“New Orleans is a metropolis in the middle of a swamp that also serves as the womb of American music,” says New Orleans-based musician and “ethnomusicologist of sorts” Lilli Lewis. She serves as the Vice President of Operations and Head of A&R for independent label Louisiana Red Hot Records. The label’s marketing tagline is “the home of the next generation of Louisiana legends”. Thus, Lewis - the self-proclaimed “Folk-Rock Diva” and graduate of the University of Georgia’s Music Performance program - is probably the best person with whom to speak to as to why America’s 18th state is providing country music with the depth required to be commercially viable once again.
With Louisiana-born artist Willie Jones and the rock-country trio Chapel Hart all emerging at the close of 2020, so continued the bizarre legacy of Louisiana’s musical tradition existing within America’s native musical foundations; folk, country, blues, jazz, soul, and funk, but without the stereotypical expectations. However, in examining the history of standout performers and the legacies they’ve created, a fascinating, diverse and voluminous tradition emerges.
From Scott Joplin and Louis Armstrong, to inimitable musical giants like Allen Toussaint and The Pointer Sisters, a wild musical legacy reveals itself. When considering its impact on country music, it offers a sense that “three chords and the truth” means much more to a greater diversity of people than one would ever expect.
When Louisiana became a state in 1812, it was already a “melting pot” of folk and “world” music traditions. From the north, the Mississippi River brought hard-living Canadian fur trappers and German immigrant settlers to the state. Border crossing and trade routes allowed for Mexican, Cuban, Haitian, French and Spanish culture to emerge from the Gulf of Mexico. Before 1812, already-existing Native-American, Caribbean, and African influences were present as well.
When these settlers began to mingle, they spoke and wrote in a seemingly never-ending plethora of languages and dialects. So, when this cultural “gumbo” of people began to musically unite, bizarre rhythms and accents not heard anywhere else developed. Significantly, musical syncopation (putting melodic emphasis on typically weaker beats) was the norm for music being created in the area. In Western European music, syncopation means melodies fall on beats two and four. However, if you’re describing North African or Caribbean music, syncopation discusses the infinite number of ways that a beat can be subdivided. It inspired an evolved musical language all of its own.
Lilli Lewis makes a striking point on what makes Louisiana’s music so profound;
“Neither math, nor science, can best describe a musical tradition based on setting up expectations, only to eventually break them. Either you get it, or you don’t. Specifically, New Orleans tends to put a swinging spin on every pop moment that’s rural, folk and seems kinda fun. The melodies are a little more chromatic, and the harmonies are a bit denser. So, when the drums make the tracks swing because they mirror how the body lilts, people dance to your music. When people are dancing to your music, that’s what makes it popular”.
Here are 11 standards that have informed and continued to galvanize the rich cultural legacy of traditional music within Louisiana.
“Pop music starts with Scott Joplin’s 19th-century innovations on the piano,” notes Lilli Lewis. Joplin wasn’t just a bluesy ragtime music legend; in publishing all kinds of music - including Treemonisha, an opera, in 1911 - Lewis describes him as “maybe the nation’s first ‘pop’ star”. The key to 'The Entertainer'’s appeal is its syncopation - Joplin’s left-hand plays a march, while his right-hand plays an ear-worming melody.
Pianist Professor Longhair’s 1953-recorded ‘Tipitina’ is a stunning musical melting pot - combining blues, ragtime, zydeco, rhumba, mambo and calypso influences. Allen Toussaint stated that learning to play the song was a “rite of passage” for a New Orleans-based musician. In 2014, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame highlighted Longhair’s sound as “the Picasso of keyboard funk”, crediting it as one of the 100 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.
When ‘Blueberry Hill’ was published in 1940, it became bluegrass and jazz canon for Southern players. However, when New Orleans-based pianist Fats Domino re-recorded the track in a 12/8 time signature, as compared to its traditional 4/4, the jazz and bluegrass vibes disappeared. What emerged was a rollicking rock and roll original, impacting the likes of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and other mainstream and outlaw country forebears.
