Louisianan Linzay Young, the frontman for the Red Stick Ramblers, may have been born on the bayou, but he's hardly a stereotypical Cajun musician. The lead vocalist and fiddler -- on his way from Eunice to Lafayette for a gig -- is jamming to a song by '80s alt-rock faves the Cure when I give him a call. "I listen to everything -- New Orleans-based R&B, country music, and rock-and-roll," Young admits.
"I grew up playing Cajun music," he says, "but with the Ramblers, we play an amalgamation of jazz, rhythm and blues, rockabilly, and gypsy guitar music."
A honk from a passing car distracts Young, who explains that the group's tour bus, purchased from the Church of Christ, is well-known on this stretch of the Louisiana highway. "The church received a few complaints after parishioners noticed it parked outside of the bars," he says, "so we repainted it with our band logo." The advertisement works. These days, they are logging an average of 20 gigs per month, traveling the U.S. from coast to coast.
Word is getting out about the Red Stick Ramblers, who are determined to do for Cajun music what the Squirrel Nut Zippers did for swing. Last month, they released a third album (their second for the Memphis International label), Right Key, Wrong Keyhole. A few weeks ago, the Ramblers' rhythm section -- drummer Glenn Fields, bassist Eric Frey, fiddler Kevin Wimmer, and guitarist Chas Justus -- backed singer Linda Ronstadt on a recording session. And they just launched a season of touring on the festival route that will bring them to Memphis for the Barbecue Cooking Contest this weekend.
"They'll get better exposure on the festival circuit," predicts Memphis International's David Less. "The Ramblers' music is authentic and danceable. They get a crowd up and going."
"We've been playing together since 2000, so we don't feel like we have to prove ourselves anymore," Young says. "In towns like Baton Rouge and Lafayette, we were creating a buzz in the beginning, but in some towns, we had to challenge audiences who thought Cajun music was straight-up French music with an accordion.
"I'd tell 'em, 'I'm from Eunice, Louisiana,'" he adds with a laugh. "Then I'd ask, 'Who the hell are you?'"
Less says that the band's refusal to be pigeonholed was what initially drew his interest. "Bob [Merlis, the label's co-owner] and I get together a few times a year for listening sessions, and a few years ago, the Ramblers sent us a CD of rough mixes. We had to wade through a lot of material, but we thought somewhere in all this there's a really good record.
"I'm one of those anti-formatting people, so the Red Stick Ramblers fit in real well with the label," Less continues. "The Ramblers play everything from Cajun waltzes to Django Reinhardt tunes to Jerry Lee Lewis rockers, and they incorporate all those sensibilities into a distinctive sound."
"But we're not doing something that hasn't been done before," Young claims, with a nod to his predecessors, Louisiana traditionalists like the Hackberry Ramblers and the Lost Bayou Ramblers. "We do write our own arrangements. Take 'That's What I Like About the South,' which is by Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys. We rewrote some of the lyrics to that one."
For their latest album, the Ramblers re-arrange Clifton Chenier's zydeco classic "It's Hard To Love Someone" and Clarence Williams' jazzy "You've Got the Right Key, But the Wrong Keyhole." They deliver updated versions of Cajun staples and serve up tunes by master songsmiths Larry Clinton and Harry Warren, then round out the mix with four original songs.
"We're writing more and more stuff every day," Young says. "Chas is an especially prolific songwriter, although he tends to write on napkins or paper bags, which get lost in the shuffle."
Famed roots musician Dirk Powell produced Right Key, Wrong Keyhole at his own Cypress House Studios last December. "He cut the band live," says Less, who traveled to Louisiana for the sessions. "We wanted to incorporate the interplay between Linzay and the other musicians, so we put them all in a room together, which is more of a retro approach to recording."
"Working with Dirk was great," Young confirms. "He gave us plenty of suggestions, but he didn't try to run the show. He was honest, but he let us do our thing." •
The Red Stick Ramblers are performing at Memphis In May's Barbecue Cooking Contest on Friday, May 13th, and Saturday, May 14th. They are also playing a free show at Cat's Music Midtown at 1 p.m. Saturday.