Music and food have long danced the Cajun waltz in Louisiana, but the courtship between food and music reaches back before Louisiana was even Louisiana. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare wrote of the intrinsic connection some 400 years ago, as Duke Orsino opens the play: “If music be the food of love, play on / Give me excess of it; that surfeiting / The appetite may sicken, and so die.” This was 80 years or so before La Salle claimed Louisiana for France and Louis XIV, yet our appetites have never died, for food or for music.
The spices that season our songs and plates and flavor our palates and ears were born from the same mother. And so we dance while we eat and sing while we cook. Our lyrics, lyrics about and for Louisiana, are peppered with food, whether out in the country or in the cities. “Jambalaya, a crawfish pie, a filé gumbo,” Hank Williams Sr. once crooned, while Louis Jordan used to rap about a “Saturday Night Fish Fry” on Rampart Street in New Orleans. It is unimaginable to have a cookout without music, and a crawfish boil isn’t a boil without the proper accoutrements. Into the pot goes a shake of paprika, a dash of fiddles, a few cloves of garlic, some potatoes, a couple of ears of corn and a smattering of accordion.
The Red Stick Ramblers — a five-piece band that plays a style of music that draws from traditional Cajun, old-time country, blues, Western swing and jazz from the ‘20s and ‘30s, playing standards and their own tunes –– know and honor this tradition, the tradition of music and food in Louisiana. The tradition is so important to the band that when the Baton Rouge-bred and Lafayette-based group travels the highways of America, taking its down-home version of roots music on the road, Linzay Young, lead singer and one of the band’s two fiddle players, takes his cast-iron pots and pans, propane stove and recipes with him, spreading a special blend of flavorful music and spicy food from California to New York City.
Kevin Wimmer, a Manhattanite who has lived in the South for years and played in the prominent Cajun band Balfa Toujours before joining the Ramblers, plays the fiddle, as well. Chas Justus from Mississippi plays acoustic and electric guitar; Eric Frey from Clay, Ala., handles the upright bass; and Glenn Fields, who is on drums, is from Baton Rouge.
The sound of the band, though it draws heavily from the past, is strikingly unique and fresh. Young’s voice doesn’t betray his Cajun childhood in Eunice, La.: Clear, smooth and reminiscent of a country voice such as Merle Haggard’s or Alan Jackson’s, it is perfect to traverse the Ramblers’ wide, wide repertoire, from early jazz sounds to bopping Western swing. Strings and rosined bows are the heart of their sound, creating rich, danceable melodies. And each time the Ramblers strike up the band, no doubt somewhere in the cosmos Dewey Balfa, Bob Wills and Django Reinhardt are looking on smiling.
The quintet was born on the campus of Louisiana State University, where Justus, Young and Fields all went to school. Competing against contemporary sounds, the Ramblers were able to build a strong, loyal fan base by playing hot, contagious music. “Any given night after a show at the original Chelsea’s [Café],” Young recalls, “we’d announce over the mic, ‘Party at the red house,’ which is where I lived, and it was in the neighborhood. Half the people in the bar knew where the house was; it was the red house on Carlotta Street. When the bar closed, we’d end up with half of the bar back at the house. Somebody would be barbecuing chicken on the grill; we’d get a few cases of beer from the bar.”
Before long, with food cooking, beer flowing and good friends gathered about, the guys would break out their instruments and start playing. “People would be milling all over the house,” Young says with an impish chuckle, remembering the early days. “There’d be people playing music upstairs and people dancing in the driveway, cooking up rice and gravy at 3 in the morning.” Sometimes, he says, they could go on until dawn. While it isn’t unheard of for an LSU student to drink through the night, it was this warm hospitality, good music and wanting to share it with friends that helped the band get quite popular around Baton Rouge.
In this climate the band found its identity. Four albums and seven or eight years later, depending on whom you ask in the band, the Ramblers still have the same ethos: Life is a goddamn good time, so let’s celebrate. And there’s plenty to celebrate for the Ramblers, whose most recent album Made in the Shade was released on Sugar Hill Records, a major independent label out of Nashville, Tenn. They also cut a video for “Made in the Shade,” the title track off of their album. They’ve spent the better part of a decade making a living playing music professionally to thousands of fans, young and old, from places as prestigious as Joe’s Pub in Manhattan to an upcoming gig at the Albino Skunk Bluegrass Festival in Greer, S.C.
“You’re selling something more than music,” Justus says of the Ramblers’ connection not only to food but also to the soulful roots music they create and their connection with the audience. Only in Louisiana could a bunch of young guys put together a band like the Ramblers, a truly anachronistic outfit –– two fiddlers, an upright bass, a guitar player and sometimes sweet Cajun French lyrics –– survive and prosper.
Smitten with, perhaps, a nostalgic view of the past, Justus rolls a cigarette and smokes while lamenting that the American landscape of culture is eroding its eclectic shores in favor of plastic music and bland, homogenized places. “Roots music comes from such a deep place,” he says of the appeal of what the Ramblers play and what they are trying to achieve. “People really crafted songs in the ‘20s and ‘30s.”
