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Two-steps back 

Louisiana's Grammy-nominated Pine Leaf Boys take the lead in a new Cajun crusade

Is it even possible for a 27-year-old, Grammy-nominated musician to have no idea who or what Led Zeppelin is?

Pine Leaf Boys singer/accordionist Wilson Savoy insists that it is. Of course, it's not that Savoy hadn't heard of Led Zeppelin. It's just that he didn't know Led Zeppelin was a band.

That changed, however slightly, two years ago when the Pine Leaf Boys were invited to open for Robert Plant at New Orleans' famed Tipitina's. The offer came from their friend C.C. Adcock, who'd been doing some recording and performing with the Zeppelin frontman.

"He calls me and he says, 'Look, I want you all to come play with us and Robert Plant,'" recalls Savoy. "And I said, 'OK, I don't know who that is.' And he said, 'Yeah, Led Zeppelin!' And I said, 'OK, I've heard of a guy named Led Zeppelin, but who is Robert Plant?'"

Savoy swears he's telling the truth.

"I was raised on a little farm, my parents [musicians Marc and Ann Savoy] were very traditionalist, and they didn't have any music except for Cajun music," he explains. "I'm really one of the few guys who just doesn't know jack squat about modern-day music. But the guitar player in our band loves that kind of music, and he was flippin' out and sayin', 'We have to go do this, we gotta go play with Robert Plant.'"

So they did. And after opening for Plant, Savoy more or less put the pieces together: "I sort of figured out who he was. He apparently was a big guy, played a lot of, I guess — I don't know what you call it — rock music?"

Well, yes, that is what we call it.

"I'll be the first to say that, even to this day, I never heard of any of these bands. In fact, we went to the Grammys before that, and I remember sitting in the audience and they kept bringing up band after band, and everybody would scream, they'd wet their pants over these bands. And to me, it was a bunch of these soulless little wimps, you know? Their playing — there was nothing to it, there was no emotion. It just wasn't my thing, it didn't move me in any way, shape or form. And it kind of reminded me why I was never interested in that kind of music."

Still, Savoy did end up listening to Led Zeppelin's old records, and actually found himself liking them. Plus, he got to sit down and talk with Plant during a get-together in Henderson, which he describes as "a very old-school town right on the levee."

"He came out and we cooked some crawfish for him. And it was funny how none of the local guys — those old Cajun guys — they had no idea who he was. As far as they knew, he was just some weirdo from England. He was the guy taking pictures of them, it wasn't the other way around. And I think he was probably happy about that, you know? He could finally just relax and just be himself."

The Cajun Monkees

While their influences date back to Cajun legends like Amédé Ardoin and Dewey Balfa, the Pine Leaf Boys' own history goes back just five years. At the time, they were attending the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and sharing a large house just down the street from the Blue Moon Saloon, a back-porch barbecue joint that Savoy describes as "the Carnegie Hall of Cajun music."

This Monkees-like living situation went on for years, despite Savoy's best efforts: "After our first CD came out, I went and bought a house, hoping to escape some of the guys. But actually, three of them came with me to my new house, and they lived there with me for a whole 'nother year. And then finally, piece by piece, like birds from a tree, they all flew on their own way and are now all married with kids."

The band, however, played on, and when the Grammys introduced its Cajun/Zydeco category three years ago, the Pine Leaf Boys' Blues de Musicien album was among the first nominees. They've been nominated each year since.

In fact, Savoy's competition this year includes BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet — who has played with his parents in the Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band for three decades — as well as Buckwheat Zydeco, the Magnolia Sisters and former Pine Leaf Boys violinist Cedric Watson.

When asked to call the winner, Savoy figures this year's Grammy will almost surely go to Buckwheat Zydeco.

"That guy's been playing for 40 years, you know, and I think he's definitely earned it."

Styles and stereotypes

Actually, there was some controversy when the Grammy organization decided to introduce a single award combining primarily white Cajun music with primarily black Zydeco. But Savoy figures the similarities between the two styles of Louisiana music ultimately outweigh the differences.

"They all come from similar roots, in that the accordion is the leader of both those kinds of music. The main thing that separates them is that Zydeco music is heavily influenced by the blues — when it first started, they called it Louisiana blues — it all comes from the Creole roots. And Cajun music is mainly coming down from French Canada with the fiddle."

There's also a popular misconception, says Savoy, that "Zydeco is fun, Cajun's not."

"When a lot of people think of music that is fast and fun to dance to, they think that's Zydeco. And when they think of traditional, folky music sung in French with lots of waltzes, they think that's Cajun music."

Savoy says one of his group's goals is to prove otherwise: "Cajun music is very high energy and you can definitely dance to it. It's not a bunch of old crooners out there just singing slow songs all the time.

"A lot of people take themselves too seriously in Louisiana," explains Savoy, noting the current proliferation of Cajun music camps. "I went to a few of them, and it's kind of a good idea. But they never really get the true experience of being a Cajun musician. So hey, you give me six hundred dollars, and you can sleep on my couch, I'll give you a Schlitz, and you can cook for me after I teach you how."

But wait. There's more.

"Then they can come on the road with a real band, and lug all our equipment for us and set it up," says Savoy, completing his pitch. "They can finally experience la vraie vie de musicien, the real life of the musician."

bill@csindy.com

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