It has taken virtually his entire career, but Zachary Richard is finally starting to bring his musical wanderlust under control. "Before, I would hear any new style and think "Let's do some of that,'
" the 40-year-old singer/songwriter/accordionist said by phone recently. "Now I'm more adept at harnessing my eclecticism." Not that Richard (pronounced Ree-SHARD) has boiled his sound down to one-note simplicity. In fact, he has taken a convoluted musical flight that has touched down in the United States, Canada and France. The Lafayette, La., native comes from two centuries of Cajun heritage, but his music is informed by American roots-rock, the Beatles and Rolling Stones, blues, African and Caribbean genres, progressive country and American folk-rock.
He also graduated from New Orleans' Tulane University with a history degree. "In my songwriting now, there is a very deliberate attempt to define myself from Louisiana's tradition and history," Richard says. "But I would hasten to add that I don't want to limit myself either. I'm a songwriter closely attached to traditional Louisiana styles, but I use them for inspiration rather than definition."
Richard's latest album, Women in the Room (A&M), his first release for a major label after 10 on independents, is a mixed bag that cruises between the chugging zydeco stomps Nanette and Zack's Zydeco, the Cajun waltz La Ballade de Howard Hebert, the moody swamp-rock of Manchac, the rootsy, '50s rock 'n' roll of Take Me Away and ballads of varied ilk. He plays the traditional Cajun accordion with earthy aplomb; his singing is soulful and expressive. Amid the contemporary pop scene, the album is certainly an eclectic effort, but by Richard standards, it is focused and streamlined.
Richard is a talk machine. He's also a fountain of knowledge about the music of his home region. He regards Cajun, largely a white form, and zydeco, its black counterpart, as "branches on the same tree."
In the early 1900s, French-speaking blacks and whites throughout Southwest Louisiana played in a similar style. Around the '30s and '40s, blacks and Creoles adopted the term "zydeco" and were drawn to stylistic elements from Africa. "They would do what was essentially an African ring dance," Richard explains. "With a foot-stomping beat and call-and-response singing."
Zydeco was much more rhythmic _ "the whites played on the beat, the blacks on the backbeat" _ while Cajun was more song-oriented and placed bigger emphasis on lyrics.
In the '40s, the public school system in South Louisiana banned the use of French in the classroom. World War II was a watershed period for the region and its music. Cajuns and Creoles left their little corner of the universe and came back with a world's worth of experiences. After the war, speaking French was considered low class. Likewise, the French accordion was essentially expelled from the music. A series of bands developed who played in a style that was basically country music sung in French.
The accordion made a comeback in the '50s. "That was really the defining age of traditional Cajun music," Richard explains. "The great songwriter Ira LeJeune composed nearly the entire Cajun repertory during the '50s. He was like the Cajun Robert Johnson. He wrote all the songs and then died tragically at age 27 in '55."
The black zydeco musician Clifton Chenier had set out for Houston, became influenced by blues artist Lightnin' Hopkins, and returned to his home turf in the '50s with a style of "blues music sung in French and played with a chromatic accordion."
None of this mattered to a young Zachary Richard, though. "I live in an assimilated American household," he recounts. "My schooling was in English and, for me, French was a Sunday kind of thing. My grandparents did not speak English. Still, I was the only one among all my cousins to be able to speak French fluently."
As a child, Richard had access to all the usual mass media. At 14, he was deeply influenced by the Beatles' appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. "Nobody listened to Cajun," he says. "It was considered passe, it was denigrated by the younger generation. People made fun of it."
Richard played in bands that fashioned themselves after the British Invasion, then became enamored with the folk-rock of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills and Nash. Rumblings of a Cajun awakening occured for Richard while attending Cathedral High School in Lafayette.
"The three best students in my French class, which was taught as a foreign language, were myself, Michael Doucet (leader of the eclectic Cajun ensemble, Beausoleil) and the guy who is now the curator of Cajun and Creole Studies at the University of Southwest Louisiana," Richard says. "Because we were the three top in the class we all sat in the front row. If you dropped a bomb on that row, you probably would have wiped out a renaissance of French thinking in Louisiana. That sounds self-serving, but it's probably accurate."