“Louis Armstrong used the trumpet to evolve cornet player Buddy Bolden’s style of making dainty pop less polished, thus more appropriate for the ragtime era,” Lewis says. However, by 1967, Armstrong was a jazz legend, whose influence over American music was already cemented. However, his signature song features a smoother take on his scatting vocal. It highlights how Louisiana’s diversity helped Black voices that had unusual timbres and vocal capabilities to evolve.
When guitar and piano virtuoso Dr John joined forces with Allen Toussaint and iconic Louisiana jazz band The Meters to make unvarnished psychedelic funk, they made this 1972 pop hit. According to Lewis, Dr. John was versed in Marie Laveau’s enigmatic Creole witchcraft (an offshoot of Yoruba voodoo), Haitian polyrhythms and spirituality. Another vital influence was the Mardi Gras Indians, the tradition that united escaped Black slaves with Choctaw Indians. If ever looking for a quintessential “Louisiana” musical moment, it’s here.
The Pointer Sisters were professional blues-rock and disco singers with voices versed in jazz, soul, funk and rock. Two years after partnering with Allen Toussaint for their breakout hit ‘Yes We Can Can’, the Louisiana influence remains in both the track’s rhythmic swing and the Pointer Sisters’ vocal intonations for this break-up song. Recorded in Nashville, it won both the Grammy for Best Country Song and Best Country Vocal Performance By a Duo or Group, both of which it won in 1975.
At the time of his passing in 2015, Allen Toussaint had spent nearly six decades in music. Lilli Lewis describes his version of New Orleans “street” music as “refined, sophisticated, curious and alive”. Blending his Louisiana roots with a soulful take on his globalized musical perspective, it led to 1975’s ‘Southern Nights’ being described as “dreamy, softly psychedelic and something surreal”. “I really felt spiritual doing that song,” Toussaint would say in a 2014 interview.
Aaron Neville’s roots in rhythm and blues paired his solo hit ‘Tell It Like It Is’ alongside the work of performers like Lee Dorsey (‘Working In A Coal Mine’) and Ernie K. Doe (‘Mother In Law’) as vital pieces of the rock-to-soul music tradition. To Lilli Lewis, this legacy weaves into country, through what voodoo believers refer to as their voices being “mounted” by spirituality. Once this occurs, it creates the sanctified space wherein self-defined creativity melds with unpredictable inflections, inspired by the region’s multitude of accents. Thus, when Aaron Neville paired with Trisha Yearwood on a cover of Patsy Cline’s iconic 1961 country classic ‘I Fall To Pieces’, a cover that is as ear-pleasing as the original emerged.
The accordion arrived in Louisiana via 19th-century German settlers. Originally a folk instrument, when it ended up with Cajun and African Louisiana residents like Buckwheat Zydeco and Rockin’ Dopsie, the instrument’s sound and style absorbed funk, blues, and jazz. In the current era, Dwayne Dopsie - Rockin’ Dopsie’s son - has been described as “the Jimi Hendrix of the accordion” by Rolling Stone. As the lineage holder for traditional zydeco, his tracks - like his 2019 release ‘Harry’s Creole Bar’ - preserve and evolve a centuries-old legacy.
Lilli Lewis describes current soulful pop-country star Jones’ poignant ode to Black empowerment as a “timeless song”. In “intoning the lives of those who have lived a hard life”, he is being “mounted” by their spirits. “He connects this unique breath to every inflection in the melody, which forces the listener to pay attention from beginning to end,” she says.
Chapel Hart are New Orleans-based, but aren’t Louisiana natives. However, the Black female trio feel like their Poplarville, Mississippi roots extending to the Big Easy simply makes sense. The band’s latest single, ‘You Can Have Him, Jolene’, updated the Dolly Parton hit by fast-forwarding its narrative, adding a level of whimsical-pop novelty that feels very analogous to New Orleans’ history.