Called “the best Cajun band in the world” by Garrison Keillor on National Public Radio’s (NPR) A Prairie Home Companion, Beausoleil has traveled a long way in 25 years, bringing a little-known regional musical genre to a mainstream audience. Best known for their contributions to the movie soundtracks for The Big Easy and Belizaire the Cajun, Beausoleil won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album in 1997.
At a time when the word “Cajun” was unknown or disrespected by many Americans, Louisiana native Michael Doucet began to collect and preserve traditional Cajun music. The word “Cajun” (a corruption of “Acadian”) refers to the French settlers of Acadie (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island in Canada) who migrated to southern Louisiana after the Great Expulsion of 1755.
Doucet grew up surrounded by Cajun music. “I don’t think I know a French family that doesn’t have a musician in the family,” he told Sing Out’s Mark Greenberg. His four aunts were singers; one of them was married to a fiddle player who taught the young Doucet traditional songs. He learned French from his grandmother and parents, who still spoke the language.
Members include Tommy Alesi (born on July 15, 1951, in San Diego, CA), drums; Jimmy Breaux (born on November 18, 1967, in Breaux Bridge, LA), accordion; David Doucet (born on July 6, 1957, in Lafayette, LA), guitar, vocals; Michael Doucet (born on February 14, 1951, in Lafayette, LA), fiddle, guitar, vocals; Al Tharp (born on February 8, 1950, in Indianapolis, IN), bass, banjo, fiddle, vocals; Billy Ware (born John William Ware on April 26, 1954, in Mobile, AL), percussion.
Group formed in Louisiana, 1976; recorded debut album, The Spirit of Cajun Music, on Rounder, 1977; released over 20 albums during the next 25 years; contributed to The Big Easy and Belizaire the Cajun film soundtracks.
Awards: Grammy Award, Best Traditional Folk Album for L’Amour ou la Folie (Love or Folly ), 1997.
Addresses: Management —The Rosebud Agency, P.O. Box 170429, San Francisco, CA 94117, website: http//www.rosebudus.com.
Music was a part of family life. “Next door to us was accordion player Don Montoucet,” Doucet told Greenberg, “and we’d always go to his garage on Saturdays to hear music.”
Radio also influenced Doucet, as did a local television show called Passe Partout that was dedicated to Cajun music. As he grew, Doucet learned to play the trumpet and guitar; years later he rescued his uncle’s fiddle, the instrument he became best known for playing. Doucet’s interest in traditional Cajun music was sparked when he heard “Cajun Woman” by Fairport Convention. He formed a band with few of his friends, and together they played the old songs at local hot spots.
In 1974 a French promoter spotted them during a performance at a local bar/service station and invited them to a folk festival in France. “So we went to France,” Doucet told Greenberg. “Wow! They knew about this music…. It was like speaking to people of our great-grandfathers’ era who were our age. It was the turning point of my life…. I really got to see firsthand the inescapable correlation between old French songs of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and our music here.” After a long stay in France, Doucet returned to the United States and, with the help of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, began to collect the traditional music of southern Louisiana.
During this time, Doucet and five others performed as Coteau, a band known as the “Cajun Grateful Dead” for its mix of rock ‘n’ roll and Cajun music. When the group disbanded after about two and a half years, Doucet formed Beausoleil with some of the best Cajun musicians available, including Dewey and Will Balfa, Varise Connor, Canray Fontenot, Bessyl Duhon, and the noted fiddler Dennis McGee. Their name was taken from an Acadian settlement in Nova Scotia whose name meant “good sun.” Their first record was cut and released only in France, but in 1977 their American debut album, The Spirit of Cajun Music, was released by Swallow. The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll described the album as “an eclectic mix of blues, ballads, standards, and traditional music.” But “there was no work here at the end of the ‘70s,” Doucet explained to Sing Out’s Greenberg. “There was not one dance hall here in Lafayette.”
Despite the weak demand for Cajun music, Beausoleil continued to play, releasing record after record in the early 1980s, including the albums Parlez Nous a Boire, Louisiana Cajun Music, Zydeco Gris Gris, and Allons a Lafayette. When the Cajun music craze erupted, fueled by soundtracks from The Big Easy and Belizaire the Cajun (both of which included music from Beausoleil), interest in the band’s music increased exponentially. Listeners were won over by the upbeat, danceable tunes. Beausoleil began playing at folk and jazz festivals, appeared on the television show Austin City Limits, and became regulars on NPR’s A Prairie Home Companion. In 1991 they backed Mary Chapin Carpenter on her Grammy Award-winning “Down at the Twist and Shout” and performed with her at the Super Bowl in 1997.