Richard graduated from Tulane and moved to New York to be near his girlfriend. He made a demo tape in Connecticut and shopped it with major labels. Elektra signed him in '73 ("I was like another Jackson Browne"), but because of a label shake-up, the album never came out.
With his advance money from Elektra, Richard bought an accordion and "spent about six hours a day trying to figure out how to play the thing." He became more serious about exploring the Cajun musical tradition. Richard returned regularly to Lafayette, where he had a place around the corner from Chenier. "I'd be over there bothering Cliff all the time," Richard says. "We didn't really hang out, but I was his biggest fan.
"The Cajun thing fit into my search for a simple identity, a purity."
A third cousin of Richard's picked up a French hitchhiker one day around her home in Rochester, N.Y. It so happens the young man was involved in the burgeoning French folk movement. She sent the fellow to see Richard, who befriended him.
"He brought me to France in '73," Richard says. "Doucet came along. We played a French folk festival, and all of a sudden we were the hottest thing on the circuit over there."
Richard and Doucet returned to Louisiana and put together the Bayou Drifter Band, an early attempt at progressive Cajun, but no one around Louisiana seemed to care. Then the group played the big carnival in Quebec City and was an immediate sensation.
In the summer of '74, Richard returned to Quebec, beginning a seven-year run as one of the top stars in French Canada. He released the first of his eight French language albums in '76, financed with money borrowed from his father. His most successful effort sold 150,000 copies to a community of only 6-million French Canadians. Money poured in steadily.
After being worn out by a series of Canadian winters, Richard returned to Louisiana in '81 and took two years off to build a home on 20 acres of land that had been in his family for 200 years. He still lives in the house, 10 miles outside Lafayette.
In '84, French producer Claude-Michel Schonberg, who later composed the music for Les Miserable and Miss Saigon, sought out Richard. The Lousiana artist enjoyed a couple of solid years as a "French language pop singer."
In '86, Rockin' Sydney scored a modest hit with a zydeco version of My Toot Toot. "I was standing at the crossroads," Richard says, "having to decide whether I wanted to continue as a pop singer in France or stake my claim to the zydeco and Cajun thing that had taken hold back home. It was not a difficult decision."
Richard returned to Louisiana and signed on with the respected independent label, Rounder. He released two critically lauded albums, Zack's Bon Ton and Mardis Gras Mambo. "I was adamant that my Rounder albums should represent a very identifiable Louisiana face," he says.
By this time, the major labels had come courting. He chose A&M. "With my first A&M album I didn't want to make a stylistic record," Richard says. "I wanted to do a songwriter's album, although I stumbled on my own little South Louisiana universe."
Women in the Room has entered a congested pop scene where genuine alternatives are not easily embraced. At first glance, Richard is a between-the-cracks artist. His music is not purely Cajun enough for him to benefit from that music's current flowering on the international scene. Yet Richard's style is in no way trendy. Women has sold a modest 50,000 copies since its August release, but has done so without a promotional push from A&M (Richard says the label promises a more concerted promo effort beginning in early November.) Nevertheless, Richard sees encouraging signs.
"There are still some radio stations that play music because they like it," he says. "Not stuff chosen by some consultant in another city thinking demographic bull----. I look at the long-overdue success of Bonnie Raitt, along with Los Lobos, Robert Cray, the Neville Brothers, John Hiatt _ they're having significant careers in the way that I would like to. They're not selling 13-million copies, but are doing very respectable numbers and making a living at it. So I have a real good feeling."
AT A GLANCE
Zachary Richard at the Cajun Connection's Second Annual Fais Do Do and Couchon D'Lait on Saturday at El Pasaje Plaza in Ybor City. Gates open at 6:30 p.m., which is when food will begin to be served. Gumbo Lumbo opens the music at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12 in advance, available through Ticketmaster (which will add a service charge) or Cafe Creole (1310 E Ninth Ave., Ybor City); $14 day of show. Food, which includes roast pig, yams and dirty rice, costs $6.
Zachary Richard has been all over the musical map. Now he's home again, back to his bayou beginnings.