Young brought the Cajun sound to the band, and Justus, who grew up in Vicksburg, Miss., but spent a good deal of time in Memphis, Tenn., brought a bluesy element. As the band grew as musicians, country, Western swing and jazz were added, filling out the Ramblers’ sound. But the genres aren’t disparate as one would think. “You look at Cajun, Western swing and honky-tonk; they do so much overlapping,” Justus says, adding that Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana geographically border one another, and naturally the cultures overlap those borders. “We’re by no means,” Young says with a smile, “the first band to mix this stuff up. People have been doing it since the 1920s.”
It was apropos that I met the band for the first time at the Zapp’s Beerfest in Baton Rouge, the town where Ramblers began. Although the wonderful libations of 200-plus beers and such delightful food as red beans and rice added to the charm of the afternoon, it was the setting that made it ideal for meeting the group: On a smoking-hot April afternoon, the festival was held at LSU’s Rural Life Museum. The museum, like the Ramblers, is a celebration of culture and traditions from the past.
Located on 450 acres just off the Essen Lane exit on Interstate 10 and the postmodern realities of strip malls and gas stations, the museum is a walk back through time –– wooden butter churns, cast-iron sugar pots and clapboard cabins decorate the place –– shrouded from the modern world by tall trees. Among cattle grazing, some 30 historic cabins re-create earlier rural life in Louisiana. I found and met the Ramblers in mid-set, laid-back and having a good time playing for a nice-sized crowd. They were underneath the shelter of an antebellum-era shed sweating and rocking while Young sang about moonshine made in Opelousas.
Young grew up on the Cajun Prairie in Eunice, a land of rice fields, bayous, great oak trees and glorious wildflowers. “Some of the older Cajun musicians would get together –– like my grandfather [Gil Young], he’d be out there cooking a big old pot of food, and musicians would play,” Young recalls. “I come from that family, where people like to entertain people. I travel with the cast-iron pot my father gave me when I left home.”
Born into this culture, Young takes his cooking as seriously as his music. “I think the relationship between food and music is a primal thing within people in general,” he says. “We all thrive on company, and we all got to eat. It is a basic thing to enjoy each other’s company and food and music and dancing.”
Never is this more evident than at the Ramblers’ latest brainchild, the South Louisiana Blackpot Festival, a weekend-long hoedown of music, food, camping and good times. Oct. 24 and 25 of this year will mark the third year of the festival, which is held in Lafayette at the Acadian Village. Bands and musicians, including the Pine Leaf Boys, Wilson Savoy, Belton Richard, the Louisiana Purchase Bluegrass Band, Bonsoir Catin, the Racines and Feufollet, have played in the past.
“We had been on the road so much and been to so many festivals, and we met a lot of musicians,” Justus says. “So we convinced and interested them to come to Louisiana for a party. Whereas the camping and cooking –– we had been to lot of bluegrass festivals and old-time conventions, so it gave us a model for something to do in Louisiana. The camping was a big part. We wanted to bring people together. Not so much making the performers the focal point all the time but have campfires and have people playing Cajun music and all kinds of music, bluegrass and old-time country.”
Audience participation is important to the Ramblers, Justus says, which is why the Blackpot was modeled this way, getting the people dancing and playing music and cooking and eating good food. But having the people stay there on the site was equally important, creating a community if only for a weekend. And the camping aspect was a way to make the Blackpot stand out against the hundreds of festivals that take place annually in Louisiana, he says.
With a model in mind and a great music community to draw from in the Lafayette area, the first thing that Justus did was call Wilson Savoy from the Pine Leaf Boys on the phone. “We started calling around to all of our friends, really,” Justus says. “We’d tell them: ‘We don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t know if we’re going to make money or not.’ The first year we didn’t even have contracts.” Before long the Ramblers had a stellar lineup. They got a great site at the Acadian Village, where RVs could hook up and people could camp. “‘If nobody comes,’” Justus says he told his fellow musicians, “‘we’re just going to cook some food and play music, and it will be great.’”
The first year the Ramblers threw the Blackpot, 400 to 500 people came, Justus says. The next year it doubled in size.
When creating the festival, of course, as much importance was placed on the cooking contest aspect of the Blackpot as the booking of musicians. It was Young, probably the most serious cook of the Ramblers, who came up with the idea of the cook-off and the name for the festival. Young called up Pat Mould, a renowned Cajun and Creole chef, and asked him to be a judge. The contest has three categories: gravy, which includes sauces and gumbos; gratons, which includes pork cracklings; and jambalaya. There’s even a possibility for a dessert category to be added soon.
Although the Ramblers are all about having a good time, they’re serious about having a good time; there are rules and standards. Contestants are broken into three divisions: amateur, civic organization and professional. Rules state that the main dish must be cooked in a cast-iron vessel and, most important, there must be enough food cooked for festival- goers to taste the dish. The winner receives some cast-iron cookware from Lodge, the 100-year-old company from Pittsburg, Tenn., and $100.
After Young told me about the cook-off, I replied that the Ramblers might be the first band to be sponsored by a cookware company such as Lodge, and it, to him, seemed like a nice perk. He’d just have to season the pots properly before he could take them on the road with the band. Even with the growth of the Blackpot and the Ramblers’ rising star, there isn’t much difference between what goes on now and what happened years ago on Carlotta Street in Baton Rouge. “The Ramblers are throwing a party,” as Justus is fond of saying, and anybody is invited.