Front-porch music that swings – Joel Savoy’s latest showcases local Cajun talent

Sometimes you can make an especially wonderful album almost by accident. Such was the case with Valcour Records’ The Band Courtboullion, a tour-de-force meeting of three generations of contemporary Cajun bandleaders. Earlier this year, Wayne Toups, Steve Riley and Wilson Savoy (in Cajun French, pronounced WIL-sone SAV-wah) earned a 2013 Grammy in the spanking-new category of Best Regional Roots Album.

The idea for recording The Band Courtboullion originated when Toups decided he’d really like to play in a trio with Riley and Savoy. He even already had the name for the group and arranged a club gig, for which the three rehearsed once.

After the gig, they headed into the wooden, all-analog recording studio built and operated by Joel (in Cajun French, JO-el) Savoy, Wilson’s older brother and one of Valcour’s three founding partners. Dubbed “SavoyFaire,” the small studio in Eunice has been lovingly custom-crafted to produce the most warmly reverberant environment almost anyone could imagine for acoustic performances.

As wonderful as The Band Courtboullion but in an entirely different way, Joel Savoy’s Honky Tonk Merry-Go-Round was organized as an offering from the Acadiana Center for the Arts’ 2012-2013 “Louisiana Crossroads” concert series earlier this year. Carnival-ride operator Joel Savoy has tried this sort of talent show before, describing the experience as “kind of like live ?karaoke with a great house band. Lots of people come up and sing, mostly locals who like old country stuff. It’s always a riot!”

The live shows served as a performance platform for headliner and Louisiana country star Jimmy C. Newman, who took his turn alongside a number of honky-tonk-minded young musicians from around the country. Recorded during concert rehearsals, Honky Tonk Merry-Go-Round shines its spotlight exclusively on local talent. The line-up includes musicians and vocalists drawn from the ranks of a now-decades-long renaissance in Cajun and Creole music—a young, rock-raised generation hell-bent on infusing those centuries-old traditions with new energy and meaning.

Standout tracks begin showing up early, including Courtney Granger’s veteran rendition of “You’re Still on My Mind,” a George Jones classic that also introduced the genre of country-rock on The Byrds’ game-changing 1968 Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Equally compelling are a pair of effortless vocal performances by Kelli Jones-Savoy and Emma Young, who create scarily close female harmonies on the dreamy ballad “No Letter Today” and the upbeat “Honky Tonk Merry-Go-Round.”

Kudos also go to Yvette Landry’s muscular “Honky Tonk Angels” and The Red Stick Ramblers’ Chas Justus on the album’s closer, wringing every last emotional drop out of “Miss the Mississippi and You.”

The track was a big hit in 1932 for “the singing brakeman,” Jimmie Rodgers, and also appeared on Rosanne Cash’s The List in 2009. That album resembles Honky Tonk Merry-Go-Round in its spare arrangements, its dedication to song versus performance or interpretation, and its informal, almost intimate approach to the recorded soundscape. Both also make the point that simplicity and sophistication can co-exist in American roots music. Swinging, sweet and subtle, Honky Tonk Merry-Go-Round reminds us that paying our respects to American roots music can be one heckuva lot of fun.

In only six years of operation, Valcour Records has already earned four Grammy nominations—including the 2013 Grammy for Best Cajun and Zydeco Recording.