connecting link" between the 1950s country scene and the string band revival of the 1990s. Having played steel guitar since eleven years old, by the mid-1940s he was a regular fixture in many of the bars on Bourbon and Decatur. after joining Fairburn's band, he made several appearances on the Louisiana Hayride and a recorded a couple sides for Columbia records in nashville before leaving Fairburn's band and returning to new Orleans, where he would live and work until his death in 2007.
Mandolin player robert Lambert, like Fairburn, moved to new Orleans in the early 1940s to work in the war industries. Originally from the Florida region of southern mississippi, at twenty years old Lambert labored as an iron worker and a bridge building before settling into thirty-five year career as a construction supervisor. in the mid-fifties he reunited with his childhood friend, Dink Barkdull, a guitar-playing railroad worker recently transferred to new Orleans. The two performed together until the early-1960s, when they each yielded to demands of professional and family life. it would some twenty years later before they would begin playing together again at the Penny Post Coffee House (now the neutral Ground) in Uptown, along with Dink's wife, Elaine.
Throughout the following 1960s and 1970s, as the commercial popularity of country music waned, most of the city's honkytonks shut their doors permanently. With a few periodic exceptions, the local country music tradition lived on principally in the private lives of musicians like Cavallero and Lambert, playing informally at venues like the Penny Post. This began to change to a degree in the mid-1980s, due largely to the efforts of local architect and stringband enthusiast Pat Flory.
Frequently referred to as the "Godfather of new Orleans Bluegrass," Flory produced an album featuring Dink and Elaine Barkdull and Bob Lambert under the name the Country Three in 1986 with Flory on bass and Harold Cavallero on steel guitar. in the years following that recording, Flory, Lambert and Caballero would also frequently perform together as the Evening Star String Band. Ultimately, Flory's most enduring legacy is the creation of the Piney Woods Opry in 1992—later renamed as the abita Springs Opry—a haven for country and traditional music housed across the lake in St. Tamminy Parish that continues to operate into the present.
Then, amidst a national folk music revival, the 1990s saw a small eruption of country and string band players in new Orleans. Gina Forsyth, an alabama fiddler who initially came to new Orleans in the early-1980s, cut several albums with the banjo player and australia-native mike West. The roots-country duo jeff and Vida relocated to new Orleans from new York City and recorded with Forsyth and Cavallero, among other local players. The decade also saw Cavallero join up with Dash rip rock frontman, Bill Davis to form the Swingin' Haymakers and the honkytonkin' kim Carson made records with a rotating line-up of Crescent City pickers.
The mOsT endurIng TrAdITIOn In new OrLeAns musIC Is ITs CApACITy TO ABsOrB And InnOvATe wIThOuT BeCOmIng uprOOTed.
Like every other musician in the city, the displacement caused by the failure of the federal levee system in 2005 had a devastating effect upon the livelihoods of new Orleans country artists. Since then, jeff and Vida have moved to nashville, kim Carson to austin and mike West has resettled in kansas. additionally, with the passing of Harold Cavallero in january of 2007, new Orleans lost a particularly powerful link to its forgotten past. nevertheless, the handful of pre-katrina players that returned have created an enduring niche in the music scene and developed a platform from which both established and newer country artists can be heard. For instance, in recent years the abita Springs Opry has hosted members of By and By, the Tanglers and the rambling Letters. Though not actually situated in new Orleans, the Opry has allowed many new Orleans-based players to expand their audiences throughout the region. Likewise, the monday night picking party at the Hi Ho Lounge, started as an effort to revive a pre-katrina bluegrass night at Liuzza's, has emerged one of the strongest reservoirs of new Orleans' country music tradition. The picking party, an informal jam session open to all levels of players, plays host to established musicians like Forsyth and Flory as well as the latest wave of musical migrants and string neophytes.
In this context, the latest influx of country musicians really stands as a reminder of the role that cycles of immigration and depopulation have played in the broader evolution of new Orleans music and culture. it is useful here to remember that Fats Domino's repertoire drew heavily on the country sounds he heard as a young man playing rampart Street honky-tonks for pocket change (one of his biggest hits, "Blueberry Hill," was, in fact, a Gene autry cover). Likewise, in the 1930s, when a young country boy named Henry roeland Byrd left Bogalusa to make his fortune in that funky bend in the mississippi, he was essentially playing the same style of piano that was lighting up the honky-tonks throughout the Deep South. Furthermore, like Fairburn, even as he began to incorporate more of the local rhythms into his personal style, he never really lost the country roots - long after he became known as Professor Longhair, Hank Williams' "jambalaya" remained an essential part of his repertoire. Though his songs have since become iconic of new Orleans, the novel style he developed was as much a reflection of the land he left behind as of his adopted home. Thus, though it is really impossible to foresee how the latest musical transfusion will affect the city's more visible musical traditions, recent collaborations between the Preservation Hall jazz Band and bluegrass legend Del mcCoury seem to suggest that the most enduring tradition in new Orleans music is its capacity to absorb and innovate without becoming uprooted.