Beausoleil released an album almost every year through the 1990s, earning one good review after another and collecting numerous Grammy Award nominations. When Hot Chili Mama was released on Arhoolie in 1988, Jeff Hannusch of the All Music Guide called it “the perfect blend of Cajun, zydeco, and rock ‘n’ roll.” Rolling Stone magazine’s Steven Pond described 1989’s Bayou Cadillac as “world music, south-Louisiana style… a mixture of the Bo Diddley beat, Buddy Holly’s ‘Not Fade Away’ and the Mardi Gras anthem ‘Iko Iko,’ embellished with fiddle and accordion flourishes…. What distinguishes their recordings from the pop covers performed by some of their Cajun and zydeco colleagues is that Doucet and Beausoleil are clearly not trying to get a crossover radio hit or make their music more palatable to the masses, but rather add fun and spice to what was already a rich musical sauce.”
Their 1995 Music of the World release Vintage Beausoleil was described as “an exceptional collection of standards written in the ‘20s and ‘30s by seminal Cajun composers” by Down Beat’s Dan Ouellette. He credited Beausoleil with “[celebrating] the masters by rejuvenating their tunes with a steamy gumbo undergirded by nonstop cadences and steeped in the two-step/waltz tradition.” Mark Bautz of People called Doucet “Louisiana’s hottest export since Tabasco” when reviewing the 1997 Grammy-winning Rhino release L‘Amour ou la Folie.
While Beausoleil’s lineup changed through the years, including guest appearances by such musicians as Richard Thompson on their 1991 Cajun Conja album, the core players in 2001 were familiar—Tommy Alesi on drums, Jimmy Breaux on accordion; David Doucet on guitar and vocals; Michael Doucet on fiddle and vocals; Al Tharp on bass, banjo, and vocals; and Billy Ware on percussion. The band averaged more than 100 live performances per year.
In 2001 New York Times reviewer Jon Pareles credited Beausoleil’s 25-year success to Doucet’s vision: “[H]e didn’t confine the band to purism, so Beausoleil has also linked the bayou to country music, Celtic music, jazz, swamp-pop and New Orleans rhythm and blues. Years ago Mr. Doucet realized that the best way to spread the music was to keep its good-time spirit.” True to form, Doucet told Sing Out’s Greenberg, “Our basic thing was just to show the goodness and the spirituality and the integrity of the music that we had learned and to bring it forth…. We still do things the old way. Everything is split, and we have a good time playing and that’s why we play. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t do it.”
The Spirit of Cajun Music, Swallow, 1977.
Louisiana Cajun Music, Swallow, 1984.
Parlez Nous a Boire, Arhoolie, 1984.
Zydeco Gris Gris, Swallow, 1985.
Allons a Lafayette, Arhoolie, 1986.
Bayou Boogie, Rounder, 1986.
Hot Chili Mama, Arhoolie, 1988.
Bayou Cadillac, Rounder, 1989.
Live! From the Left Coast, Rounder, 1989.
Déja Vu, Swallow, 1990.
Cajun Conja, Rhino, 1991.
Bayou Deluxe/Best of Michael Doucet & Beausoleil, Rhino, 1992.
La Danse de la Vie, Rhino, 1993.
L’Echo, Rhino, 1994.
Vintage Beausoleil, Music of the World, 1995.
Cajunization, Rhino, 1997.
L‘Amour ou la Folie: Best of Beausoleil, Music of the World, 1997.
Best of the Crawfish Years, Rounder, 2001.
Erlewine, Michael, Vladimir Bogdanov, Chris Woodstra, and Stephen Thomas Erlewine, All Music Guide, Backbeat Books, 1997.
George-Warren, Holly, and Patricia Romanowski, The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Simon & Schuster, 2001.
Billboard, February 27, 1999.
Down Beat, August 1995, p. 56.
New York Times, February 16, 2001, p. E23.
People, April 28, 1997, p. 28.
Rolling Stone, September 21, 1989, p. 118.
Sing Out, Fall 1990.
“Biography: America’s Premier Cajun Band Turns up the Heat and Turns the World on to Cajun Music,” Rosebud Agency, http://www.rosebudus.com/beausoleil/47-Biography2000.html (February 16, 2002).
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