Listening to the bounding, pulsing backbeat of Terrance Simien's native zydeco is like glancing back three centuries. Simien is the eighth generation to live in southern Louisiana's St. Landry Parish going back to 1750, percolating in a culture infused with music made everywhere from churches to living rooms.
"Everybody in your house, somebody play an instrument, somebody knew how to sing. Music was always our way of feeling good," says Simien, who attended his first zydeco dance at the local church when he was barely old enough to walk. "With zydeco music, you just knew you were going to have fun. Whether you were 80 years old or 3, everybody got excited."
The two-time Grammy winner is the product of that environment, where French, African, Spanish, Native American and German heritages blended into a Creole style that's been passed on like local folklore.
"It's really a handed-down music and there's a pride in the culture and heritage," says Simien. He talks about his many shades of cousins ("from the darkest shade of dark to the whitest shade of white"), a product of the French's more liberal approach to race relations. The music's the same way. "We got jambalaya DNA, and everything is irie."
Simien got his first break in the mid '80s when he co-wrote a song with Dennis Quaid that appeared in the movie The Big Easy. Just months prior to filming, he'd also been in the studio with Paul Simon, who was researching music for Graceland. At the time, Simien was just 20. There would be many more movies, albums and other opportunities to follow.
His success and popularity not only bolstered the style, but encouraged the Grammys to give Louisiana zydeco and Cajun music their own category. Fittingly he won the first award, before they consolidated it four years ago into a category that included New Orleans brass bands, polka, Cajun, Native American and Hawaiian music under the rubric "Best Regional Folk." This past March, he won in that category, as well, for 2013's Dockside Sessions.
Simien says he's not a fan of the new category. "Hawaiian music and Native American music were the first music made in America," says the Zydeco Experience bandleader. "They deserve some special attention."
But he's definitely ecstatic about how Dockside Sessions turned out, calling it the best time he's ever had in the studio. A big reason is that Simien dove into some of his favorite songs, including three Bob Dylan tunes, a smashing cover of the Maytals' "Pressure Drop," and the Grateful Dead's "Franklin's Tower," whose legato folk manner fits surprisingly well in zydeco's bustling rhythmic realm.
The album also features Shannon McNally dueting with him on Dylan's "If Not for You," her sassy alto meshing with his creamy croon, while his seasoned band and trilling accordion practically scream "carpe diem on the dance floor."
Zydeco's boisterous spirits are about casting away the hardship and pain of a race for whom lynchings were once commonplace.
"It's like, 'I conquered this!'" he says. "As long as we are good people and we try our best, we can still find joy in this world here."