Zydeco pioneer Boozoo Chavis was unforgettable in every sense of the word. He was a short fireplug of a man who wore an apron and Stetson hat on stage, a Budweiser never far from reach, bearing down on his diatonic accordion with the same flair and determination that made him a champion racehorse trainer. When Chavis re-emerged in the mid-80s after a 25-year hiatus from the music business, he single-handedly sparked the contemporary zydeco renaissance; even nouveau zydeco giant Beau Jocque got his start by studying Chavis' grooves. But Chavis' idiosyncratic style and quirky timing made him inimitable -- and it shows on the new CD Down Home on Dog Hill, the final album that Chavis recorded before his death on May 5.
Posthumous releases are often messy affairs, filled with outtakes and subpar tracks cobbled from different sources. However Chavis was is full command of his craft when he entered New Orleans' Ultrasonic Studios in April. After surviving a 1998 health scare, Chavis was more passionate than ever about his playing, and prepared for these sessions by writing a strong batch of new songs, and testing unexpected covers like Hank Ballard's "The Twist," Houston guitarist Hop Wilson's "Broke and Hungry" and bluesman Arthur Crudup's "Rock Me Mama" in his live performances. Slide guitarist Sonny Landreth and fiddler David Greely were tapped to augment Chavis' band, the Magic Sounds, on the album. Greely had played with Chavis once before -- in an unconventional setting.
"Boozoo played at Gilton's club in Eunice one night, which is this big metal building," says Greely. "I was impressed how Boozoo's band played most of the night, and Boozoo got up later on," he remembers with a laugh. "Somehow that night -- I'd probably had a few drinks -- Boozoo and I wound up together in the gravel parking lot in front of the club, and started jamming together, just the two of us. His sons were there listening to us, and it was great fun. Boozoo was making silly jokes, saying stuff like, 'You sure you're not Creole?'"
It wasn't the first time that Greely, a member of Steve Riley's Mamou Playboys band, has accompanied south Louisiana musical royalty. He's shared stages with Creole fiddler Canray Fontenot, Cajun fiddler Dewey Balfa and Cajun accordionist Octa Clark. Greely's also no stranger to rural zydeco, having jammed with John Delafose.
"The country style of John Delafose and Boozoo, it's like they take tunes and pass them through a Creole filter, and it comes out so the timing is all different. With John, the timing would be difficult, but you could figure it out because it would be regular. That's not the case with Boozoo." Even when Greely thought Chavis was giving him a detailed musical road map to follow, he quickly learned that there was an unexpected fork at every intersection.
"For the song 'Henry Martin Two Step,' we were going to do it as a duo," remembers Greely. "So we sit down, and he teaches the song to me. I go into my isolation booth in the studio and we start recording the song, and he's playing it differently than how he just taught me! It's like that line from the Who song, saying you have to play by sense of smell. You have to use everything you've got to try and divine where he's going."
With Boozoo leading the way, each song on Down Home on Dog Hill is as unique as a fingerprint, with the lament "Crying Blues" dressed up as an uptempo waltz, the blues heavily accented in the R&B-inflected "Keep Your Dress Tail Down," and "The Twist" turned into an accordion-fueled ditty reminiscent of Rockin' Sidney's "My Toot Toot." The unsung heroes of the album are the Magic Sounds rhythm section of bassist Classie Ballou Jr. and drummer Rellis Chavis, who know Chavis' quirks like the back of their hand. "Those guys can turn the beat around on a dime," says Greely. "They can grab unexpected notes or a dropped beat, and always make it sound real fluid and natural."
Chavis' new album ranks with Chavis' finest work, from his trademark 1955 anthem, "Paper in My Shoe," to his masterful 1990 eponymous comeback album for the Elektra/Nonesuch label. It's the sound of a fiercely independent man and musician who loved his family, his horses and Dog Hill, his affectionately named south Louisiana farm and home. Listening to Down Home on Dog Hill is a wistful reminder that Chavis is sorely missed, but it's also heartening: Before he rode off into the sunset, Boozoo Chavis led one last magical trail ride.
- His posthumous CD, Down Home on Dog Hill, ranks with Boozoo Chavis' finest work.